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October 8, 2013

Column: For O'Brien, patience a fleeting virtue

At every stop along Bill O'Brien's path to Penn State, patience has been one of the major points stressed by each of his mentors.

The veteran coaches, including but not limited to George O'Leary, Ralph Friedgen, and even New England Patriots' legendary coach Bill Belichick, all told O'Brien to do work extremely hard, do a good job, and then when push comes to shove, show some patience for the process of climbing the coaching tree.

Admittedly, O'Brien is not a patient individual.But, he's trying.

From anything ranging on a specific player's development to O'Brien's expectations for his team, he always wants better and faster, more efficiently.

"The word patience is a very important word here, especially as it relates to me," O'Brien said in April, referring to his expectations for his quarterbacks. "Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all of these young players, and I think I have, but I can do an even better job of being more patient with them because these guys are 18, 19 years old, and we've gotta let them grow and get better, and that's what we're trying to do."

In this regard, O'Brien has shown remarkable restraint to this point in the Nittany Lions' disappointing 3-2 start to the 2013 season.

Armed with less experienced veteran players and leaders, more less-talented run-ons, and even more young, developing talent, O'Brien has had little choice but to bring his NCAA-sanctioned Nittany Lions along at a pace that fosters growth more than it does actual winning. No doubt, this is a maddening position for O'Brien - an ultra-competitive coach who hates losing more than he loves winning - to find himself.

That mindset hasn't yet extended to all of O'Brien's dealings with fans and media, though, specifically following a loss.

At his Tuesday afternoon press conference at Beaver Stadium, O'Brien set a tone early that suggested he had no intention of discussing any part of his Nittany Lions' 44-24 loss to Indiana last weekend, regardless of its implications for this Saturday night's game against No. 18-ranked Michigan.

Asked about improvements along the offensive line, his linebackers, his tight ends, his team's confidence coming out of the loss, the effect of sanctions on this year's team, his play calling choices, and how the team moves on from a loss - in that order - O'Brien swiftly evaded, downplayed, or eventually, flat-out put an end to the questioning.

"It's a loss. It's over," O'Brien said. "We move on, and we get ready for the next opponent. That's what we do. It's one loss. It's over. We're moving on to Michigan."

The issue, of course, is that O'Brien is dealing with a fan base and media that don't necessarily move on to the next subject as quickly as he might prefer. From the inside, the resistance to O'Brien's mindset seems counterproductive at best, and malicious at worse.

By any reasonable account, though, a passionate fan base and interested media are both good for O'Brien's program.He knows as much, too, going so far as to thank the fans for their support Tuesday afternoon while previewing their importance on Saturday night's game.

For as regrettably-phrased or ignorant as some of the questions may be, O'Brien would ultimately be better served to treat each as a teaching opportunity while still maintaining the delicate balance he has held in never selling out his players or assistants to the public.

For instance, at the May 8 New York City stop of Penn State's Coaches Caravan, O'Brien foreshadowed some of the issues that could present themselves in the coming seasons for a program saddled by sanctions, while managing to present its fighting spirit in a positive light.

"I think going forward, over the next three years when you get into the '14, '15, '16 range, it becomes more and more difficult," O'Brien said. "But, I would never ever count these Penn State kids out or this Penn State program out. We'll show up every Saturday. Our job is very, very challenging. We understand that, but I think we can be very, very competitive.

"I think it comes down to a little bit of luck - how healthy does your roster stay? - because it's a violent sport and injuries occur. So, it's how you practice and how healthy can you keep your team. And then it comes down to your good players playing well and you doing a really good job of coaching. A lot of the planets have to be aligned, but I think it can be done. I believe it can be done."

By both extolling the virtues that made the 2012 season such a success, O'Brien still has the opportunity to frame the valiant struggle in the manner he wants.

He'll just need some patience to be able to do so.


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