Capitals

Column: O'Brien engineering Penn State turnaround

201210061751642669134-p2.jpeg

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)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

Quick Links

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: On to Vegas!

usatsi_10850115.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: On to Vegas!

The Capitals are the Eastern Conference Champions!

After dispatching Tampa Bay in Game 7, the Caps claimed the conference crown for just the second time in franchise history. But they're not done yet. Now it's on to Vegas to face the Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir break down the Caps' win over the Lightning and look ahead to the matchup with the Knights.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.

Quick Links

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!