Penn State, Signing Day take back seat as O'Brien tries to win Super Bowl

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – National Signing Day was coming and Bill O'Brien, new headman at Penn State, didn't seem too obsessed. Or, well, hardly even concerned. "I'm looking forward to getting back [to the hotel] and working on third downs in the red zone," he said.

O'Brien has a Super Bowl to win and as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, the challenge of beating the New York Giants on Sunday is daunting. And he isn't apologizing for the fact that of his two jobs, one has taken priority. It's Patriots now, Nittany Lions later.

"I believe Penn State hired a coach for the next 10 years, 15 years," O'Brien said. "I don't think they hired a coach for the next three months."

This is a statement that belies all known conventional wisdom in college football. Talk to every other coach and they are laser focused on recruiting every single day of the year. The week of signing day just hits unhealthy levels.

They don't take an hour off, don't dare downplay the importance of bringing in talent, let alone brush it aside as a "we'll survive" distraction.

"I think it's a bit overblown," O'Brien said of concerns about how he manages to juggle the two jobs.

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He said he'd get a fax on Wednesday to his hotel room at the University Place Conference Center and Hotel in Indianapolis with the players committed to Penn State. He'd participate in a video news conference.

Other than that, he's got a Super Bowl to win.

"This week has been about the Patriots and not about recruiting for me," O'Brien said. "I have a staff of eight guys in place at Penn State as well as numerous administrative people up there who are doing a great job. They are taking care of that end of it and I'm doing the best I can to help New England prepare to win on Sunday."

This is either the worst or best attitude Bill O'Brien can ever have.

It may doom him – Penn State's class isn't highly regarded by recruiting analysts, for whatever that's worth. They lost a number of key commitments to other schools – particularly rival Ohio State – and didn't appear to close particularly well.

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The fallout from the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse allegations and the death of Joe Paterno made this an extremely difficult situation. Not having a full-time coach couldn't have helped.

And so in a few years, if O'Brien lacks talented upperclassmen, then this dual-job situation will no doubt carry some of the blame.

That said, here is a guy who is emulating the total and complete commitment to the day-in, day-out task at hand of Bill Belichick. If O'Brien can translate that work ethic and challenge-oriented system to the college ranks, then this will all be forgotten.

Belichick's assistants have famously struggled once they've left his empire in Foxborough. You can't blame O'Brien, however, from learning from the best. He left a job as offensive coordinator at Duke to take a low-level staff position with the Pats in 2006 because of Belichick.

"I felt like if I wanted to be the coach I wanted to be I had to work for the best," he said, joking his wife wasn't all that thrilled with the then pay cut. "Obviously the best is Bill as far as what he does, how he prepares a team, how he puts a team together. I didn't feel like it was a step back. I felt it was something where I could go in there and learn and become the best coach I could be."

O'Brien may or may not coach like Belichick. There is no question he can talk like him. He brushed off Penn State questions all week, consistently repeating the same two lines over and over and over.

It was either "This is about the Patriots this week" or "I'm focused on the Patriots this week." Rinse and repeat.

O'Brien's refusal to pay lip service to a question everyone is asking speaks of a strong measure of confidence in himself. Either that or complete naïveté, which is unlikely considering his 12 years as a college assistant, or a fear that Belichick wouldn't want him admitting he was thinking about Penn State (unlikely).

He does fear Belichick. Word from team members is that O'Brien delivers the organization's best Belichick impersonation. He wouldn't perform it publicly, though.

"No way," he said with a laugh.

But Belichick can't fire you now.

"Yeah, he can fire me now," O'Brien laughed.

The guy is 42, hails from Boston and gets rave reviews from the New England players. He may not want to talk a lot about his next job but his enthusiasm for it is obvious. He doesn't even want to acknowledge that taking over Penn State, in the wake of controversy and mourning, is, in any possible way, a negative situation.

"When this game is over I'll move to Penn State and that is a special, special place," he said.

He has let his staff in State College handle almost everything. And, it's worth noting, that isn't a major departure for Penn State. Paterno was 84 last season, a figurehead who never recruited off campus. The team was 8-1 when they fired him.

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Still, for a first recruiting class, well, it probably wasn't what anyone wanted.

"I was very, very concerned about keeping together the class that was in place, which at the time was 14 kids that were committed," he said. "I made a point to the staff there that we were not going to drop any of those guys. Those were our guys now. They were part of our family at Penn State.

"I'm sure we lost some guys. But that's OK. Look, if they don't want to be a part of what we're trying to do at Penn State and they want to go somewhere else, that's their choice. But to me at the end of the day they are missing out at something special."

O'Brien said he has spent so much time on getting the New England offense through the postseason, he hasn't fully laid out what it will take to succeed at Penn State.

"When I get there after the game on Sunday, then we want to [set up] our recruiting system and strategy," he said. "I need to look at the team and see what our needs are. Again, it's been all about the Patriots since I got the job, because there is only one way to do it. [And that's] to keep your commitment and total focus. There were a couple days I went to Penn State but it's been about the Patriots."

Perhaps this is a mistake. Perhaps this is precisely the characteristic needed for O'Brien to be successful.

Only time will tell.

That job starts Monday. Until then, Bill O'Brien has another job to do.

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