GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 2, 2012

Andover's O'Brien will be a pro until the end

Focus on beating Giants, not Penn State

Bill Burt

INDIANAPOLIS — Yesterday was a very big day for Billy O'Brien. At least that's what a lot of people were telling him.

The former Andover resident and current double-dipper — he is offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots and head coach of Penn State University — was in high demand among the media members who follow college football.

Yesterday was National Signing Day, the first day high school recruits officially announce their collegiate intentions.

Was he making last-minute calls to those recruits on the fence? Was he getting updates by the second from his staff back in University Park, Pa. on who's going where?

Well, being that Wednesday is the most important practice day in an NFL week. and the fact that this is the most watched football game of the year worldwide, the guess here is: no chance.

"I am here to help the Patriots prepare for a game on Sunday. That's my No. 1 focus," said O'Brien, 42. "We have people back at Penn State taking care of everything until I get there. We're playing a great football team. It's going to be a very difficult game for us."

One of the first things O'Brien did when he returned to Foxboro after the pomp and circumstance in University Park, Pa., was meet with Patriots coach Bill Belichick to talk about his dilemma.

Belichick had gone through the same routine with Charlie Weis seven years earlier when Weis agreed to take over another high profile collegiate superpower, Notre Dame. Apparently, Belichick couldn't have been nicer.

"Bill has been tremendous with his advice to me," said O'Brien. "He's been tremendous, assigning a couple of people to help me with Penn State things as they roll, like emails and phone calls. It's about people on both ends. We've got a great staff at Penn State, we've got a great staff here. It's been a seamless transition."

One big bonus that Weis didn't have four years ago is the return of Josh McDaniels right before the playoffs. If you're wondering if O'Brien is intimidated by the return of McDaniels, think again.

"Josh is one of the brightest coaches I've ever met," said O'Brien, who is taking over at Penn State for the iconic Joe Paterno, who was fired in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving a former Nittany Lion assistant.

"We are very good friends. We'll always be friends. I'm very lucky to have him back. It's another set of eyes in the press box (on Sundays). The fact that he'll be back next year as offensive coordinator is a great thing for the Patriots."

As difficult as O'Brien's month has been serving two masters, he says his wife Colleen's month has been tougher. Every month, he said, is tougher for her.

"We have two boys and one with special needs," said O'Brien. "That's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I couldn't do this if she wasn't so incredible. That's real life. I owe her a lot."

The recruiting issue brought up an opportunity for O'Brien to expound on yesterday's announcements as well as the expectations and reviews of the experts.

"I think recruiting services do a great job supplying information, but as far as (ranking players) four and five stars, how many stars do you think Wes Welker had, how many stars did Julian Edelman have coming out of high school?" said O'Brien. "I think you've got to look at the recruiting class two years forward, and say to yourself, 'Did we do a good job recruiting this class? Are they playing now? Are they going to class? Are they doing what we thought they were going to do? Are they contributing to wins on the field? And are they good citizens off the field?'"

"No one really knows that right now," said O'Brien. "So whether we're ranked the 50th recruiting class or the No. 1 recruiting class, I really couldn't care less."

For the record, the Nittany Lions weren't among ESPN's top 30 recruiting classes.

Enough about his next job. How about this one, particularly protecting Brady and putting points on the board?

"We have our game plan, but it usually gets tweaked a bit every day all the way up to the kickoff," said O'Brien. "The front four, the linebackers and the secondary really work well together. A lot of those guys have played a lot of football together. The more you watch the Giants, it's just going to be a very difficult game for us."

O'Brien admits he hasn't had a lot of time to wax poetic about his run with the Patriots since he accepted the job at Penn State on Jan. 6. He's simply been too busy trying to win games here and with Penn State alums and potential new recruits.

He took a minute to expound on some close friends he has spent a few thousand hours with over the last five years.

"I love this staff," he said. "When you get a chance to work with guys like Dante (Scarnecchia) and Ivan (Fears) that have been around for a long time, Chad O'Shea, Brian Ferentz, George Godsey and, obviously, Josh McDaniels coming back in; I'm going to miss these guys."

"I've learned a lot from these guys and how they carry themselves, especially this guy sitting across from me (Scarnecchia) as far as being an NFL football coach. When you sit back and think about it, there is definitely some emotion there."

The fact that this will be O'Brien's last game as a play-caller with the Patriots, will he be dipping into his little-used trick play arsenal and go out with all guns blazing? "No, no," said O'Brien, breaking out in laughter. "I'll be sticking with the game plan."

As he was about to finish his media session, his phone started to vibrate on the table. He picked it up and looked at the caller ID.

Was Penn State calling? Was it a true blue recruit signing on?

"No, it's my wife (Colleen) texting," said O'Brien. "My son fell down in the driveway shooting hoops and hit his head before the bus came. He's all lright, just a few scratches. She's just letting me know."

When the time was up with the media yesterday, O'Brien looked at the clock on his phone and said he had to go to a meeting. It was time to get back to figuring ways to score points on the Giants defense.

O'Brien may have decided to go the college route but, as his Patriots career nears its end, he is going out like a pro.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.