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November 30, 2013

Column: The ultimate achievement

MADISON, Wis. - The difference between a smirk and a smile on Bill O'Brien's weathered face is subtle, yet distinct.

Climbing onto a makeshift podium in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium early Saturday evening, O'Brien settled into his chair, calmly stared down the reporters staring back while anxiously awaiting his arrival, and smirked.

Like a parent watching his children try to squiggle and squirm their way out of a messy situation, knowing full well their guilt, O'Brien could barely contain himself. His Nittany Lions, winners of a thrilling 31-24 battle with No. 15-ranked Wisconsin, had beaten their opponent, the Vegas oddsmakers, and the prognosticators, and he couldn't have been more satisfied by it.

"It was a tough game, but our guys practice hard, they love to play, and I can tell you flat out that they took offense to the fact that they were 24-point underdogs, and that nobody - even in State College - thought that they could win that game except for the kids in that locker room and the coaches in that locker room," he said. "So, I think that those kids took it personally."

He can be happy they did.

Playing with an aggression and confidence largely absent from their run through an admittedly up-and-down season, the injured Nittany Lions limped into one of the nation's most hostile college football environments and punched their bewildered hosts straight in the kisser.

If O'B is being honest with himself, his feigned indignation can hardly cover the heaping platter of motivation his Nittany Lions were served, free of charge, a week after a particularly deflating loss at Beaver Stadium against Nebraska. Fully understanding just how beneficial the stacked odds and public doubts were to his team's performance on Saturday night, O'Brien took a victory lap anyway.

"I thought it was ridiculous," he said, simultaneously providing requisite praise for his team's latest scalp. "I don't know who makes those lines, I'm not allowed to talk about betting, but it seems like a lot of you guys felt like that was the right line, and you're wrong."

Of course, O'Brien has known that fact all along and, more important, is smart enough to remind the media at all the right moments.

Boarding a plane back to State College with another winning record, two upsets against ranked opponents this season, and a signature win on the road to propel the program into the off-season, the only thing that has ever mattered to O'Brien, his staff, and his players, stayed exactly as it had been, with or without the public doubts that have rained down on his program since July 2012.

Believing in possibilities unknowable to anyone outside the inner circle created through unique adversity, the Nittany Lions didn't so much slam the door on our reality, but opened a door into theirs.

"I try to educate these guys about the media, because I enjoy talking to the media and I think these guys do too, and I think one thing that these guys understand is it doesn't matter what any of you think," O'Brien said. "With all due respect, you guys are great writers, you guys are awesome, but it doesn't matter what you think relative to that football team.

"It doesn't matter one bit what you think. It matters what they think, and I think that's what they understand and they showed it tonight."

Armed with self-confidence and the motivation that comes with success in the face of negativity, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions can continue a journey that is no less fascinating today than it was more than a year-and-a-half ago.

Succeeding in teaching a life lesson that has less to do with football than the human condition itself, in that alone, O'Brien has every reason to smile.


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