“When we started looking for a successor, I figured, ‘We can make a mistake on the win-loss side, because nobody will expect much right away,” said Joyner, coincidentally part of Paterno’s first recruiting class in 1966. “But I knew we couldn’t make a mistake on the kind of person we hired. Considering what he was stepping into, he had to be tough.”
O’Brien arrived with sterling credentials; apprenticeships coaching at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, followed by five years as an NFL assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England, where he rose through the ranks to become offensive coordinator.
“A few days before we announced the hiring, I was watching a Patriots game, and I see Bill walk down the sideline, stop in front of Tom Brady, and start yelling. And I’m thinking, ‘He’s yelling at Tom Brady! Tom Brady! Who’s maybe only the best quarterback ever!’
“Right about then,” Joyner recalled, “I said to myself, ‘We got the right guy. He’s plenty tough enough.’”
He needed to be, of course. Because of the sanctions, the program he inherited was undercut by the defections of the team’s best running back, top receiver and its front-line kicker — more than a dozen players in all.
But O’Brien might be the last guy you’ll catch feeling sorry for himself. His young son, Jack, suffers seizures upon awakening every morning and has limited motor skills due to a rare genetic brain malformation called lissencephaly.
Indeed, the O’Briens are battlers, and the coach brought that same attitude from home to work every day, patiently turning the Nittany Lions’ weaknesses into strengths. When Silas Redd took most of Penn State’s running game with him by transferring to Southern California, O’Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into an NFL-ready one. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner, O’Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup and instead had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations. His players loved that, and returned every show of loyalty in kind.