STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- At the end of every day, whether it followed a busy practice or a lazy afternoon with players off campus, Bill O'Brien would sit down at his computer and open an Excel file.
There he'd type in the date before writing away, preserving the mistakes he made, the lessons he learned and the ideas he conceived. He didn't share the file with his assistant coaches. It's private, a journal just for him that helps the Penn State coach look into the past and prepare for the future.
"It's something that helps you get going into your second year," O'Brien said. "It's like, 'Oh man, I need to do this better.' Or, right before the first game, I have to anticipate that this happened."
Like O'Brien himself, the journal is no frills. It's a just-the-facts rundown of the 1,000 things a Big Ten coach must keep track of but can't juggle in his mind. During June, for example, when he conducts four camps for high schoolers, when can he schedule meetings with his staff? And what kind of time can he devote to recruiting?
Confidence couldn’t replace experience last season, when the first-time head coach learned simply by doing. More than anything, O'Brien's first year has given him a better understanding of, well, a little of everything. Now, the longtime assistant can refer back to that document whenever his mind struggles recalling those minute details that seem to have happened a lifetime ago. After all, O'Brien's endured a lifetime of change in just one short season.
He watched as NCAA president Mark Emmert slammed the university with unprecedented sanctions -- and then saw others file multiple lawsuits against the NCAA in hopes of a repeal. He looked on as several players, such as senior Justin Brown, left the program, while others, such as senior Michael Mauti, helped pull the team together.
And he stood on the sideline and watched his Nittany Lions struggle to an 0-2 start before shocking the country by finishing the season at 8-4. Yes, it's Year 2 for O'Brien now. But for some fans, it sure feels longer. And O'Brien swears he's not about to grow complacent.
"I think if you're going to stay the same from year to year, then that's a mistake," he said. "I just think the foundation of the program is always the same, that we want kids to go to class and play tough football."
ESPN's Coach of the Year isn't overhauling his program or its success. He's just fine-tuned a lot of elements, such as installing new equipment in the weight room and examining different ways to recruit. There will be some changes in the offense and defense, but in typical O'Brien fashion, he added: "But you'll have to wait to see what I mean by that."
Instead of four assistants coaching special teams, for example, now there'll be just two -- Charles London and Ron Vanderlinden. And then there's time management, something he's able to improve upon now that he has one season of head coaching experience under his belt -- and that journal he can refer back to.
"I think I'm a lot more organized than last year," he added. "I can anticipate what's going to happen in training camp, that our kids are still in class and how the schedule's going to go. I can anticipate all that now. I know how to be more prepared.
"I understand the players a lot better and I understand their skill-set athletically, their academic schedules, their personalities -- and I think our staff understands each other better. It's change, but in the way that I'm more comfortable."
He knows better now when to slow down practice and when to speed it up, how to manage a game and how to squeeze the most out of his players. He still walks around campus for some exercise, waving to students who might recognize him. And he still dislikes posing for photographs -- but he'll do that anyway, to show fans his appreciation.
He's the same person but, he hopes, a better coach. And the season can't come soon enough.
"I can't wait to coach these guys in training camp," he said. "We're always going to go out there and focus on every game we play. We're going to play 12 one-game seasons, and we're going to be prepared for every single game."