It will be nearly eight months since the day he was hired at Penn State when Bill O’Brien finally takes to the sideline for his first game as a head coach at any level. Given all that has happened since January, he might have thought often that the day would never come.
But speaking Tuesday in his first game-week teleconference of the season, O’Brien said the time actually hasn’t dragged at all.
"When you’re working with your staff and your players and everybody’s working pretty hard, time passes pretty quickly," he said. "We were just actually sitting around the other day and saying, ‘Well, it’s here. Training camp is over and it’s game week.’
"I think it’s been, for me, a personally rewarding eight months because I got a chance to meet some fantastic people here at Penn State and develop a really good bond with our football team. We’ve had our ups and downs obviously, but our staff is working well together and we’re just looking forward to playing the game."
That opening game, which follows a summer of bad news and harsh sanctions against the football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, comes Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Ohio, a team that made it to the Mid-American Conference championship game last season.
O’Brien admitted that he will have butterflies before the game, adding, "I’d be crazy to tell you otherwise. This is my first football game as a head football coach.
"But as soon as you kick if off – and for me as soon as we start calling plays on offense and getting the thing going – then obviously you’re focused on the game and the butterflies go away. That’s just the way it’s been for me in a first game for my whole career, and now especially with me being the head coach."
O’Brien has been a coach for nearly 20 years, mostly at the college level. But most recently, he spent five years on the staff of the New England Patriots, where he was offensive coordinator last season.
After 46 years of doing things a certain way under Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions must adjust to a new routine under O’Brien, who noted that "I have respect for all the traditions that have gone on before I came here."
He was asked questions Tuesday about how he handles the night before the game and the morning of the game, about the route he’s taking to Beaver Stadium and where the team will dress.
He stopped short, however, of answering a question about whether he would lead his team out of the tunnel as Paterno used to do.
"I’m thinking about other things right now," he said. "I haven’t decided. I guess we’ll all have to find out on Saturday."
He said his pre-game routine is "very similar to what I’ve done in the past.
"I’m going to call the plays on offense so I’ll make sure I’m meeting with the quarterbacks," he said, "and continuing in my own mind to just go over the opening plays of the game, the different things I think that this fantastic Ohio team is going to do to us and try to anticipate some things."
He said it’s important "to understand that it’s a first game and a lot of things are going to come up that maybe we weren’t exactly prepared for and how are we going to handle those. So I’m going to just continue to go over the call sheet throughout the hour before the kickoff."
He also said the team buses will take the same route they always have going from the Lasch Football Building to the stadium on game day although he admitted, "I don’t even know the names of the streets, which I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that." The only difference is that the players will dress inside their locker room, not already be in uniform when the buses arrive.
"I’m not trying to say that’s not a big deal," O’Brien said. "I’m just trying to say that what is a big deal is how we play when the ball is kicked off."
In news about the team:
- O’Brien said redshirt sophomore Paul Jones remains the No. 2 quarterback even though Monday’s depth chart saw Jones tied with freshman Steven Bench as Matt McGloin’s backup. Asked if Jones will play Saturday, he replied, "We’ll have to see how this game goes."
- O’Brien said he expects senior defensive end Pete Massaro, a Marple Newtown High graduate, to play against Ohio despite soreness in his surgically repaired left knee. "He’s really a top-notch kid, he plays hard," the coach said. "As the season goes on, just like with most veteran older players, we’re going to have to monitor how much he practices and plays."
- The coach declined to identify who will be returning kickoffs and punts on Saturday. "That’s something that’s ongoing," he said. "In places that I’ve been before, it’s a competition throughout the week and then on game day we’ll let them know who’s returning kicks and punts."
- O’Brien said he expects senior safety Jake Fagnano to play. Fagnano missed much of pre-season with a hamstring injury.
Here's video from O'Brien's press conference Tuesday afternoon, from The Inquirer's Emily Kaplan.