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O'Brien and Penn State caravan hits Manhattan

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NEW YORK (AP)

Bill O'Brien grew up around Boston, roots for the Red Sox and coached for the Patriots.

''I've been with the villains,'' he said before going to mingle with New Yorkers.

O'Brien is the Penn State coach now, and when you coach the Nittany Lions you have to embrace New York. The Big Apple's metro area is home to about 28,000 Penn State alumni. Only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have more.

O'Brien and the Penn State coaches' caravan stopped in Manhattan on Wednesday as part of the school's attempt to re-connect an athletic program that was thrown into disarray last year with its supporters.

''I know we have a lot of former Penn State football players and athletes that are on Wall Street,'' O'Brien said in an interview with the AP. ''So why not come here and talk to them about our vision for the athletic program and my vision for the football program.''

New York was the 10th stop on the caravan, with eight more to go in Connecticut, Ohio and upstate New York. O'Brien has made every trip, from Philadelphia to Washington and down to Richmond, Va., joined by coaches from various other Penn State teams along the way.

Women's basketball coach Coquese Washington was at the New York event, held in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

But there is no doubt O'Brien, the man given the almost impossible task of replacing Joe Paterno at Penn State, is the star of this show, with his power-point presentation and pump-up-the-crowd speeches.

''I have a lot of energy,'' he said. ''I really love what I do. So at the end of the day, if people aren't won over by that, then there's not much I can do about that. All I can do, is do the best job with my staff to field a very competitive football program.''

He seemed a surprising choice to replace the late Paterno, major college football's winningest coach.

O'Brien, who was offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, had never been a head coach before and now not only is he replacing an icon, but he was doing so under the most uniquely difficult conditions.

Paterno was ousted in November as a child-sex abuse scandal involving his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was rocking the school and dominating national headlines.

Many Penn State supporters were resentful of the way Paterno, who died in January, was let go by the school's board of directors.

O'Brien acknowledges part of his job has been restoring faith in Penn State football among those who might be skeptical or disillusioned with the program and the school.

''I knew when I took the job, I was very well aware of what I was getting into. That this was way more than making sure of what routes we were running on third down,'' he said.

''I do I feel like somewhat of an ambassador for the university. I'm proud to do that because I do believe in the university. I believe in the mission of the university. I believe in the athletic program. I believe in the mission of Penn State as it related to football: to win football games and make sure your players are experiencing a full college life.''

Among the countless things Paterno did for Penn State was help provide a strong bond with New York. Paterno grew up in Brooklyn and Penn State, despite being closer to Youngstown, Ohio, than the Brooklyn Bridge, always identified more with the northeast than the midwest.

That's changed some since in Penn State joined the Big Ten 20 years ago. But make no mistake, the popularity of Nittany Lions football in the New York area rivals that of any Big East team.

''For decades, there has been a tight relationship between Penn State and the New York metro area,'' said Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State alumni association. ''There's a big connection with New York city, just in terms of demographics.''

The caravan is also about recruiting for O'Brien and the other coaches. He can't have contact with high school players at this time of year, but he knows his message can get to them.

''You've got a lot of former football players that are in Manhattan working and hopefully they'll be here tonight,'' he said. ''Because they go back to their hometowns and talk about what Penn State football stands for now under my leadership.''

New York city doesn't produce many top-flight Division I football players, though the surrounding area does, especially northern New Jersey, where many commute to the city for work.

But it's not just players being recruited. The New York city area has also been home to many of Penn State's most influential alumni, people who often show their support with big checks.

''New York has certainly been instrumental to our fundraising success over the last quarter century at Penn State,'' Williams said. ''A lot of the leadership of our fundraising campaigns has been New Yorkers.''

O'Brien said if there are factions of Penn State supporters and former Nittany Lions who are turning away from the program, he hasn't been in contact with any of them.

''There hasn't been one letterman, and I've spoken to a lot of them, over 100, there hasn't been one guy to my face that has said to me anything negative,'' he said. ''Everything has been very supportive.

''Obviously we've got to win games. They're not going to be with us if we don't win. But to this point everybody has been very supportive. The lettermen that live in State college. The lettermen who live in New York city.''

Tagged: Penn State, Bill O'Brien

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