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
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
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
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
”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,”
”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
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’
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
”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
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
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
”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
That, of course, will be a big day for O’Brien and his
But an even bigger day for the new Penn State.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP