Bill O’Brien’s coaching career was more or less launched by a phone call from George O’Leary to Jim Bernhardt.
“Do you know anybody that’s smart enough to get into graduate school at Georgia Tech and dumb enough to want to coach?” said O’Leary, who was taking over as head coach of the Yellow Jackets.
“I got just the guy for you,” said Bernhardt, who was O’Brien’s position coach at Brown.
It’s a story O’Brien has told a few times since taking over at Penn State, including on Tuesday at his weekly press conference. It’s one of the more important moments in his career.
That call eventually led to O’Brien, who had been working as a linebackers coach at his alma mater, to O’Leary’s staff and the world of major college football.
That he is now the head of his own program, preparing to face O’Leary’s Central Florida squad on Saturday, is thanks in part to the mentoring he received while at Georgia Tech.
“I have a fantastic relationship with Coach O’Leary,” said O’Brien, who coached under O’Leary from 1995-2001 at Tech, rising as high as offensive coordinator. “I think that probably I took two big lessons from him in coaching that I’ve always kept with me.
“One was organization. He was a very organized guy. There wasn’t a wasted moment during the day, and that had a lot to do with work ethic. We worked extremely hard, all of us did, when we worked for him. He demanded that of us. So I learned a lot about that.
“And then I just learned about how important the physical toughness, resiliency of your football team is. That’s a very important characteristic of a good football team. And when you don’t have that, then you’re going to struggle. But when you have that, when you have a physical, resilient, tough football team, then you’ve got a chance to win games.”
O’Brien has done plenty of that, using his experience under O’Leary to eventually land a spot with the New England Patriots before coming to Penn State.
“Billy I thought came up through the ranks the right way,” O’Leary said. “He learned. He got better, he got better and he continued to get better. It didn’t suprise me that he’s had the success he had at New England, the success he had when I was at Georgia Tech with him.”
That bond with his former boss helped put together this series between the Knights and Nittany Lions.
Penn State needed a last-minute replacement for Virginia, which bailed out of its trip to Happy Valley in favor of hosting Oregon last week. And the Lions were also looking for a unique destination for players and fans who have no trips to bowl games for the next few years.
Voila. The coach-to-coach connection helped put together Saturday’s game at Beaver Stadium and next September’s opener in Ireland.
O’Leary, 67, has seen plenty of former assistants have success at all levels, and O’Brien is now one of the top examples.
“All those coaches that I’ve had that have moved on to bigger jobs, they had the one thing that you need to have,” O’Leary said. “Great work habits. There’s no hours in the day that you couldn’t give them enough information to make them better coaches.
“They’re film jockeys. They’re always watching film and trying to get better. And not just in their position, but all positions. The good coaches can coach ‘em all. Because it’s a team game and you need to know the whole gamut.”
The Yellow Jackets staff in the mid-to-late 90s also included current Penn State assistants Stan Hixon and Mac McWhorter, as well former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen and new Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone, one of O’Brien’s best friends in the business.
How all of those talented coaches — and diverse personalities — meshed together in Atlanta under O’Leary provided a blueprint for O’Brien when it came time to pick his own staff.
“We had a laundry list of some really good, top-notch coaches, many of whom went on to become head coaches,” O’Brien said. “I learned a lot from them. And I contributed what I contributed to that staff, but I think we all learned from Coach O’Leary.
“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.”
This week, the two men will put all that aside before the 6 p.m. kickoff. Just football.
But O’Leary remains proud of his former protegee all the same.
“I think he’s taken a tough situation up there at Penn State,” O’Leary said, “and really done a great job with it.”