In an interview Monday in the same corner office that once belonged to the man known in State College as JoePa, O'Brien said he will forge his own coaching identity and that no one will ever replace Paterno, who won 409 games and two national championships.
Paterno died Sunday at age 85, a little over two months after his son, Scott, said his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It wasn’t a long conversation, but at the end it was pretty neat. I just wanted to make sure he knew that I was going to work very hard to keep it going here,” O'Brien said.
While Paterno’s personal items are now out of the office, the furniture hasn’t changed.
The conference table, however, is now covered with some of O'Brien’s tapes and binders he needs to get ready for the Super Bowl against the New York Giants in two weeks. The large monitor sitting on a TV cart next to his desk was frozen on a frame from the Patriots‘ win Sunday over Baltimore to take the AFC title.
When in New England, he comes into the office around 4:30 a.m. to get Penn State duties done for two hours. Then it’s all Patriots until after dinner, when he transitions back to Penn State.
That means speaking with staff on the phone and especially, these days, getting to work on recruiting. The first day that seniors can formally make their college choices is Feb. 1.
“You’re on TV and a lot of people are watching the game. You’re coaching the offense of New England,” he said. “I would think that’s going to help.”
Wearing a dark sweater and white dress shirt, O’Brien spoke with quiet confidence as he leaned back on the couch. His family is looking for a home. He said they love the area.
But there’s no rest while he’s here. He’s essentially switched the schedule he keeps in New England, so watching tape of the Giants was on the agenda after dinner Monday.
O'Brien knows that some Penn State fans might be concerned that he won’t be starting full time in Happy Valley until after the Super Bowl. But he said he made his commitment to New England known to Penn State early in the school’s search process to replace Paterno.
“I was going to finish something that I started. I was always taught that by my parents,” he said.
“And the other thing … is that there’s no way I could stand in front of the team and tell them, `You have to be loyal, you have to be committed,’ and then say, `OK see you later New England, I’m going to Penn State,’” O'Brien said.
He has one spot left open on the Penn State coaching staff on offense. O'Brien said he’s unsure if he will have an offensive coordinator, and if so whether that person will come from his current assistants or via a new hire, though he does intend at this point to call his own plays.
As for defense, O'Brien cited the credentials of his coordinator, Ted Roof, a former standout linebacker at Georgia Tech. He said he would use multiple looks up front. He cited the Jets, Ravens and Giants defenses among the best he’s faced and “the defenses where you never know what’s going to happen next.”
If it works out, it would fit in with another tradition from the Paterno era _ tough defenses that helped the program develop a reputation as “Linebacker U.”