Listening to the Beaver Stadium crowd erupt into a state of frenzy, Colleen O’Brien didn’t just hear fans supporting a team — she heard a community welcoming a family.
Coach Bill O’Brien’s wife said the outpouring of affection toward her family, whether directly or indirectly, has allowed the O’Briens to feel at home in their new Happy Valley setting.
The coach and his family have slowly but surely settled in to the State College area since Bill was hired in January. Colleen and Bill said fans have welcomed them with open arms and they hope to return the favor by having a positive presence in the community for years to come.
Adjusting to Happy Valley
The O’Brien family moved into their Boalsburg home in March after Bill finished his commitment with the New England Patriots.
Colleen said one of the biggest concerns for the O’Briens was how their two sons, 10-year-old Jack and 7-year-old Michael, would adjust to the new area. Jack suffers from a rare neurological disorder and has special needs both at home and in school.
“It’s never easy to move,” Colleen said. “I think getting the kids assimilated into a new school and adapting to a new routine and meeting new friends, that’s definitely been the hardest part.”
Yet, she said the kids have come to love the Happy Valley scene.
Jack is a part of a special school program, which has “wonderful people working with him,” Colleen said. And Michael has taken advantage of the opportunity to display his raw talent at his dad’s practices.
“I think [the new job] allowed them to see their dad a lot more,” Colleen said. “We spend time coming over to the office, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes. We’ll go to practice and my younger son loves to run around and throw the football with whomever he can get to play with him. It’s been a great experience for them.”
Meanwhile, Colleen said the support from Penn State faithful prior to the season allowed for a smooth adjustment period.
Her first exposure to the lively crowd at Beaver Stadium only added to her appreciation.
“It’s hard not to notice and I was taken aback by it,” Colleen said. “It’s so impressive and greatly appreciated certainly. Just the noise at the games and the crowd support really has been tremendous. Even my 7-year-old has noticed it, and it’s helped us feel welcome.”
Bill O’Brien admitted part of his heart will always be in Boston, but he said he has grown accustomed to the many bright spots of Happy Valley.
“This is a nice place and the people have been great, so there’s definitely a good home-type feel,” O’Brien said.
Becoming a part of the community
On an early Saturday morning in February, Coach O’Brien strolled into Rinaldo’s Barber Shop, where late coach Joe Paterno also got his haircut from time to time, on Allen Street in downtown State College.
The barbershop’s owner, Rebecca Durst, said the new coach fit right in with the social environment, despite it being his first visit.
“He’s just a regular guy,” Durst said. “You know, he’s easy to talk to. He’s got a great sense of humor.”
O’Brien’s sons also have gotten their hair cut at Rinaldo’s and Durst said she sees the family as a “good fit to a small community.”
O’Brien said he enjoys getting a chance to stop in the barbershop, while admitting it isn’t usually the longest visit.
“I actually pay for this haircut,” O’Brien joked.
In an ideal world, O’Brien said he would show his face throughout the State College area more frequently, even during the season. He stressed the fact that he’s just like any other member of the community.
Colleen said the family enjoys the downtown area, citing Rotelli as one of its favorite restaurants.
“I think that the whole area is very unique, very quaint,” Colleen said. “I enjoy bringing the kids down there and going into the different shops.”
The coach said he enjoyed being able to make it to his younger son’s little league baseball game behind Mount Nittany earlier this week. O’Brien said Michael’s team lost a heart breaker, 30-26, due to a grand slam in the last inning.
But spending so much time working with the team, the coach said it’s often difficult to make it to these types of events.
He looks forward to advancing his relationship with the community in the offseason, however.
“During the season, it’s hard,” O’Brien said. “I’m trying to focus on each week and game. But in the offseason, you’ll see me. I’m just a regular guy. So I’ll be at the basketball games, men’s and women’s. And I’ll be at other sporting events.”
New staff coming together
Of course, Coach O’Brien is only one of many new faces on the Penn State coaching staff this season. There are eight new assistants on the staff, all of whom are going through a similar transition in the past year.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is among the coaches who joined the staff after O’Brien. Roof, who coached at Auburn from 2009-2011, decided to join the Lions’ staff just 33 days after agreeing to a deal with Central Florida last December.
Following in the footsteps of O’Brien, his former co-worker at Georgia Tech, the coordinator said he’s happy with his decision because the Penn State staff has come together as one.
“We’re a very close staff,” Roof said.
“That’s the neat thing about coming to work every day. I look forward to it because I really enjoy being around the guys that I work with.”
Roof said the Penn State community has positively influenced new coaches besides O’Brien, too.
“This community is such a community where family is so important,” Roof said. “Those values reflect the type of environment that I want to live in, that our family wants to live in and where we want to raise our kids.”
Meanwhile, Colleen, who is good friends with several other coaches’ wives, said the unity of this staff and its family members is unlike any other program the O’Brien family has been apart of.
The coach said the new blend of coaches have banded together to form a “family atmosphere” on the staff, which has made the transition easier for all the first-year members.
“We have our kids at practice a lot,” Coach O’Brien said. “We do some things during the week where we have family dinners and things like that. So I think the staff has enjoyed it, no question about it.”