O'Brien, who said he was saddened by Paterno's death on Sunday, talked to a number of former players since taking the job on Jan. 6 and said he was impressed with "how they feel about him as a football coach and as a man and as a father figure to a lot of those guys.
"All we can do here now - myself and my staff - is to do the best we can to uphold a lot of the traditions and standards of excellence that he had here," he said.
The hiring of O'Brien after a search that lasted more than a month was met with criticism that he had no previous ties to Penn State, and no past experience as a head coach.
But one of his first acts as head coach, reaching out to past letter-winners, was "very, very positive," he said. He said he understands some of the criticism.
"Any time you replace a guy like coach Paterno . . . there's always going to be people that are going to say, 'He's not a Penn State guy' or 'Who is that guy?' " he said. "Every head coach has had a first head coaching job. I'm lucky enough this is my first head-coaching job.
"I think what people are going to find out about myself and my staff is that we're going to be a very hardworking staff. We're going to be very fair with our players. We're going to be honest. We're going to try to do the best we can to try to get to know people on campus and continue that support of the students and the faculty.
"I think at the end of the day, people will respect us. I don't know if everybody will love us or like us, but that's not what's important to me. It's about respect."
He said coaching at Penn State is not a daunting task.
"Nothing is really daunting to me," he said. "Calling plays against [Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator] Chuck Pagano [Sunday], that wasn't even daunting."
Right now, O'Brien's life is beyond busy. He said a normal work day for the Patriots and Penn State leaves him time for about three to four hours sleep per night. When in his New England office, he starts his day at 4:30 a.m. doing Penn State work for about 21/2 hours, and resumes about 9:30 p.m. after finishing up with the Patriots, he said.
His main task with Penn State for now is recruiting, and he said he and his staff have received a "very positive" reception from prospects and their families. And he said he understands why some recruits have changed their minds and decommitted from Penn State to go somewhere else.
"During a transition, there's always going to be guys that end up going somewhere else that maybe were committed to the previous staff, and those things happen," he said. "We only want the guys that want to be here. We've still got a few spots left that we may not fill. But I've been very, very pleased with the recruiting."
On other topics, he said he hasn't made a final decision on whether he will hire an offensive coordinator as the ninth and final member of his coaching staff; that he will have a role in play-calling, and that he hasn't had time yet to study film of the 2011 Nittany Lions.
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @joejulesinq on Twitter. Read his blog, "Lion Eyes," at www.philly.com/lioneyes