FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – One of Bill O'Brien's first acts as the new Penn State football coach was to mourn the loss of the old one.
O'Brien said former Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, who died Sunday, was "an icon in the coaching profession." But he was also more than just a coach, O'Brien said in offering condolences to the Paterno family, current and former Penn State players and the rest of the university community.
"Today they lost a great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure, and we extend our deepest sympathies," O'Brien, the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, said in a statement before the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.
"The Penn State football program is one of college football's iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno. There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach."
Paterno died at the age of 85 from complications of lung cancer, two months after he was fired in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against one of his assistant coaches. O'Brien was hired to replace him, but he is finishing out the year with the Patriots as they reached the AFC title game for the second time in his five years with the team.
In his 46 years at Penn State, Paterno won two national championships and 409 games in all — the most in the history of major college football.
"To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor," O'Brien said "Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for coach Paterno's immeasurable contributions."
The Patriots said O'Brien did not address Paterno's death with the team on Sunday, when New England won 23-20 to advance to the Super Bowl. That means Penn State will have to wait another two weeks before O'Brien takes over the job full-time.
"I think Penn State has hired a great young man to be their head coach, someone I'm very fond of," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in the locker room after the game. "Hopefully if we collect enough draft picks we'll be able to pick his best players."
Receiver Matthew Slater was among the players in Sunday's game offering their condolences to Paterno's family. Several of them did not know Paterno had died.
"The man was a legend and always will be," Slater said. "It's tough to fill the shoes of a legend, but I think that they picked a great coach who's a leader, who's (going to) try to build men with those kids there at Penn State. He's going to do everything he can to help that program on and off the football field, and I think he was a great hire."
But, for now, O'Brien is focused on winning the Super Bowl.
"Billy, right now, the job he's doing under the pressure that he has on his own has been phenomenal," offensive lineman Brian Waters said. "He definitely hasn't slipped one bit; it's been no distraction. You wouldn't even know that he was going to be going to a big-time job somewhere else. He's done a great job, and I expect he's going to be at an even higher level in the next two weeks."