Penn State’s new coach draped a whistle around his neck, wore a headset and anxiously paced the Beaver Stadium sideline in blue and gray sweats.
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Indeed, it is a new era in Happy Valley.
Nearly four months after taking the Nittany Lions job, Bill O’Brien made his sideline debut as Penn State closed out spring practice with the annual Blue-White game Saturday.
It was the most visible step forward so far for a football program transitioning from the 46-year tenure of O’Brien’s predecessor, the late Joe Paterno.
”It’s a great place … and it was really neat to run out with that team,” O’Brien said afterward. ”It was a fun day for me to coach a spring game in Beaver Stadium.”
But emotions were mixed among many of the 60,000 fans who showed up on a cloudy afternoon.
Some came to the life-sized, bronzed statue of Paterno outside the stadium to share stories about the Hall of Famer and leave flowers. The game Saturday was the first event at the stadium since Paterno died in January at age 85 of lung cancer.
The day started with a local florist delivering 409 bouquets of blue and white carnations to the statue – one for each of Paterno’s career victories. Some fans are still upset after Paterno was ousted by school trustees in the aftermath of child sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Jay Paterno hugged well-wishers and spoke with former Penn State running back Franco Harris, an ardent supporter of the Paterno family, after the flowers were delivered.
”Thanks so much to all the people leaving flowers at the statue today. It was very moving this morning,” Paterno’s son and former quarterbacks coach, Jay Paterno, said on Twitter.
Inside the stadium, there was no apparent mention of Joe Paterno’s name over the sound system, and no apparent display of Paterno’s image on stadium scoreboards.
Bill Zammarrelli, who graduated in December, got his picture taken at the statue but step inside the stadium.
”If Joe was here, I definitely would have gone in,” he said. ”It’s just kind of eerie. It hasn’t completely settled in yet.”
Most fans still say they’re looking forward to the future under O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
Paterno was unmistakable on the sideline with his khakis and jet-black sneakers. He didn’t wear a headset, preferring to stay old school to relay messages with coaches in the press box through an assistant. Paterno had said wearing a headset made him lose a feel for the game.
Not O’Brien, who looked as if he was still coaching Tom Brady. He called plays off a sheet he religiously clutched in his right hand while he communicated with his staff in the press box over a headset.
Near the end of the first half of the glorified scrimmage, instead of getting one more play in with less than 10 seconds left, he motioned for his players to head to the locker room for an early breather.
But his new charges most definitely aren’t the Patriots. No Brady. No Rob Gronkowski at tight end rumbling down the seam to bowl over a defensive back.
O’Brien, though, is trying to incorporate the base of the New England offense into Penn State’s revamped scheme – one of the biggest changes of the spring.
Three candidates are in the running for the starting quarterback job. Among them, Matt McGloin (6 of 13 for 105 yards, 1 TD, 1INT) and Paul Jones ( 6 of 15 for 113 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) stood out statistically over Rob Bolden (7 of 14, 3 INTs) on Saturday.
O’Brien said he’ll need to watch film to evaluate whether he can narrow the field of candidates to two.
”All three of these guys, we’ve asked a lot of them. We’ve asked them to learn a system than anything they’ve ever had to learn, and that takes time,” O’Brien said. ”We have to let it soak in a little bit, let it soak in ourselves as a staff.”
As for getting back on the field itself and interacting with his coaching staff, O’Brien said it was ”like riding a bike.” Many of the assistants such as defensive coordinator Ted Roof worked with O’Brien at previous coaching stops.
But this is O’Brien’s first stop ever as a head coach.
”He has a very clear vision for us as a staff, what his vision of Penn State football is and what he expects of us,” Roof said. ”As a leader, he’s done a great job of letting us know exactly what’s expected of us.”
Recruiting for the 2013 class appears to be going well so far, too.
Pamela Burg, of Harrisburg, helped organized the flower drop-off at the Paterno statue, part of the reason the lifelong Penn State fan attended her first spring football game.
”And welcoming coach O’Brien and supporting” the players, she said. ”Especially those kids in the new class that even after this scandal, this controversy, decided to come to Penn State. That really takes a pretty mature man to want to do that.”
O’Brien also instituted a new scoring system for the spring game to pit the offense against the defense instead of dividing the team into two mini-squads. The defense scored points, for instance if the forced a turnover or sacked the quarterback.
The defense, wearing blue, beat the white-clad offense 77-65.