Penn St. coach lauded, criticized
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Mickey Kwiatkowski has had tickets to Penn State football games so close to the sideline he could hear Joe Paterno yell "Hey, Mick" to him in the stands. He also coached Bill O'Brien at Brown University a decade ago and has watched O'Brien's career unfold since.
On Friday, Kwiatkowski assured panicky Penn State fans that O'Brien is the right guy to replace Paterno as head coach.
"In time, and I know it will take time because there are a lot of wounds to heal, I truly believe people will say, 'Can you believe how lucky we were to get Billy O'Brien?'" Kwiatkowski said.
The 15th football coach in Penn State history is a "brilliant" and "genuine" person who will be committed to both academic progress and winning football games, colleagues said Friday. O'Brien, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, arrived in State College on Friday to replace Paterno and is scheduled to meet his new players Sunday.
O'Brien brings a long resume of experience, with 12 years coaching offenses at Atlantic Coast Conference schools and five years on Bill Belichick's staff in New England.
But the 42-year-old O'Brien, who has never been a head coach, still has some convincing to do to appease a weary fan base. His lack of both head-coaching experience and familiarity with Penn State has made fans and former players uneasy.
"Penn State is a family, and it is real, and if they choose to get rid of (interim coach Tom) Bradley and not hire a Penn State coach, then they've turned their backs on our entire family," former linebacker Brandon Short told Rivals.com.
Bradley, a Penn State assistant for 33 years, was informed Friday he no longer is Penn State's interim coach.
Former Nittany Lions linebacker Shane Conlan said he thought Bradley "had a shot" at the job but added he intends to give O'Brien a chance despite knowing little about him.
"I've been talking with (acting athletic director Dave) Joyner, and I don't think he's settling for anybody at all," Conlan said. "He honestly believes this is the right guy. As for (O'Brien) being an unknown, everybody — Les Miles, Nick Saban, anybody — was an unknown at some time."
Though unknown to Penn State fans, O'Brien built a reputation in New England as a "charismatic," "passionate" and "emotional" coach, Julian Edelman of the Patriots told reporters Friday.
Dan Koppen, the Patriots' center who is on the injured-reserve list, said the move is "good for Penn State."
"What you see is what you get with him," said Koppen. "He doesn't beat around the bush. He's very honest, very forthcoming. He's easy to get along with. He's a good guy to play for and he'll be missed up here."
O'Brien began his coaching career at Brown in 1993 after playing linebacker and defensive end for the team. Kwiatkowski, a Philadelphia native who coached at Brown from 1990-92, said O'Brien was a "driven, inquisitive" player who was athletic enough to play both positions. Kwiatkowski made O'Brien a graduate-assistant coach in 1993, appointing him to the offensive staff to coach tight ends.
O'Brien left Brown in 1995 for Georgia Tech and spent eight years on the staff. He was the offensive coordinator for two years and the recruiting coordinator for four.
He left Georgia Tech in 2003 for a pair of two-year stints, at Maryland, coaching running backs; and Duke, where he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
He joined the Patriots in 2007 as receivers coach and became the quarterbacks coach in 2009.
Robert Kraft, the Patriots' owner, said O'Brien intends to coach with the team through the playoffs. That has happened in New England before: In 2004, Charlie Weis continued to coach the Patriots' offense while transitioning to his new job as head coach at Notre Dame.
Penn State is scheduled to host recruits on campus next weekend, when O'Brien will be coaching New England in the playoffs. Conlan said he discussed this concern with Joyner.
"Obviously (New England) is going to win for a while, and I asked (Joyner) about that, but he said they would work around it," Conlan said. "I don't know how it goes around, but hopefully (the Patriots) will lose their first game and speed up the process."
Though he played at Delaware and coached at Brown and Hofstra, Kwiatkowski said he's a "huge" Penn State fan who long has admired Paterno. He understands the reticence of fans and alumni to accept someone they consider an outsider to their program.
But he also asked them to give O'Brien a chance.
"What does he know about the Penn State way? He'll learn," Kwiatkowski said. "He'll learn quickly and he'll listen. And he will win.
"I want to see Penn State get back into the national spotlight. Let's get back to where we belong. I think Billy is the guy to do that. I'm confident what I'm saying is true."