Senior College Football Columnist

O'Brien brings optimism, reassurance to nervous Penn State Nation


O'Brien has Penn State fans excited about the prospect of a wide-open offense. (AP)  
O'Brien has Penn State fans excited about the prospect of a wide-open offense. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- They spoke about Joe Paterno rarely in a room filled with his spirit, his followers and his replacement.

Maybe that's the way it was supposed to be at Bill O'Brien's grand coming out in the nation's media capital on Wednesday. Officially, it marked the latest stop in the Penn State Coaches Caravan. Within the hearts and minds of Penn State Nation at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, it was the latest step away from a scandal.

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The scandal, but you would never know it.

"Mostly football questions," said O'Brien, Penn State's first new football head coach in 46 years. "That's good."

A packed ballroom full of Penn State grads wanted a sliver of hope that everything is going to be OK. They got it from O'Brien, a 42-year-old outsider with a pedigree (New England Patriots), just not a Penn State pedigree.

"He just wants a chance," said Tony Gordon, Penn State Class of 1978 who once said he would "hang on a cross" for Paterno.

Gordon was among a handful of former lettermen who requested a meeting with the new coach in February to get answers to the questions that everyone seems to be asking on the nine-day, 18-stop caravan.

What about the uniforms? They're going to stay the same.

What about the offense? It's going to open up, just watch.

What about the winning? Well, that's one no one can answer.

"Somebody said, ‘Everybody loves him,' said volleyball coach Russ Rose who was on the dais with O'Brien on Wednesday. "But he hasn't had a game yet."

Rose is kidding, but he's not. That's partially the reason for this caravan, spreading goodwill as a safety net if actual wins cause the coach to fall. Few are picking Penn State to win the Big Ten. But what they forget is that the program isn't broken, just the psyche of the school.

In the twilight of Paterno's career, Penn State was 67-23 in the last seven seasons. That included two BCS bowls. How many remember in the middle of November's malaise that the Nittany Lions tied for the Leaders Division title?

They need guidance, then, these Penn State alums who number 570,000 worldwide. They need faith. They want to be told everything is going to be OK. But they don't know. No one knows.

A series of these caravan pep talks across the region is what had to happen in the wake of the Sandusky allegations. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley would have been the perfect replacement, but as one alum put it "he was at the right hand of God." God, being Paterno.

It had to be someone from outside who wasn't tainted by the scandal or lived in the insular community it sprang from. So it is O'Brien, youthful, with a history of big-time offenses and no Paterno in his background. It had to be a clean break.

"The reality is, I believe the university did the right thing," in firing Paterno, Gordon said. "Who wants to talk about it? Nobody wants to talk about it."

Alumni director Roger Williams did as he introduced O'Brien during what he called a "tent revival."

"Bill has come to build on the immortal legacy of Joe Paterno," he said.

No pressure at all, then, for a rookie head coach who hasn't been around college football for six years. The last time was with Duke where he was 1-22 in two seasons calling plays for Ted Roof, now his defensive coordinator.

O'Brien is a decent man. The father of two sons, one of them severely disabled. That's why he left Maryland as running backs coach in 2004 to be nearer better medical facilities near Duke. With the Patriots, he took a big pay cut to get to become a low-level assistant.

He quickly burrowed his way into Bill Belichick's inner circle, which helped him play to the New York crowd on Wednesday.

"I've been associated with a villainous organization," said New England's former offensive coordinator.

Imagine JoePa laying out his vision with a Power Point presentation. You can if you imagine the old man's values Wednesday projected in the digital age.

"I don't have 105 angels," O'Brien said. "We're not going to beat Ohio State with 105 angels."


"If they decide to go with a Final Four [playoff] and the higher seeded team plays at home in December, wouldn't you love to play at Beaver Stadium in December?"

More applause.

"Once we start winning and we will start winning …"

The room was his.

What did O'Brien say to Tom Brady in that celebrated sideline argument last season.

"You don't want to know what I said."

That's the Penn State ethic. That's what they came to hear out of their coach. Someone then broke the mood by asking O'Brien if he were an ice cream flavor what flavor would he be?

Nervous laughter from the new coach. Then, the answer in a room filled with the old coach's spirit, followers and replacement.

"My favorite flavor," O'Brien said, "is Peachy Paterno."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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