STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Bill O’Brien didn’t get any sleep Sunday night. He arrived at Penn State’s football offices at 4:45 a.m., made sure the players were awake at 5:15 and watched his new team take the practice field by 6:15, before the sun rose over Mount Nittany. At 7:50, he strode quickly across the freshly cut grass, voice bellowing, folded paper in hand, leading his team through the final drills of the day.
It was the first season-opening practice at Penn State without Joe Paterno on the field since 1950.
At 8:30, O’Brien gathered his players together and told them to “Come together, stay together as a team.” Then he sent the players to the locker room and invited the assembled media onto the edge of the field. There were nearly as many members of the press as members of the team. The first question was about practice, and the second question elicited an answer unlike any other uttered on the first day of practice at a major college football program:
“We gotta remember why we’re in the position we’re in,” O’Brien said. “We have to understand our responsibilities to children.”
This season at Penn State is not really going to be about winning. Of course every football team wants to win, and this team is no exception, but this season is about sending the proper message – to players, to fans, to the rest of the school, to the community, and to the world. That message is that Penn State will try to help heal the deep wounds caused by years of sexual abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky’s conviction in June, followed by the Freeh Commission report’s findings of a culture of deceit and denial at Penn State dating back to 1998, precipitated arguably the most severe sanctions to hit an athletic program in history short of eliminating a program. That is why Penn State football is in the position O’Brien speaks of. No denials, no excuses, no spin.
And when O’Brien met with the media Monday morning, there were relatively few questions for the new head coach about football. While most coaches grouse when a non-football question is asked, O’Brien seemed more eager to answer those questions than the usual requests.
Asked how many players he had on scholarship, he shrugged, smiled, and said, “I don’t know.” But he had a ready answer for the question, “What do you want Penn State football to stand for?”
“I want Penn State to stand for, No. 1, the community,” he said. “I want Penn State to stand for good students, and the combination of being the student-athlete. I want Penn State to stand for, football-wise, tough, smart football. I want Penn State to move forward and turn the page and understand why we are. It’s a new Penn State. It’s a new Penn State football program.”
O'Brien isn't putting up walls. He's not closing ranks. He's not running from the scandal that cost him scholarships, four years of bowl eligibility, at least one elite player in USC transfer Silas Redd, and probably quite a few victories. He's the coach with the least incentive to talk about non-football topics, but he's the coach who wants to discuss that the most.
"We want to open this place up," he said, "and let you come in and see what these kids are all about."
Instead of talking about players spending more time in the weight room or watching film, O'Brien spoke about players devoting time and energy to helping the Special Olympics. He talked not about the football credentials of his assistants, but about the fact that there are "a lot of dads on the staff."
Paterno came up with the term, "The Grand Experiment" to define his desire to meld athletic greatness and academic excellence. In the eyes of many across the country, that experiment failed. Penn State football became much more about winning, much more about the power gained through winning, and, in the view of the NCAA and the Freeh Commission report, much more about the abuses that came from power. O'Brien's Grand Experiment is to try to unwind that – defusing the apparatus that allowed power and abuse to fester. His Grand Experiment is to talk about responsibility first and football second, third, fourth, or last.
It won't be easy. The messages on this campus are mixed at best. While O'Brien barked throughout practice today, reporters discussed the viability of the program. One even read the Freeh Commission report while he waited for practice to end. Others talked about how it was "going to be a long year" and how many interceptions likely senior quarterback Matt McGloin had in an earlier bowl game. The O'Brien Grand Experiment involves media and fans too: How much patience will they have for a program that wants to rebuild off the field even more than it wants to start over between the sidelines?
Keep in mind that not everyone in this region is ready to move on from the Paterno era. One local hotel, only a mile from where the Nittany Lions practiced Monday, has a photo in the main office of a ghostlike Paterno looking over a brightly lit Beaver Stadium. Paterno is not the devil to many fans here; the coach who died in January is an angel protecting Penn State football. When asked about changing the uniforms, O'Brien's answer was telling: "It's still under discussion," he said. "If it does happen, I'll make sure to tell you why we did it."
O’Brien is positioning himself not only as a contrast to his predecessor but also as something his predecessor prided himself on being: a teacher to students and to the community at large. He’s not just going to change the uniforms and run them out onto the field September 1 against Ohio. He’s going to explain exactly why he’s doing it. It’s a worthy goal for a program that was clearly too closed off from public view for too long.
So although he opened practice for the press to see more than a couple of interceptions Monday, O’Brien readily admitted “It wasn’t all pretty” and “There were some ugly plays.” That’s OK. This season is not just about showing off what the team has practiced, but showing off what the team has learned. “I think it’s really important,” O’Brien said, “that people know we understand why we’re here.”
O’Brien is already getting help from students, who have decorated the infamous Lasch building – where Sandusky raped children in the showers – with optimistic posters not so much about beating rivals but about beating perception. One even boasts of the program’s strong graduation rate. It’s not about whether you win or lose, the message seems to say, and it’s not even about how you play the game. It’s about standing for something bigger than the game.
That was Paterno’s message too, ironically. That message got through for decades. And then somehow that message got completely warped.
Bill O’Brien’s job is to make sure his message sticks.
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