By Bill Burt
---- — It seems like it has been three years, but it’s only been three months that Bill O’Brien earned one of those precious 32 positions in professional football, as head coach.
O’Brien, who attended St. John’s Prep and Brown University, agreed to be the Houston Texans head coach on Jan. 3, 2014.
It’s been a whirlwind few years for O’Brien, who has not had much time to rest since taking over at Penn State while still with the New England Patriots during the Super Bowl run against the New York Giants in late January of 2012. Many people expected the Nittany Lions program to crumble after the Jerry Sandusky allegations and death of legendary coach Joe Paterno, but with O’Brien’s help, that didn’t happen.
The Andover native spent two seasons with Penn State, winning Div. 1 FBS Coach of the Year while leading the Nittany Lions to a 15-9 record.
We spoke with O’Brien recently about his career, his time with the Patriots and what lies ahead for the Houston Texans:
Q: Tell us about Houston and how you and your family has settled in?
A: “It’s a great city. I compare it a lot to Atlanta, where I spent a few years when I was coaching at Georgia Tech. There are so many things to do here. There really is something for everybody. The schools are good. There are cultural things for everyone. We’ve been very busy here, but we really love the area. We moved into a house finally. My wife did a real good job with that. The last time I picked a house without my wife, it was not good. She said they I was done choosing homes after that. I’m OK with that. These job changes are not easy on the family. But coming to Houston was right for us. It has the right hospitals for my son, Jack (who needs medical attention), and that is always a big part of the decisions we make.”
Q: How about the football side of your decision?
A: “One of the things I learned with the Patriots was the importance of everybody being on the same page, including the owner, management and the head coach. One of the things that struck me right away in my interview with Cal McNair (owner’s son) and Rick Smith (general manager). It was a great discussion about the organization, the draft, free agency and what kind of team we wanted. It couldn’t have gone any better. It was important Rick and I, specifically, were comfortable working together. It just felt right to me from the first interview.”
Q: After being a coach on the rise, you’ve endured some tough years and situations (including 1-22 as the offensive coordinator at Duke in 2005-06), including having the Notre Dame offensive coordinator job for a few days before having it taken away. How has that made you stronger and prepared what lies ahead in Houston?
A: “There were some tough times. This is a tough business, especially as an assistant coach and moving so often. Some of the situations were great, but coaching football always has been a passion of mine. I love it. “
Q: Talk about your entrance into the NFL was with the New England Patriots in 2007?
A: “At Georgia Tech, I made a contact with Bill (Belichick) through a mutual friend. I would talk to him every so often and I’d throw some things off him, like plays and formations. Bill called (me after the 2006 season) and said he had a position and told me what he expected. There were a lot of days I didn’t see sunlight. There was a lot of film work, taking notes ... I was more like an auditor. But it was one of the best experiences I’ve received in coaching. It opened my eyes in a lot of ways.”
Q: How did your five years with the Patriots prepare you for what lies ahead in Houston?
A: “I could go on and on answering this question. Bill Belichick is the best in the business. And it’s in so many areas. I learned the importance of a team-first mentality over everything else. I learned the importance of preparing a team for a game, and the emphasis on complementary football. Being an offensive coach most of my career, I learned about defensive football. I also learned about evaluating talent. Bill would send you out to work guys out and then you’d go back to the office and review what you saw. It was like being in a courtroom. Bill would tell you what wasn’t right ... I remember talking to my dad about my time with the Patriots and he said I was getting a PhD in football. He was right.”
Q: You spent two years at Penn State after the 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants,
A: “I love Penn State and that experience was one of the best I’ve ever had. It was my first experience as a head coach. The players there were some of the greatest young men I’ve ever been around. What happened there, with the (Jerry) Sandusky situation, with Joe Paterno dying, kids transferring, the sanctions coming out, all of the things they had to deal with and they were able to win some big games. And remember, we only had 50 scholarships and we’re beating Big Ten teams with (85 scholarships). I have nothing but positive things to say about Penn State. It’s a great university, with 45,000 students.”
Q: Why leave Penn State after only two years?
A: “In the end I really missed being in the NFL, the strategy, the competition, the players ... that’s what I missed most. I loved coaching in college and those relationships will be with me and my family forever.”
Q: Have you spoken with Bill Belichick much after leaving for Penn State and then getting the job with Houston?
A: “Yes, I have. We will always be friends. Bill appreciates hard work and keeping your mouth shut. He appreciates intelligence other than football. He also taught me the best relationships up front and honest. It will be a little different as a head coach (competing against the Patriots), but my respect for him and our friendship will never change.”
Q: How ironic was it that you not only coached against your mentor, University of Central Florida coach George O’Leary last fall at Penn State (UCF won, 34-31), but that his quarterback, Blake Bortles, is being talked about as potentially the first pick of the draft, which is the Houston Texans pick?
A: “Amazing, isn’t it? That was a great game and a tough one to lose. We were talking about at Bortles’ pro day, about how we’ve come full circle in some respects. George is a good friend. I loved coaching for him. I lean on him for advice. Sure, we’ve discussed players and his quarterback has got some great years ahead of him. Bortles is going to play pro football.”
Q: You’ve said the Texans will be drafting a quarterback, but it doesn’t necessarily mean with the first pick. Where you stand with the first overall pick less than a month before the NFL Draft?
A: “I appreciate the question; everybody is asking it. We haven’t decided yet. It’s a long process. We’re still, obviously, determining our own roster and we haven’t been big players in free agency for a various reasons. One thing I’ve learned is you draft what’s best available. You don’t draft for need. We are still studying guys, doing interviews and bringing guys to Houston. We do know it’s a deep draft. There are over 100 underclassmen available, which is a record I believe. Rick Smith and myself have a lot work to do, but we will make the right decision for the Houston Texans.”
Q: While the Texans struggled last year, there are a few players there some believe are among the best in the game, especially 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. Have you talked to J.J. and other players about what lies ahead and your expectations?
A: “When I first got here I did speak to J.J. about his own background, family, etc. The one thing I got out of him was he loved playing here in Houston. I’ve watched tape on him many times. He’s an exciting player to watch. I’m excited to see him work with (new defensive line coach) Romeo Crennel. We have a good core here with guys like Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins ... I’m looking forward to talking to this team as a group and letting them know about our philosophy and expectations.”