PSU spring game marks O’Brien’s debut at stadium

In nearly four months in Happy Valley, Penn State coach Bill

O’Brien has delivered speeches, overseen pre-dawn conditioning

drills and started installing a new high-octane offense.

But the most memorable day yet of his new job arrives

Saturday.

The Blue-White game ending Penn State spring practice will mark

the first time O’Brien will jog on to the Beaver Stadium field as

coach – another milestone in the school’s historic transition from

the 46-year tenure of the late Joe Paterno.

”People will look at it as more important than the average

Blue-White game,” left tackle Adam Gress said this week. ”All the

fans want to see what coach O’Brien has to offer.”

In many respects though, Saturday is much more than about

football.

The glorified scrimmage, which typically draws tens of thousands

of blue-and-white backers, is also the first event at the stadium

since Paterno died in January at age 85, less than three months

after being diagnosed with lung cancer. His funeral procession

wound through campus and right by the stadium tunnel through which

Paterno ambled into work on fall Saturdays.

Among many loyal fans, the emotional wounds over his death as

well as the end of his tenure as coach last November are still

fresh. School trustees ousted Paterno in the aftermath of child

sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry

Sandusky.

Sandusky has maintained his innocence as he awaits trial.

Paterno testified before a grand jury investigating Sandusky that

he relayed a 2002 allegation brought to him by a graduate assistant

to his campus superiors, including the administrator overseeing the

police department.

Authorities have said Paterno wasn’t a target of the probe. The

Board of Trustees ousted him citing in part a moral obligation to

do more to alert authorities outside the school, and a ”failure of

leadership.”

The wrangling continued this week after Penn State agreed to

provide millions in payments and benefits to Paterno’s estate and

family members under the late football coach’s employment contract,

although a family lawyer says the Paternos did not sign away their

right to sue.

Outside the stadium Friday, Alice Reber and two friends snapped

pictures at the life-sized, bronzed statue of Paterno. A bouquet of

blue and white flowers in a glass vase sat at its feet. The statue

has turned into a makeshift memorial at times, especially since

Paterno’s death.

Like other fans interviewed Friday, Reber said that while

Paterno may share some blame, she also didn’t like how the trustees

handled his departure.

”It wasn’t all football that Joe Paterno had invested in this

school. It was the kids, the caliber of kids and the sense of

family,” said Reber, of Exton, whose son graduated from Penn State

two years ago. She also said the attention over Paterno and the

trustees shouldn’t make people lose sight of the broader issue of

stopping or reporting instances of child abuse.

The scandal though, ”hasn’t made us dislike Penn State. Penn

State can go on without these cast of characters,” she said.

But while the administrators, alumni, students and other members

of the campus community try to focus on the future, the various

investigations into the scandal keep drumming up the past.

O’Brien, for one, has done his best to keep his sights on the

football program moving forward.

”That’s all we talk about. We don’t talk about the past. We

weren’t here when that happened,” he said last week. ”At the same

time, we’re very mindful of things like child abuse and making sure

we understand we have to reach out to victims of child abuse,

charitable organizations and things like that.”

O’Brien was hired in January after serving as the offensive

coordinator for the New England Patriots. He had no previous

connections to Penn State, and some former players briefly

questioned his credentials since it did not include previous

head-coaching experience.

He has worked hard since then to win over lettermen, and his

outreach efforts appeared to have gone over well with fans,

too.

”After he got on board, he made a lot of good moves,” said Dan

McCahan, 48, of Charlotte, N.C., a Penn State graduate who visited

the Paterno statue while his daughter was on a campus tour. ”He’s

positioned the Penn State football program in a better light

through his efforts.”

While promising to uphold the traditions and focus on academics

that Paterno championed, O’Brien has also started to imprint his

own stamp on the program.

A re-tooled offense based on the pass-happy attack he ran with

the Patriots is the biggest change. There’s also a new strength and

conditioning program based more on Olympic-style lifting and free

weights.

”Once we started spring ball, it was really icing on the cake

to get out there and just start hitting each other again,”

defensive tackle Jordan Hill said.

Instead of dividing the entire team into two separate squads for

the Blue-White game, Saturday will feature a new ”offense versus

defense” scoring system. For instance, the defense could score six

points for a turnover and four points for a sack.

At least one thing hasn’t changed under O’Brien: for the third

straight season, Penn State is undecided on its starting

quarterback. O’Brien plans to rotate Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and

Paul Jones for equal stints Saturday, and hopes to narrow the field

going into the offseason.