O'Brien offers glimpse into future on PSU caravan
This photo taken May 8 shows autograph-seekers surrounding football coach Bill O'Brien, dressed in the suit, during the school's "Coaches Caravan" trip to Bethlehem. (AP photo / May 14, 2012)
Don't expect his tenure in Happy Valley to last 46 years.
"I can tell you that 46 years from now, I'll be 88 years old. I promise you that ... I'll start taking golf lessons when I'm about 70," a straight-faced O'Brien said Monday morning. "Hopefully I can last until I'm 70 on this job."
With that question out of the way, the Nittany Lions' new leader can go on introducing himself to the team's massive fan base before he ever coaches a game.
O'Brien's comments before about 200 alumni in Altoona started Week 3 of the Penn State coaches caravan. Traveling on a bus retrofitted with the school's blue and white color scheme, the rookie head coach has embarked on an ambitious effort to connect with alumni from Connecticut to Virginia, New York to Ohio.
It's a public relations campaign and media blitz mixed in with a pinch of staff bonding. Other Penn State coaches have boarded the bus, too, including men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers and women's basketball coach Coquese Washington. Hockey coach Guy Gadowsky and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik joined O'Brien in Altoona.
But only O'Brien has been at every event, and he's going straight through until the 18th and final stop Wednesday night in Buffalo, N.Y. After each event, fans still anguished in part over the end of the Joe Paterno era appear to be coalescing behind O'Brien.
"I think considering everything that's happened over the last year that this is an occasion for Penn State to get together and look ahead," Nicholas Roslevege, a 1988 graduate, said last week before O'Brien spoke in Hazleton. "People are wishing him the best of luck up there. ... I think that's what people are feeling overall right now."
The Associated Press was allowed to accompany O'Brien on one leg of his caravan last week for stops in Hazleton and Bethlehem and has also covered stops in New York. This story looks at the different roles played by O'Brien at a critical juncture in the school's storied football history.
THE COACH NEXT DOOR: The black SUV pulled into the parking lot with 10 minutes to spare before the bus was scheduled to depart to Hazleton. Out stepped O'Brien from the driver's seat with a white towel draped over his right shoulder, sporting a look that called to mind another well-known coach.
He wasn't paying homage to retired Georgetown coach John Thompson. It's just a habit that O'Brien said he picked up while coaching on the sideline at his previous stop as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. This day, O'Brien was coming from a workout at the gym.
Barely a few seconds into a chit-chat with the bus driver, and O'Brien started poking fun at himself, about how his back hurts after a new workout regime.
Other times, he'll jokingly lament about his receding hairline, or the time he brought a cheesesteak to a brown-bag lunch with fellow Penn State coaches who were eating salads.
"He's just a funny guy," Washington said. "I always find myself laughing when he says something. Maybe it's the way that he says things that makes it really funny."
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!"'