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Kovacevic: O'Brien does it his way

| Friday, Feb. 3, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — If Bill O'Brien cared what anyone thought, he surely wouldn't have shown up at Thursday's 8 a.m. Super Bowl media session wearing a blue ballcap, matching hoodie and jeans.

Really, if the man cared what anyone thought, he wouldn't be here at all, right?

He'd have stayed at Penn State after being named Joe Paterno's replacement Jan. 7, he'd have let someone else take over as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, and he'd have spared himself a lot of grief from Happy Valley.

But did I mention ... ?

Yeah, I did.

If looking for more proof, while sitting with O'Brien at his interview table, I asked:

> > If he could have helped Penn State improve its recruiting class by applying himself fully to his new job right away: "You know, we had 14 recruits committed when I was hired, and our staff did a great job of keeping most of those, and we ended up with a good class of 19. My contribution was minimal, which is how it usually is with the head coach. The assistants handle that."

> > If he has heard the criticism: "Anytime a new coach is hired — especially in this instance, a head coach for 46 years who won 409 games — there will be naysayers. If I was out there, I'd probably be a naysayer and ask, 'Who is this guy?' I think if people there give us a chance to earn respect, they'll be happy with what they see."

> > If he can handle the challenge at Penn State, given the untold damage wrought by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal: "We weren't there, me and my staff. But we're here now, and we feel really good about our ability to sell the university, its academics and the football program."

> > If his focus is split: "I'm very focused on the New England Patriots. When you work for Bill Belichick, you do your job."

With that, O'Brien looked down at his watch. It was 9:15 a.m.

"No offense, but at 9:30, when my time's up here, I go right back to preparing the New England Patriots to win this football game."

The principal complaint about O'Brien from alumni and others has been that he isn't a "Penn State man." I get that. I'd have had no problem with Tom Bradley keeping the job, if only to illustrate that not everyone who ever knew Sandusky was guilty and, on a larger scale, that the university can solve its own problems.

But O'Brien — a "Brown man," like Paterno — deserves the chance he's seeking from Nittany Lions faithful.

And he most definitely deserves credit, not scorn, for sticking with the Patriots.

He's worked closely and passionately with Tom Brady. Yes, that includes when they famously barked at each other on the sideline this season. But Brady playfully referred to O'Brien as "a pain" Thursday, and O'Brien got a little emotional when asked about his final weekend with one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks.

"I hope to call Tom Brady my friend for many years," O'Brien said.

The Patriots speak equally effusively of O'Brien and his two-year body of work, with Belichick calling him "an outstanding football mind" and Brady saying, "Penn State's lucky to have him."

And hear this from running back Stevan Ridley: "The way our whole system has been run is to strive for perfection, and he accepts nothing less. If you keep him cool and level-headed, you're all good. But as soon as you mess up, you're going to hear about it pretty fast. He's a great coach."

They love this guy. They want to win with him.

Why shouldn't Penn State fans want that, too?

Anyone who thinks O'Brien could have salvaged this recruiting class is living in another reality. Never in the history of college football have there been circumstances like these. An ESPN The Magazine poll this week showed that 75.6 percent of recruits on signing day said they wouldn't have considered Penn State, a staggering figure that will take years, not weeks or months, to overcome.

Besides, picture the implications of O'Brien becoming a Super Bowl champion. Picture him wearing that diamond-studded ring when walking into the homes of recruits.

Think Urban Meyer wasn't wearing all his jewelry while poaching those four Penn State recruits for Ohio State?

I brought that up with O'Brien. His answer shouldn't surprise you.

"I'm just preparing to win a football game," he said. "I don't care what the Ohio State coach is wearing on his fingers."

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