O'Brien ushers in new era for Penn State football
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)
Names emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys. Players with long hair. Stretching exercises set to the heavy bass beat of hip-hop.
Welcome to the new era of Penn State football.
Sure, new coach Bill O'Brien respects the traditions built up over decades in Happy Valley. But the new-look uniforms, the relaxed grooming rules, the stretching soundtrack - together they represent just a snowball in the avalanche of changes after the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit one of college football's marquee programs.
O'Brien's strategy as he has pressed ahead through the program's off-field turmoil has been to stick with the same message. It hasn't changed from nearly the day he was hired in January, and it has resonated with his players who repeat it frequently.
''We're moving forward into the future. We can't change the past,'' center Matt Stankiewitch said recently at the team's preseason media day. ''The best thing we can do as a team is look to the future and be positive.''
The practice field has been a welcome sanctuary for the team. The reason why is well-known by now:
- Sandusky, Penn State's defensive coordinator during the program's best years, was arrested in November on dozens of child sex abuse charges. Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno was fired days later, while the school president also departed under pressure.
- Paterno died in January at age 85, less than three weeks after O'Brien was named his replacement.
- Sandusky was convicted in June of 45 criminal counts. Weeks later, the school's internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno and three other top school officials concealed allegations. Paterno's family and the school officials have vehemently denied the cover-up charges.
- Penn State took down Paterno's bronzed statue outside Beaver Stadium on July 22, a day before the NCAA imposed landmark sanctions including a four-year bowl ban and monster scholarship cuts.
Through it all, O'Brien has remained a steady, guiding force for the program in just eight months on the job. He's worked tirelessly to win over Penn State's massive and loyal fan base.
And most recently, he's kept most of his team intact after the NCAA allowed players to transfer immediately to play for other schools in light of the sanctions. Nine Nittany Lions have taken advantage, most notably 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd when he left for Southern California.
''Instead of saying it's us against them, let's go out and play good football and think about the fact that maybe this is a little bit about more than football,'' O'Brien said at Beaver Stadium. ''That this is about helping a community. This is about bringing more awareness, much more awareness to child abuse.
''This is about making sure that we help lead this university. Not lead it, but be a part of leading this university through the next three or four years that will be a challenge, but that's what life is about.''
In Happy Valley, it's also about changes large and small, cosmetic and unseen.
The uniforms are one of the most noticeable alterations. A blue ribbon will be added to the plain blue-and-white attire to show support for victims of child abuse, along names with the names on the back of the jerseys - after decades of anonymity under JoePa.
''I want people to recognize the fact that these are kids that are special, competitive kids that care about education, that care about Penn State, and have gone through some tough times over the last year as a team, individually, and they've stuck with us,'' O'Brien said.
''I think that says a lot about these kids, and I want people to recognize these kids.''
It's also another departure from the buttoned-down Paterno era. For instance, facial hair and long hair is now allowed under O'Brien.
And the new coach likes to play music from his iPod during stretching segments at workouts. The music selection for one recent session ranged from the sports hip-hop anthem ''All I Do is Win,'' by DJ Khaled, to Guns N' Roses' rock classic ''Sweet Child O' Mine.''
O'Brien tries to keep it uptempo during drills, too, though without the music. Those segments often last about 10 to 15 minutes, before coaches urge the Nittany Lions to get moving to the next assignment.
''This one is really high intensity, really high tempo, really fast-paced, really aggressive,'' said redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach about this preseason. ''It's a good camp. I like it so far.''
A year ago, O'Brien was mentoring star quarterback Tom Brady as coordinator of the New England Patriots high-powered offense.
Now, O'Brien has applied what he's learned in Foxborough, Mass., to incorporate some NFL-style changes into the Penn State program, like cool-down tubs under an overhang for players outside after practice.
The weight program has been revamped to focus more on free weights and Olympic-style lifting instead of exercise machines.
And the offense itself could provide the most visible difference on gamedays. The new scheme will be modeled on the Patriots' attack, and starting quarterback Matt McGloin said he's taking it slow on the field for the first few days of practice following an offseason of studying the playbook.
''I know everything,'' starting quarterback Matt McGloin joked. ''We'll only know once I step on to the field and get into game situations ... But I'm definitely comfortable with where I am. I'm definitely a lot farther then where I was.''
McGloin is part of what O'Brien calls a strong corps of senior leaders who have guided the teammates who stayed through the post-sanction period.
Underclassmen have until the start of training camp in 2013 to decide to use the NCAA waiver for an immediate transfer. But at least one player who's expected to have an expanded role this year, sophomore receiver Allen Robinson, has been swayed enough by O'Brien to make an early statement about the rest of his collegiate career.
''I'm all in,'' Robinson said. ''I would have been all in regardless. ... We have a great staff and a great training staff. This is a great place to be.''
To a man, the new-look Nittany Lions can't wait to just play football again when the season opens in three weeks, Sept. 1 against Ohio.
That, of course, will be a big day for O'Brien and his players.
But an even bigger day for the new Penn State.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP