Four Years Later: How I Got Yelled at By Bill O’Brien

(Photo credit Dave Cole/Onward State)

Editor’s Note: Today marks the four-year anniversary of me being yelled at by Bill O’Brien, simultaneously one of the greatest and most embarrassing moments of my life. This post detailing how it happened was first published two years ago in an attempt to chronicle the moment.

We now relive it every year in its original unedited format on October 16th and hope you enjoy the story below.

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Seeing Bill O’Brien’s uber-intense face appear on my TV every Sunday is met with a strange emotion of shock and awe these days.

It feels pretty surreal that a guy who not so long ago sat less than 10 feet away from me answering questions is now making millions in the most powerful league in the world.

During my year and a half covering Penn State football, I never had any real one-on-one conversations with the man who at the time was saving the program. He made it a point not to get too close to students. I once tried to email him directly after I was unable to get a final question in during a media scrum and was met with a quick reply from his PR man essentially saying ‘Please do not attempt this again.’

O’Brien knew my face, but he didn’t know my name, and there is absolutely no chance he remembers me, but today marks the two-year anniversary of the greatest interaction I ever had with the man.

Whenever I am presented with a situation where I need to state a couple fun facts about myself, I usually include ‘Bill O’Brien once yelled at me.” It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, but it was also one of the best.

A lot of folks who were not present for it have asked me how it happened, and I believe this is the best medium to fully tell the story.

As previously mentioned, the date was October 16, 2012. It was a Tuesday, which meant it was the day O’Brien had his weekly press conference with reporters in the Beaver Stadium media room.

O’Brien never particularly wanted to be at these things, understandably so. His time was better spent watching tape or carrying out the other core responsibilities that are attached to being a college football coach.

There were some Tuesdays where he was pretty tight-lipped, but if you caught him in a decent mood coming off a nice victory, he would be good for a couple of jokes and good answers.

For a guy who didn’t enjoy the media spotlight, O’Brien was incredibly well-spoken. He had an amusing habit of using the verbal filler ‘sure’ before responding to most questions and would sometimes cut a reporter off if he could predict the end of a question before it was completely out of the person’s mouth.

That last point will be important later, but before going back to that day’s press conference, some background information and context is needed.

Penn State was coming off a bye week, and many professional media members had gone away for a quick vacation. For students like myself, it was a time to just be college kids and get a break from the grind of the season.

The next two paragraphs are about as #college as things get. On Tuesdays, I normally had one class in the morning. O’Brien spoke around 12:30, and then I had two classes later in the day, but on this particular fall Tuesday, my first class had been cancelled a few days in advance meaning I had nothing pressing to do all morning.

My friend Kevin and I took advantage of this and went out on a Monday Night. This was not a particularly uncommon thing during senior year of college, but we were still drinking at a bar when it closed at 2 a.m. and were pretty well taken care of from some Long Island Iced Teas by then. Fun night.

I took advantage of the opportunity to semi-sleep in the next morning, and the first thing I remember upon waking up around 9 a.m. is hopping on Twitter and seeing CSN Philly’s Reuben Frank break the news that Juan Castillo had been fired from his job as Eagles defensive coordinator.

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Not to veer to off topic but quick word on Castillo: He was a good man and a good offensive line coach. A true ‘started from the bottom now we here’ story. Castillo had made a life for himself after growing up poor, but he was in over his head as a defensive coordinator, put in an awful position as a result of Andy Reid having Andy Reid’d harder than he had ever Andy Reid’d before. It was destined to end poorly, and it did.

I spent about an hour following Eagles stuff, knocked out a quick homework assignment, and then started to prepare for this press conference.

