Suggest to Bill O’Brien that he’s the face of Penn State — not just the football program, but the entire university — and his face contorts as if he had taken a bite of a ripe lemon.
“I’m just a football coach,” O’Brien said. “I do believe in Penn State and what we try to do academically, athletically. I think I’m a good fit for Penn State as the football coach, but I don’t view myself as the face of the university.”
It’s safe to say that O’Brien’s rookie season of 2012 was far different than any other major-college head coach had ever experienced. The Jerry Sandusky scandal, the death of Joe Paterno and what he did or didn’t know about Sandusky, crippling NCAA sanctions, the threat of dozens of players transferring out, and people giving up on the football team after an 0-2 start maybe should have sent O’Brien back to the comfort of his native New England.
But O’Brien persevered in a way that drew national praise for a program that had been blasted for months.
Aided by a devoted group of seniors, he kept the team together. He urged his players not to feel sorry for themselves. He recommended that fans and the Penn State community look ahead and unite.
He also showed, in his first year as a head coach, that he could do the job. The Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games to finish 8-4. Their season-ending overtime win over Wisconsin, which later played in its third consecutive Rose Bowl, sent them and their fans into the offseason on a cheerful note.
The seniors are gone, including record-setting quarterback Matt McGloin. Now O’Brien, 43, must field another team with a group of worthy senior leaders but questions at quarterback, where the starter for Saturday’s season opener against Syracuse will be taking his first snap in a major-college game.
Less than a year after winning a plethora of coach of the year awards, O’Brien said he’ll do a better job this season and that the offense and defense will be different than in 2012.
“I know the players a lot better,” he said. “I learned a lot about organization and how important it is to just basically state your philosophy, your goals, just about every day or every time you have a staff meeting. I’ve learned to communicate better, too.”
The biggest decision of the preseason has yet to be made. Sophomore Tyler Ferguson and freshman Christian Hackenberg have battled throughout camp for the right to be Saturday’s starting quarterback.
Ferguson has the benefit of a year in junior college and a full spring practice with Penn State, while Hackenberg has learned quickly since arriving on campus in June.
O’Brien has called the pair “the two best young quarterbacks I’ve ever coached. He indicated that he has taken so long to choose one because “I want to keep getting these guys a lot of reps and make sure that they see a lot of different looks and get to throw the ball to all the different receivers equally.”
TENNESSEE COACH SET TO NAME STARTING QB
ESPN.com reported that Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Monday will name Justin Worley as the starting quarterback. In two seasons as Tyler Bray’s backup, Worley went 63-for-110 with five interceptions.Reuters contributed to this report.