STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bill O’Brien’s task will be laid out late Saturday morning: 100,000 people with 100,000 opinions on what’s best for Penn State’s football program — during that afternoon’s game against Ohio; during the rest of a season that cannot end with a bowl game or a conference championship; during the remainder of a four-year period of relative exile, the consequence of severe NCAA sanctions.
And this is how O’Brien, the first new head coach at Penn State in 46 years, faces that task: “Third-and-one is not a big deal in your life,” he said.
Penn State is to play their first game since the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the university.
The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington discusses the NCAA sanctions against Penn State University, taking down Joe Paterno’s statue, and keeping proper perspective concerning the football program in Happy Valley.
Forgive O’Brien for not quite understanding Nittany Lions fans’ obsessions over where his team will dress before Saturday’s season opener or what route the players will take to the stadium. “I don’t even know the names of the streets,” he said the other day, “which I’ll probably get in trouble for saying.”
Throughout this offseason — his first as a head coach at any level and the likes of which no head coach has ever experienced — O’Brien has publicly teetered between honoring Penn State’s rich-but-now-tainted history and making the decisions he believes will help rebuild the program. But when he arrives home after work and greets his 10-year-old son, Jack, who is stricken with a rare brain disease and is confined to a wheelchair and can’t talk, O’Brien has a touchstone. Third-and-one, tense? Come on.
“As long as you work hard and you know that you’re doing the best for this football program every single day, what else can you do?” he said. “You get over losses a lot quicker . . . because you go home and you see that kid, and you move on.”
Moving on. In this town the week before Penn State’s first football game in what senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said has “felt like forever,” there are signs in store windows urging the community to “Keep Calm and Fight On.” There are T-shirts for sale that read “Still Proud.” There are still more signs that read, “One Community. One Team.”
By none of his own doing, this is O’Brien’s world: At the center of a community scarred by the heinous crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach who is now a convicted child molester. The timeline of events over the past nine-and-a-half months, utterly inconceivable a year ago, is now part of this town’s lexicon: Sandusky’s arrest, legendary coach Joe Paterno’s ouster, Paterno’s subsequent death, former FBI director Louis B. Freeh’s scorched-earth report that blistered so many who had been held in such high regard, and the NCAA’s swift action that imposed scholarship limits, issued a $60 million fine, prohibited bowl appearances for four years and wiped out all of the Nittany Lions’ victories dating back to 1998.
So Saturday is so many things to so many people here. It is O’Brien’s first game as a head coach after 19 years as a college and NFL assistant, one for which he “will certainly have butterflies,” he said. It is the first chance for a group of 22 seniors to show why they stayed when the NCAA told the entire team it could go, transfer to another school and be eligible to play immediately. Just nine players did.