Penn State had won four straight games after beginning the season 0-2. It had been an exhausting but really fun seven weeks covering the team. I like to think I am a pretty hard worker, but at that point, I am not sure I had ever worked so hard at something in my life. The way I saw it, I wrote for four main reasons:

  1. It was fun — People should always do things that they find to bring them a sense of enjoyment and utility. I liked writing about sports and felt like I was pretty good at it.
  2. People liked reading my stuff — Through social media, I had built up trust and credibility with a core audience who generally enjoyed what I had to say.
  3. For Onward State — I took pride in the outlet I wrote for and always wanted to represent them well.
  4. Because my haters wanted me to fail — There were a couple professional guys who thought I was too young and too inexperienced to do what they were doing. They didn’t think I could hang with them over the course of the season. I knew I could and was doing it. That made it all the more rewarding, but more than that, the reason I put in that work is because two people in particular wanted me to fail. I went all out so at the end of the day I could publish compelling content and say ‘Hey Devon, Hey Dan, I’m better than you, and all three of us know it. Deal with it.”

I didn’t break a ton of news (although we would get a big one in late November), and there was of course room for improvement, but my stuff was usually solid.

Press conferences always made me nervous though. Some national people would tune in and you didn’t want to look stupid in front of your colleagues.

Up until this point, I had avoided that. I occasionally got a one-word “No” from O’Brien and never really had a back-and-forth with him like some veteran guys did, but I asked questions that I thought were relevant and fair and could benefit not only me but others in the room too.

The way these things work are that non-present reporters ask questions over the phone first. When they are done, two microphones are available, and you raise your hand for some intern to bring one of the microphones to your seat. Everyone pretty much sits in identical seats on a week-to-week basis with most of the students to the right of the room and non-students more on the left.

One of my biggest fears was always that my question would get asked when I was holding the other microphone, leaving you with nothing. To guard against this, I always wrote out about 10 potential questions/topics. The breakdown was something like: one question I absolutely wanted to ask if no one else did, two or three backups that i thought would be good, two or three backups to those backups, and a few that wouldn’t be great but were there should I need them.

An example of my laptop screen or notepad would have looked something like:

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From those notes, it is not obvious, but Penn State was playing at Iowa that weekend, and to some of the seniors on the team, it was a really big deal. In both 2008 and 2009, Iowa had ruined undefeated seasons of good Nittany Lion squads that had national championship aspirations. Although O’Brien and most of his staff were not there to witness it, Kinnick Stadium had been a house of horrors for Penn State throughout the twenty-first century.

You could probably go as far as to say that Penn State hated Iowa. Senior cornerback Stephon Morris, the most interesting player I ever spent time around, said exactly that the night before.

Hence, the top topic saying ‘Morris tweet.’ If memory serves, Morris’ tweet was deleted, and a deep fishing expedition has yielded no results in its search. More on that is coming though, I promise.

Providing other teams with bulletin board material was never in O’Brien’s nature, and he spent part of the opening portion of his press conference talking up a pretty bad Iowa team. In addition to keeping his players grounded, O’Brien was friends with Iowa assistant Brian Ferentz, son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz from their time together with the Patriots.

O’Brien was smart to do what he did, but his message just wasn’t completely true. There were players on the team who had stronger feelings of hatred toward Iowa than they did toward Ohio State or Michigan. As the press conference proceeded on, I looked over my notes along with the different features and players I had honed in on over the first half of the season.

Nothing new or particularly useful was emerging from here other than coach-speak about Iowa. A few of my other question ideas had been asked, and I decided it was worth a shot.

I raised my hand while O’Brien was answering some other question, and the communications assistant nodded. Ten seconds later, the microphone was in my right hand.

In this type of setting, you want to maintain your cool externally, but my legs always shook like jello a bit in the time between holding the mic and actually saying something.

In my head I briefly wondered if I should change my mind and go with something else, knowing from the past he would normally not entertain social media related questions too much, once playfully referring to Facebook and Twitter as “Spacebook and Tweeter.”

If he thought you were trying to trick him, he could get pretty defensive, but why would anyone try to trick a Brown-educated coach who was the smartest guy in the room?

Nah, this needs to be asked, let’s do it.

I ran through the question in my head while O’Brien answered the one before me.

Stephon Morris said on Twitter last night in regards to Iowa, ‘we hate them, they hate us’. Being around your players this week, do you sense any extra animosity that they have towards Iowa given the recent history of the rivalry?

Great, all set.

