This story is part of a series in the December 23, 2012 edition of SportsWeek honoring the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year. Bill O'Brien finished second in the award voting. You can also read about award winner Mike Trout and the other runners-up: Carli Lloyd, Carlos Ruiz and Claude Giroux.
STATE COLLEGE - There was a nationally covered trial, the Freeh Report, the removal of Joe Paterno's statue, the NCAA's sanctions, controversy, transfers - and that was all before Bill O'Brien coached a game at Penn State.
So what was it about the guy from Boston that made him able to lead the Penn State football team so successfully through it all?
"Every little thing he does is so great for this team. Everything he says he just leads us. You know, like, 'Man, coach O'Brien said that? He's awesome, he's the man,' " senior center Matt Stankiewitch said after the team defeated Wisconsin in its season finale Nov. 24. "And everybody's just looking at each other like, 'Yeah I love coach O'Brien, he's the man, he's awesome.' "
"I think he's just a no-nonsense guy," said Troy Weller, president of student fan group Nittanyville. "When I say that, I mean he has a goal in mind and he's going to go after that - 'We want to win X amount of games, OK? How do we get there?' "
Penn State went 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten) in O'Brien's first season coaching the Nittany Lions. But it was the way they went about achieving that record that will be remembered, as evidenced by the "2012" now hanging on Beaver Stadium's façade next to undefeated and championship teams.
O'Brien took the difficult job in January, when he was the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots. The little-known name quickly became a household one for the Penn State faithful, who were wowed by his opening news conference here.
"I was watching it with my roommate, and I said, 'This is his chance to prove what he's got,' and I think that's exactly what he did. He went out there and said what a lot of people wanted to hear said," Weller said.
O'Brien became the only first-year coach to win eight games at Penn State. And despite no postseason play until 2016 for the Lions, because of sanctions, his 2013 recruiting class is ranked No. 37 on Rivals.com.
Opinions similar to Stankiewitch's were commonplace this season. Players and fans alike bought into the way O'Brien ran his new operation - he called the plays for a fast-paced offense, made many aggressive fourth-down calls and displayed boatloads of in-game intensity.
Quarterback Matt McGloin, after the Nits defeated Navy on Sept. 15 for their first victory of the O'Brien era: "It was more important for us to get that win for him than it even is to get it for ourselves."
National recognition is growing up for O'Brien, who was named the Maxwell Football Club's Collegiate Coach of the Year Wednesday and was honored as the ESPN National Coach of the Year a few weeks ago. He's also the Big Ten Coach of the Year and a finalist for a few other national honors.
"When we had our meeting yesterday and our seniors spoke, I thanked coach O'Brien," Stankiewitch said after Wisconsin. "For him coming here and building the staff that they did, and building the Penn State community up from the shadows and the ashes, and rising it up."