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October 22, 2013

Column: Cure for the common ill

Bill O'Brien has a treasure trove of sayings that shape his coaching philosophies and, generally, his outlook on many of life's questions.

Specifically, this season, the Nittany Lions' second-year head coach has referred to winning as "salt water, it cures a lot of ills." Most recently, O'Brien utilized the saying after his team's 43-40 four overtime win against then No. 18-ranked Michigan at Beaver Stadium two Saturdays ago.

Though O'Brien leans on his own cliches - he'd admit it, too - none manifest themselves as frequently as his "salt water" saying.

Often a little salty - to put it mildly - following his team's losses, the extremely competitive O'Brien simply needs the lifted burden of a win to let his inner-social butterfly spread its wings. Though any number of other factors can contribute to the atmosphere of one of O'Brien's weekly press conferences, the interactions between media and head coach are most notably influenced by the result of the Nittany Lions' last game.

Case in point, at O'Brien's first meeting with the media since that stirring win against the Wolverines, Tuesday afternoon's press conference brought to fruition the thoughtful, humorous, and exceedingly-engaging side of O'Brien. In other words, O'Brien was absolutely at his best.

At it's heart, of course, the opportunity that exists for O'Brien's Lions on Saturday night at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio.

"I think it's a great opportunity. I think about that all the time. I love - I think you guys know that by now about me, when you're playing teams like this, you just think about - I'm not very good at articulating this, but Penn State versus Ohio State. You think about what that means in the history of college football and these two teams playing each other and the tradition of both schools and two great coaching staffs with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball," O'Brien said. "You know, it's a lot of fun. Game day, that's the best day of the week for me.

"We're just really looking forward to the challenge. We know it's a huge challenge. I mean, 19 games in a row, No. 4 team in the country, we realize that it's a huge, huge challenge. But we look forward to it."

Likewise, the collective media covering the team deserves credit for the atmosphere of the afternoon.

The thankless job of asking specifics to a head coach that, for competitive reasons, often refuses to give the type of specifics about a player's health or potential playing time, can lead to butting heads between media and coach. While there are times when a straightforward question must be asked, regardless of the obvious deflection O'Brien will provide, a more creative approach or open-ended question can lead to the more insightful moments for a man that Penn State fans and beat media are really still just getting to know.

From his thoughts on using the media-release depth chart as a tool to motivate players (he does, kind of) to details on how walk-on tryouts work at Penn State (note to prospective run-ons: don't schedule afternoon classes in the fall) to his thoughts on the Buckeyes as a true rival (with no bowl game, especially at Penn State, ever opponent is a true rival right now) to filtering out the noise at the most hostile environment the Nittany Lions will face this season (focus on the details from play to play, nothing more), O'Brien filled in details that, though they may not resolve his preference for Bill Belton over Akeel Lynch, provide otherwise unseen insight.

Whether the Nittany Lions emerge from Columbus as the only team to beat Ohio State in the Buckeyes' past 20 games remains to be seen, but for the moment at least, the ongoing evolution of O'Brien's tenure at Penn State continues to take strides forward.

Thank the salt water.


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