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October 21, 2013
Column: Tuesdays with Bill
Bill O'Brien drives over in a golf cart. He whips into Beaver Stadium just in time for his 12:30 p.m. appointment. If he arrives early, then they start early. It's one of the luxuries of being head coach.
So are press conferences. And during the season, that's what's on O'Brien's agenda each Tuesday after lunch. While the weekly press conference grind can grow to be mundane and predictable, that doesn't seem to be the case with O'B. When he really gets going, his quotes provide as much entertainment value as headline material.
It's an occasion for formal attire, right? Business casual at least? Well sometimes. O'Brien dresses up for the important ones - like when he called an impromptu presser announcing that he was staying at PSU instead of leaving for the NFL - but he's made it clear that sweatpants will be the norm. Sometimes he'll wear a pullover sweatshirt to match, or he'll wear a golf polo for the cameras. One week, his navy polo was embroidered with a Penn State Turfgrass emblem, an academic program that he often endorses. By sundown that day, PSTG had a picture on its homepage of Coach wearing the shirt.
At the first press conference this season, he teased one of the younger reporters for wearing a Clemson-orange shirt. "Looks more like Dabo Swinney to me," he said. The side exchanges might be the best part. He recently invited one of the veteran columnists to break down zone/spread runs in the off-season. He tries his best to call people by name (Ron, Bill - what's the difference?), and he pays close attention to each question and how it's asked. Stan Hixon said O'Brien is a master of impersonations. "He can mimic a guy to a T," the associate head coach said. And O'Brien recently revealed to reporters that he's got a few impressions of them up his sleeve. We can only guess of whom.
"He's a comedian," Hixon added. "He's the only guy that I know as a coach who can make money as a comedian. He has a funny bone in him, and he loves to have fun. When it's time to work, it's time to work. He's one of the hardest workers I've ever been around, but he always keeps us laughing."
On Tuesdays, he can get the reporters laughing, too, and it's not always that corny media laugh. Often, he gets a legitimate rise. The mood is normally lighthearted from the get-go, and depending on who is asking the questions and how they ask them, it usually stays that way. That's unless someone tips the news about his starting quarterback, or after his team loses to Indiana. On the Tuesday after that loss, there was no laughing.
Each presser begins with a series of questions from the phone. Writers from across the state call in through a teleconference line. But when that line goes fuzzy and it's unclear what's being asked, O'Brien squinches up his nose and says, "Jeez, sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher."
He's made a few other screen references, including a quote from the 1978 comedy "Animal House": "Just let him go. He's on a roll." He's trademarked his own favorite saying: "Winning is like saltwater. It cures everything." And on multiple occasions, he's referred to Twitter as "Tweeter" and Facebook as "Spacebook," revealing a disdain for social media that his predecessor shared.
When O'Brien was first hired at Penn State, media members were cautious. They had seen his confrontation with Tom Brady on the sideline and knew he was a protege of Bill Belichick and part of a New England Patriots organization that is not known for its transparency.
But in his second year at the helm, those initial perceptions have proven mostly false. Though he's had his cold moments after losses, and even after wins, he's also provided more insight into his program and its inner workings than most of us could have expected, even if practices have been closed this season.
And maybe his more relaxed approach is rubbing off. On Oct. 13 - after the Patriots came from behind to defeat the Saints, a win that eerily paralleled Penn State's victory over Michigan the day before - Belichick displayed a rare trace of humor in his opening postgame statement. "Sorry if you had to rewrite some of those stories there at the end," he smirked. "I feel like that took about five years off my life."
Given how seriously these guys take their profession, it's refreshing to see glimpses of personality. And that's what Tuesdays offer. One of my many duties as BWI's utility infielder is to video-record O'Brien. Each week, I sit in the front row, and as one of the younger members of the beat, I'm granted a perspective that doesn't always make the evening news, the morning paper or come through Charlie Brown's teleconference line.
There's a clause in his contract. O'Brien gets a few extra bucks if he fulfills media obligations, including his Tuesday after-lunch appointments. He certainly doesn't do them for free, but there seems to be a part of him that enjoys the conversational give-and-take. If that's the case, here's hoping it stays that way.
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