Bill O'Brien knew he wanted to be a football coach before George O'Leary hired him as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech in 1995.
But in his seven seasons working for O'Leary, O'Brien's coaching philosophy was molded.
"I owe him a lot," O'Brien said. "He promoted me from GA to full-time assistant to (offensive) coordinator. He taught me a lot. I can't say enough about George O'Leary and what he's meant to my career."
O'Brien will coach against one of his football mentors when the Nittany Lions (2-0) face O'Leary and Central Florida (2-0) Saturday night at 6 (TV-Big Ten Network) at Beaver Stadium.
"Certainly I've kept in touch with Coach O'Leary over the years," O'Brien said. "Neither one of us is a real big phone guy. After I became the head coach at Penn State, I called him a few times (to ask about) different subjects, like practice, scheduling and travel. He's been very helpful to me."
O'Brien was a graduate assistant at Brown, his alma mater, when he began to look for jobs at the Division I-A level. Jim Bernhardt, who had coached O'Brien at Brown, knew O'Leary, then at Georgia Tech, because they were both from Long Island.
Bernhardt now works for O'Brien as his special assistant and director of player development.
"George called Jimmy and said, 'Do you know anybody that's smart enough to get into graduate school at Georgia Tech and dumb enough to want to coach?'" O'Brien recalled. "And Jimmy said, 'I got just the guy for you.'"
O'Brien worked for O'Leary at Georgia Tech from 1995-2001 and coached there with Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone, Maryland coach Randy Edsall, former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, former Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof, current Penn State assistants Stan Hixon and Mac McWhorter and Buffalo Bills assistant Dan Crossman, the former Owen J. Roberts standout.
"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, but I think we all learned from Coach O'Leary."
The 67-year-old O'Leary said earlier this week that he remembers O'Brien, now 43, as being smart and energetic back then.
"Billy came in and was a young, enthusiastic guy who couldn't get enough knowledge," O'Leary said. "He worked extremely hard. Good things usually happen to guys like that. They're going to advance.
"He did it the right way. He worked his way up through the ranks. He's a very successful coach."
With O'Brien on his staff, O'Leary led the Yellow Jackets to a 52-30 record and five straight bowl appearances before he left Georgia Tech to become head coach at Notre Dame after the 2001 regular season. But a few days after he was hired, inaccuracies were found in his resume and he resigned.
O'Leary coached in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings for two seasons before Central Florida hired him in 2004. He's led the Golden Knights to a 62-55 record and four division titles in Conference USA.
O'Brien said he and O'Leary have a "fantastic relationship," which led to Penn State and Central Florida scheduling the 2014 opener in Dublin, Ireland.
"He was a very organized guy," O'Brien recalled of his time working for O'Leary. "There wasn't a wasted moment during the day and that had a lot to do with his work ethic. We worked extremely hard for him. He demanded that of us.
"And I learned about how important the physical toughness and resiliency of your football team is. When you don't have that, then you're going to struggle. When you do have that, then you've got a chance to win games."