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September 3, 2013One reporter asked Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien how his wife, Colleen, felt about him calling team strength coach Craig Fitzgerald every day during his weeklong summer vacation in Cape Cod, as he'd admitted to minutes earlier.
Nearly 14 minutes through his Tuesday afternoon press conference at Beaver Stadium, the joke elicited a laugh from O'Brien and from there, what had been an all-business affair harping on injuries, an unimpressive start to the running game, offensive line play and other curious criticisms turned into something of a lighthearted lark.
Minutes later, O'Brien was chiding a reporter for being from Central Pennsylvania (erroneously), referenced Bluto Blutarsky's Animal House speech ("Forget it, he's rolling"), and abruptly ended an answer while acknowledging he'd forgotten the second part of the question.
Still caught between the ball-busting, cordial persona that defines him privately and the matter-of-fact, CEO-like responsibilities and personality traits of being Penn State's leading man, the former emerged Tuesday afternoon in what may have been the most engaging and interesting press conference in his time at Penn State.
"Winning. Winning. Winning is the most important thing, and we won the football game," O'Brien said at last. "Winning is like salt water. It cures everything. You're from Pennsylvania, so you don't even know about salt water. I'm from the Cape, so like you said, winning is the bottom line, and we won the football game."
Coming off a week in which O'Brien struggled to keep his starting quarterback decision private (ultimately failing when an ESPN report published Christian Hackenberg on Friday afternoon) and the pressures of winning with a scholarship-depleted roster (accentuated by the loss of safety Neiko Robinson) seemed to engulf the program, what O'Brien and his staff really needed to lighten the mood, at least, was a win.
Saturday afternoon, with his true freshman quarterback at the helm, a devastating injury to tight end Matt Lehman - who O'Brien announced would be out for the remainder of the season - and another concerning star linebacker Mike Hull were not enough to temper the pressure release that comes with starting the season on a good note.
"I thought it was just collectively a good team effort. We did a lot of different things," O'Brien continued. "We quick kicked, we went for it on fourth down twice - although, I'll disclose a little bit there. The first fourth down we went for, I thought it was first down. I thought we got the first down on the previous play, so I didn't even know it was fourth down. I was like Belushi in Animal House. He's on a roll, just let him go... when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor."
Minutes later, O'Brien was at it again, this time responding to a question by informally confirming the young reporter's name after having read it in the, "paper the other day," and matching the name to the face.
Though the well-documented obstacles facing the program still remain, the confidence emanating from the man who defines "cocksure" and prompted the Twitter caricature "@EvilBillO'Brien" was telling.
Tempered expectations of the sanctions aside, O'Brien feels great about starting the season 1-0, likes his players and staff, and sees potential for his Nittany Lions as they move forward this weekend against Eastern Michigan.
"In the NFL, you have four preseason games," O'Brien said. "By the end of four preseason games, you have a pretty good idea about your team. In college, you don't have that. You have two or three scrimmages during training camp where you're going against each other, and you still get a pretty good feel for your team.
"But, when you really get a feel for your team is in that first game, especially if it's a game against a really quality opponent in a neutral site with adverse conditions. I do think that we learned a lot about our team. We can go to the film room and say, 'Hey guys, this is what we as a coaching staff need to do better, this is what you need to do better, and if we make these improvements, we've got a chance to improve next week. That's all you're trying to do... Hopefully you'll see that this week."
Furthering a stride that started to find itself midway through the 2012 season, the evolution of O'Brien took another step forward Tuesday.
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