O’Brien ushers in new era for Penn State football

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