O'Brien to face his mentor in UCF's O'Leary

O'Brien to face his mentor in UCF's O'Leary
September 13, 2013, 1:00 pm
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UCF coach George O'Leary gave Bill O'Brien his first coaching job at Georgia Tech in 1995. (AP)

As with many relationships, this one gets complicated.

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien faces off against his old mentor, Central Florida coach George O’Leary, on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

They would appear to agree on one thing.

“Saturday,” O’Brien said, “it’s about Penn State vs. Central Florida.”

“This,” O’Leary said, “is UCF vs. Penn State. This has nothing to do with us.”

Except it sorta does. It’s one of those teacher-pupil deals. It’s similar philosophies colliding. While it might not have the sizzle of next season’s opener -- a rematch in Dublin, Ireland -- it has to mean something to the 43-year-old O’Brien and the 67-year-old O’Leary, something more than the fact that two 2-0 clubs will get their first real test of the early season.

They’re not about to reveal what, though. Of course, it’s entirely possible the two friends are having some difficulty sorting out their feelings, or that they would rather not delve into such touchy-feely matters. Whatever the case, they’ve been giving name, rank and serial number.

“I’ll say hello to him before the game and say, ‘Stay healthy,’ after the game,” O’Leary said on a conference call earlier this week. “Otherwise, it’s business.”

The way O’Brien tells the story, O’Leary was the head coach at Georgia Tech in 1995 when he called a mutual coaching friend of theirs, Jim Bernhardt, and posed this question: “Do you know anybody that's smart enough to get into graduate school at Georgia Tech and dumb enough to want to coach?”

Bernhardt, who now works as O’Brien’s special assistant and director of player development, said he had just the guy for him in O’Brien, who had played outside linebacker and defensive end at Brown (also Joe Paterno’s alma mater), on clubs that went 2-8, 1-9 and 0-10, respectively.

Then he served as a graduate assistant for two years at the school, first under Mickey Kwiatkowski and then under Mark Whipple, before heading off to Atlanta to work for O’Leary. He stayed seven years (1995-01), rising from GA to full-time assistant to the offensive coordinator.

The staff also included future head coaches like Ralph Friedgen (Maryland) and Doug Marrone (Syracuse, and now the Buffalo Bills). Randy Edsall (formerly at Connecticut, now at Maryland) spent some time on the staff. So too did Mac McWhorter and Stan Hixon, who are now Penn State assistants, and Danny Crossman, now Marrone’s special teams coach in Buffalo.

“I think we all learned from coach O'Leary,” O’Brien said. “And I think every one of those guys would say we owe a lot to coach O'Leary because he taught us about tough, physical football, great organization, things like that.”

O’Leary, a Long Islander, would bust the chops of O’Brien, a Massachusetts native -- especially about the Red Sox. But when it was time to get down to work, they worked.

“He was a demanding boss,” O’Brien said. “He demanded a great work ethic from his staff, a great work ethic from his players. We all are grateful to him for that, because we learned a lot working for him.”

O’Leary departed Georgia Tech to become head coach at Notre Dame after the 2001 season (and would have taken O’Brien with him) but was fired within days when inaccuracies were found in his resume. He took a job with the Minnesota Vikings, then landed at UCF in 2004.

O’Brien went from Georgia Tech to Maryland (where he worked under Friedgen) and then on to Duke. In 2007, he was hired by the New England Patriots as an offensive assistant, eventually rising to offensive coordinator.

Penn State hired him in January 2012, and the Nittany Lions went 8-4 in his first season, despite severe NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal.

O’Leary, looking on from afar, noted how much his former assistant has been able to do in a short time -- “not just football but everything that he has done for that school as far as getting alumni together and trying to get everybody back on the same page.”

In other words, O’Brien was dumb enough to take on an impossible task but smart enough (so far) to handle it.

Now he gets to measure himself against his mentor. That has to mean a lot.

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