O'Brien continues Penn State tour in Maryland

May 01, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Bill O'Brien looks right out of Football Coach Central Casting: thick neck, hulking shoulders, receding hairline and a mug that looks like it caught a few forearms back when he played linebacker and defensive end at Brown.

The new face of Penn State's storied football program was in town Tuesday, on the second leg of a nine-day, 18-stop bus tour to glad-hand alumni and assure everyone that autumn Saturdays in Happy Valley will still be special, despite the tragic events of last fall.

OK, O'Brien was also here because this happens to be a hotbed of recruiting for Penn State. No less than 12 returning players for the Nittany Lions are from the Free State. And six have a chance to start. Not to mention that Gilman offensive lineman Brian Gaia and Calvert Hall defensive back Da'Quan Davis and wide receiver Trevor Williams are headed there this fall.

(Memo to Maryland's Randy Edsall: better get on the stick, coach. Penn State is robbing you blind in your own back yard. The talent that's leaving is now officially scary.)

So here was O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, sitting in a banquet room at a downtown hotel, talking about what it's like to take over a program that was rocked by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno and his death soon after from lung cancer.

The reaction to his hiring so far?

"It's been very positive," he said. "I just go out and try to be myself. I don't try to go out there and be anyone but Bill O'Brien. There's only one Joe Paterno. There will never be another Joe Paterno. . . . I daresay there will never be anyone who coaches 46 years and wins 409 games ever again.

". . . So I just go out and try to be myself and talk to people about how much respect I have for the past, but also my vision for the new era of Penn State football."

The new era, apparently, will feature a more wide-open offense than the one the Nittany Lions ran with JoePa, the iconic little guy with the Coke-bottle glasses, khakis and black sneakers who was a fixture on the sidelines for so many years.

It's not exactly a state secret that O'Brien , who was on Ralph Friedgen's staff at Maryland in 2003 and 2004, plans to incorporate elements of the Pats' offense right away.

But he brushed aside suggestions that he's some kind ofDr. Philwith a headset and a laminated playsheet, charged with helping the entire university get past the tumultuous events of last fall.

"I have two mandates," he said. "The first mandate is to make sure our guys are going to class and behaving properly off the field. The second mandate is that we . . .try the best we can to win every football game we play.

"I think when we start playing football and training camp and obviously when the games start, I'm sure that will help move everything forward. (But) no one's come to me and said 'Hey, take your time, it's gonna be OK no matter what happens.' I understand I have to win football games and graduate players. So that's really all I think about."

It's hard to think about anything else in a place like State College, Pa.

Beaver Stadium, with over 106,000 seats, is a modern temple of big-time college football. The 25,000 student section is packed on fall Saturdays. And with over 550,000 alumni, most of them rabid fans, the focus is always on the team and how it's doing.

"People are passionate about the program," O'Brien said in one of the classic understatements of our time. "Many, many people. It's really a great thing to witness and be part of, whether it's meeting people on the street or at the gas station or theDunkin' DonutsI go to. I mean, every single day, they're wishing you luck, telling you how much they care.

"I can't tell you how many people (have) said 'I've had season tickets for 40 years'. . . . Somebody last night (in Philadelphia) told me 'I've been a season ticket holder since Rip Engle.' I've met many people like that. Their Saturdays in the fall are built around getting in the RV and going to Penn State football games. And they expect to be on vacation in January (at a bowl game) somewhere. And I understand that.'"

He better.

For the record, Rip Engle coached the Nittany Lions way back during the Civil War. Or maybe it just seems that long ago. Actually he coached them from 1950 to 1965 and won 104 games. Paterno, fresh out of Brown, joined Engel's staff that first year and took over as head coach in 1966. And he went on to win 409 games.

Now it's Bill O'Brien's team.

New coach, new era, same lofty expectations.

Nothing he doesn't know, that's for sure.



Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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