O’Brien was now completely finished with the previous question. I looked up. Go time.

‘Bill, Stephon Morris said on Twitter last night in regards to Iowa, ‘we hate them, they hate us.’ Being around…

By this point, O’Brien’s typical focused demeanor had given way to a look that more resembled exasperation. I attempted to continue with the next few words…your players this…

I was still holding the microphone, but that is as far as the question would get. O’Brien jumped in, his voice much louder than mine:

“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE? I HATE TWITTER.”

From there, he launched into a 30-second mini-rant about college athletes and social media. His full response can be viewed below along with video beginning right around the 10-minute mark.

Do you know what I hate? I hate Twitter. I think these guys are young guys, and I think “Tweet this, Spacebook that.” Whatever. We’ve got to go play the game. We don’t have any hatred for Iowa. We respect Iowa. We have a tremendous amount of respect for their football program and for how they play the game, for how they’re coached, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for their coaching staff and their players and the longevity of Coach Ferentz at Iowa and the amount of wins he had his 100th win last week. Just done a great job there. So there’s a lot of respect there. I think that’s just young guys Tweeting this, twitting that, and that’s how it works, I guess.

The beginning of the response elicited laughter from a lot of people there. I tried to go with it and smile, but still holding the microphone, I was in a state of shock.

Did that really just happen? Holy shit, there’s still six games left in the season. I’m here for another eight months. I gotta cover this guy. He’s going to hate me.

Those were all thoughts that raced through my head at the speed of light. When I looked over the transcript and played the recording back later that day, I had to pay specific attention to the few questions that followed because I must have completely tuned them out.

Immediately, I began to wonder if there was something I could have done differently to solicit a response that didn’t involve him yelling at me. Maybe, if I had framed it in a slightly more general way without him hearing the word “Twitter,” he answers in a different way.

I had no intentions of riling him up and wasn’t trying to spark controversy, just thought it was a valid question at the time.

Some media folks tweeted about it right away. The quote made its way into a few local stories and even one or two national headlines. My roommates heard about it from Twitter and gave me a hard time about it later that day. The whole thing even found its way to Morris (Sorry if you had to run extra laps that day after practice, Stephon).

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I mentioned it briefly in a story the following day but made it more about preparing for Iowa than myself, so two years later, I’m taking the time to depict the whole scene from a personal perspective.

Penn State rolled over Iowa that Saturday. The next Monday, I went on an ESPN show to talk about the upcoming game against Ohio State. I was somewhat nervous that following Tuesday, but for the rest of the season, he answered whatever I asked.

O’Brien always enjoyed poking a little fun at the media but knew a lot of professional folks by name, and there was a general belief that as much as he disliked doing these things, he respected people who came prepared and took their jobs seriously.

My final interaction with him occurred the following summer in Chicago at Big Ten Media Days. Fittingly perhaps, it was social media related. Another reporter asked him if he was aware of a parody Twitter account called @evilbillobrien that much of the Nittany Lions community followed and enjoyed.

O’Brien laughed and joked ‘I think Evil Bill needs to turn down the rhetoric a bit.’ For as much as he liked to play dumb at times when it came to stuff like this, he was very savvy and knew exactly what was going on.

We were all seated at a roundtable and the mood was pretty loose, a decent contrast to a typical podium press conference. O’Brien pointed at one of his younger PR people and said ‘I think it’s him doing it.’

Good guess but nope. I had met the actual person a couple times and after a few seconds of silence, I chimed in.

“Bill, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I actually know who he is if you’d like to know.”

“You know the guy? That’s awesome.”

O’Brien’s session wrapped up within the next five minutes. I returned from Chicago and moved out of State College. Four months later, so did he, leaving Penn State after two successful seasons to coach the Houston Texans.

While I doubt he remembers this and never really knew me, those 45 seconds are engrained in me forever, a moment I will never forget and am always quick to bring up when I think people might find it to be entertaining as I did.

You were great, Bill. Thanks for yelling at me two years ago. Go lose to the Eagles in the Super Bowl now so I can tweeter about it.

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