The sense of humor goes back to his childhood growing up in the suburbs of Boston, the youngest of three boys in an Irish Catholic family
“A lot of (the laughs) were at my expense. So it was a little bit of chop-busting. It’s definitely a Boston sense of humor,” O'Brien said in an interview with the AP. “These guys are getting used to it, but they all know it’s in good fun.”
O'Brien was hired in early January, but he didn’t take over full time until after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants a month later. He has been a near-constant presence since then on campus and around town, from showing up at basketball games and handing out cupcakes at the student union to giving speeches at community events.
Now he’s taken that tireless energy on the road to sign autographs, take pictures and offer his vision for Penn State football. His friendly demeanor and self-deprecating sense of humor have helped him connect with fans.
Unless, of course, he’s encountering a fan wearing a New York Jets jersey with cornerback Darrelle Revis’ name, as happened while O'Brien left the stadium after the Blue-White spring game last month. The Jets and O'Brien’s former employers, the Patriots, are bitter AFC East rivals, so O'Brien gave a terse response when the fan asked for two autographs and a picture.
Recounting the story in Altoona, O'Brien jokingly snapped. “I said, `No, no and no!’”
AMBASSADOR O'BRIEN: The prospect of replacing Paterno, Division I’s winningest coach with 409 victories, was tough enough even before the crisis that engulfed Penn State last November.
The child sexual abuse scandal involving retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky added a new layer of problems unseen before in college athletics. Sandusky, who is scheduled to stand trial next month, has denied the charges. Paterno was ousted as part of the fallout from the scandal. He died in January at 85, less than three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Despite numerous efforts by university leadership, many alumni remain hurt by how Paterno was let go. It was evident especially in Bethlehem, where four or five questions or comments from fans in an interactive session with O'Brien referenced Paterno or the scandal.
“Thank you for bringing healing to the Penn State family,” one fan said, drawing hearty applause.
O'Brien has turned into an ambassador for Penn State’s future while various investigations continue to sort out the past. Instead of shying away from potentially touchy subjects like Paterno’s legacy _ tensions between university leadership and the Paterno family have been high since his ouster _ O'Brien embraces the issue head-on.
He has stressed that football is a part _ albeit a big part _ of the athletic program and the university as a whole, echoing comments made by school leaders. Some critics, especially outside Penn State, have questioned whether football had too much influence at the university in light of the scandal.
At the same time, O'Brien has also been the most vocal voice at Penn State about honoring Paterno, who was held in high regard in the community for his philanthropic and off-field efforts along with his football resume.
“Whenever I meet lettermen, and the effect he had on their lives, I can only hope to fulfill just a small part of that in my career,” O'Brien said Monday. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for what coach Paterno did here. … I can tell you that we will keep his honor, what he stood for and everything he built here. In many, many ways, we’ll keep it going because we have so much respect for what he did here.”