Column: O'Brien engineering Penn State turnaround


Column: O'Brien engineering Penn State turnaround

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien settled in behind a microphone early in the afternoon for what was, by far, the second most-anticipated talk of the day in and around State College, Pa.

What followed was standard coach's fare.

``It helps to have a great staff,'' O'Brien said at one point.

``You can't be up-and-down in this business,'' he said at another.

The reporters on the other end of the teleconference call wanted more, specifics about how O'Brien engineered a turnaround that drove Penn State to four straight wins and cast him as the early favorite for national coach of the year honors. But he wasn't biting.

``There's a lot of great coaches in this country,'' he said. ``I've only coached six games my whole career. That's the farthest thing from my mind.''

A few hours earlier in a courtroom in Bellefonte, some 10 miles to the north, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after delivering a rambling, 15-minute speech that sounded at times like a pregame pep talk. He portrayed himself as a victim, instead of the perpetrator, in the child sex abuse scandal that disgraced the university where he worked for 30 years and the coach who didn't do enough to stop him. With his wife, Dottie, sitting in the gallery, Sandusky said, ``Hopefully we can get better as a result of our hardship and suffering, that somehow, some way, something good will come out of this.''

Something already has.

O'Brien took a job that few coaches wanted, and against all odds made the product on the field matter again. The program he inherited from Joe Paterno was undercut by the defections of the team's best running back, top receiver and its kicker - more than a dozen players in all - and the Nittany Lions will be hamstrung until 2020 by the wide-ranging sanctions the NCAA imposed over the summer. While the debate still simmered over whether they should even be playing, the Nittany Lions opened the season with two disheartening losses.

``I knew a lot of people were arguing, a lot of them didn't agree with me being the head coach,'' O'Brien said over the phone after practice Tuesday evening. ``But I never really sat back and thought, `How do you go about replacing a coaching legend?' I knew no one was ever going to replace Joe Paterno. So the only thing I tried to be was myself.''

Most of those people who worried whether any coach could maintain perspective in the midst of that maelstrom had no idea who the 42-year-old O'Brien was. They knew him only as the offensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in New England the past seven years, not as the father of a 10-year-old son named Jack, who suffers seizures when he awakes every morning and has limited motor skills because of a rare genetic brain malformation known as lissencephaly. O'Brien and his wife, Colleen, shared that part of the family's story with a New York Times reporter just before the season began - not to prove that his priorities were in order, but in the hope that it might provide comfort to others.

``Millions of families go through this,'' he told the newspaper. ``Hopefully by doing stuff like this, we can help other families feel better about their situation. I don't want people to think we're the only family going through this. We're not saying, `Woe is us.'''

O'Brien brought that same attitude to work every day and by dint of hard work, patiently turned the Nittany Lions' weaknesses into strengths. Instead of an attack that relied on running back Silas Redd, who lit out for USC in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, O'Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into a budding Tom Brady. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner in the final seconds of a 17-16 loss to Virginia - the previous starter, Anthony Fera, lit out for Texas in the wake of those same NCAA sanctions - O'Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup. Instead, he had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations - 20 times this season so far, including 5 of 6 successful conversions in a comeback win last Saturday against Northwestern.

``We're fortunate to have the kids and the staff that we do. They committed to us in tough times. Matt McGloin is a very bright kid, he had plenty of experience playing in big games before I ever got here, so you have to give him a lot of credit. To this point, he and everyone else has done everything we asked,'' O'Brien said.

``What I try to do in return is be decisive, whether it's a meeting or a game-time decision. They may be the wrong decisions,'' he laughed, ``but there's no hemming and hawing, we just go and make the best of things. I've learned that's half the battle.''

Penn State has a bye week, then resumes Big Ten conference play Oct. 20 against Iowa, the start of what O'Brien calls the ``meat of our schedule.'' He's stayed in touch with Belichick throughout, less for advice about X's and O's than for guidance on how a rookie head coach should conduct himself.

``He's a competitor through and through,'' Belichick said in an email. ``Penn State hired a great person and a solid football man. I'm not surprised in the least at any success he's had.''

O'Brien, though, isn't taking anything for granted. He punctuates every other sentence about the Nittany Lions' success with the words ``to this point.''

``When the Penn State job opened up, I weighed the positives and negatives. It offers a great education, great football, a great stadium - those are all things I believe in,'' he said. ``And even though some tough times had just occurred and there are bound to be tough times ahead, I knew that down the road this could be a special place again.''


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) and follow him at

March Madness 2018: Sweet 16 TV Schedule, Tip times, announcers, how to watch, live stream

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March Madness 2018: Sweet 16 TV Schedule, Tip times, announcers, how to watch, live stream

The first and second rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament are in  the books.

We witnessed history, with UMBC becoming the first No. 16 seed in men's tournament history to defeat a No. 1 seed, beating Virginia 74-54.

We saw the Ramblers of Loyola Chicago make a Cinderella run, beating Miami and Tennessee on the final possession.

We saw No. 7 Nevada rally from 22 points down to stun No. 2 Cincinnati.

We saw great games, great finishes and great moments.

But now it's time for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

The madness begins again on March 22, with the Sweet 16 taking place Thursday and Friday, with the Elite Eight taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

Here is a complete listing of TV channels, tip times and game locations.




Thursday, March 22

7:07 pm — No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (South/Atlanta, GA), CBS. Announcers: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lisa Byington
7:37 pm — No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 7 Texas A&M (West/Los Angeles, Calif), TBS. Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson
9:37 pm — No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State (South/Atlanta, GA), CBS. Announcers: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lisa Byington
10:07 pm — No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Florida State (West/Los Angeles, Calif), TBS. Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson

Friday, March 23

7:07 pm — No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 5 Clemson (Midwest/Omaha, NE), TBS. Announcers: Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson
7:37 pm — No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 5 West Virginia (East/Boston, Mass.), CBS. Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce
9:37 pm — No. 2 Duke vs. No. 11 Syracuse (Midwest/Omaha, NE), TBS. Announcers: Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson
10:07 pm — No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (East/Boston, Mass.), CBS. Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce



Saturday, March 24

Time TBD — Nevada/Loyola-Chicago winner vs. Kentucky/Kansas State winner (South Regional Final/Atlanta, GA), CBS. Announcers: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lisa Byington
Time TBD — Michigan/Texas A&M winner vs. Gonzaga vs. Florida State winner (West Regional Final/Los Angeles, Calif.), CBS. Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson

Sunday, March 25

Time TBD — Kansas/Clemson winner vs. Duke/Syracuse winner  (Midwest Regional Final/Omaha, NE), CBS. Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson
​Time TBD —  Villanova/West Virginia winner vs. Purdue/Texas Tech winner (East Regional Final/Boston, Mass.), CBS. Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce

 WANT MORE COLLEGE HOOPS? Troy Machir is spending all March chatting with some of the biggest names in college basketball. Listen to the March Only Podcast below and be sure to like, rate, share and subscribe on iTunes.

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Pernell McPhee reportedly on visit with Redskins


Pernell McPhee reportedly on visit with Redskins

NFL free agency doesn't care about your brackets. 

While you were watching UMBC, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee is currently on a visit with the Redskins:

Pernell, 29, was drafted in 2011 out of Mississppi State by the Baltimore Ravens. He played there for three years before spending the last two seasons with the Chicago Bears. 

Pernell has 182 career tackles and 31 career sacks.