Lest Bill O’Brien forget where he was late Tuesday morning — even with the “Welcome Penn Staters” banner on the wall of a hotel ballroom behind him, and the blue-clad alumni strewn around tables picking over the last of their dessert spread before him — Roger Williams decided to provide an audible reminder.
“We have a new head coach in town,” Williams, the executive director of Penn State’s alumni association, said into a microphone. “And he wants to know who we are. Should we tell him?”
With that, Williams blared a crisp “We are!” into the microphone. The crowd of several hundred strong rang right back: “Penn State!”
This is the line O’Brien walks right now: something of an outsider’s insider at his own school, learning what people say and when they say it, trying to share his passion with people who have been passionate about his program since before he was born.
O’Brien, 42, is Penn State’s first new football coach in 46 years. He made stops Tuesday in Baltimore and Washington, part of Penn State’s “Coaches Caravan.” He is riding in a bus, swiveling in the seats in the back, learning his constituency. He is shaking as many hands as possible, slapping backs when appropriate, smiling for picture after picture, signing whatever is thrust in front of him.
“How are you? Class of 2003?” he said to a football-toting fan wearing a No. 25 Penn State jersey Tuesday before he entered the ballroom. Football came earlier, in the form of spring practice, and it will come later this summer, when the Nittany Lions open their first training camp without Joe Paterno since 1949 (he joined the program as an assistant in 1950). For now, O’Brien must put himself in front of a Penn State fan base that features 570,000 alumni — a scant few of whom are rumored to have no opinion about football — and simply say, “This is who I am.”
“I don’t try to go out there and be anyone but Bill O’Brien,” he said prior to speaking before the lunch in Baltimore. “There’s only one Joe Paterno. There will never be another Joe Paterno.”
It is hardly a stretch to say that no man — at any program, in any era — has taken over a program under the circumstances O’Brien faces now. In November, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 40 counts of child sexual abuse, including charges of incidents that occurred on Penn State’s campus in Penn State’s football facility. Before a week had passed, Paterno — the man whose statue stood proudly on campus — was fired, an incomprehensible conclusion to what had been a spotless career.
In January, Penn State selected O’Brien — like Paterno, a Brown graduate, who had assistant coaching stints at Georgia Tech, Maryland, Duke and most recently with the New England Patriots — to take over. Two weeks later, Paterno died.
Fairly or not, the events of the past six months color O’Brien’s trips, his interactions around campus. In addressing the crowd Tuesday in Baltimore, John Nitardy, the director of Penn State’s booster organization, acknowledged, “It’s obviously been an emotional year.” Williams referenced “the immortal legacy of Coach Joe Paterno,” and the crowd applauded enthusiastically.
Enter O’Brien, who followed the school’s women’s golf coach, men’s basketball coach and track and field coach to the lectern. He did not mention Sandusky. He did not mention any scandal directly. He said, though, quite clearly: “We’ve got to move forward.”
Later, as organizers prepared to pass a microphone around the crowd for questions, O’Brien joked, “Don’t ask me about the quarterback,” and the crowd laughed. He was asked about putting in his new system (it’s a process), about whether he’s in favor of a college football playoff (he is), about the environment at Beaver Stadium (he even attended the pep band’s banquet to get a feel).
After a while, a man in the back of the room stood up and recounted a recent encounter he had with an old football letterman. In discussing the state of the program — in flux where flux had never been known — the letterman said: “Out of all the things that happened last year, the best thing was Bill O’Brien.”
The crowd applauded. O’Brien nodded his thanks. His football team hasn’t played a game. He had another speech to give in the District that night, one in Richmond on Wednesday afternoon, another in Harrisburg on Wednesday night, still more next week.
“I realize that I have to get out there and make sure that people at least meet me and hear me,” he said. “They may not like me, but they’re going to hear what my vision for Penn State football is. That’s my job: to make sure I get out there and meet these people.”
And around the corner was another hand to shake.