WOODBRIDGE, N.J. -- On a rainy Wednesday, new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien disembarked at a hotel by the Garden State Parkway, the ninth stop of an 18-event bus caravan he has undertaken to introduce himself to alumni groups as "The Man who Would Succeed Joe Paterno." It's a tall task, especially with a pending court case against former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky on child-abuse charges scheduled in June, as well as ongoing internal, NCAA and Department of Education investigations.
But O'Brien isn't worried about things beyond his control. He tells everyone he meets on this tour that Penn State is "always going to care about children, and we're always going to reach out to child-abuse organizations and be involved in the community in making sure people understand we're aware of what happened."
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But on a more hopeful note, O'Brien adds, "We don't see dark clouds. We see clear skies, sunny skies. We see a chance for a really, really strong football program that has a great balance between a guy receiving a full college life and education and playing great football. We're moving the program forward."
Penn State was shaken to its foundation by the events that culminated in the firing of Paterno in November, bringing a bitter end to his celebrated 46-year career as coach. O'Brien's caravan, which includes coaches from other sports at the school, has been an exercise in fence-mending with alumni who were upset over how the firing was handled and questioned going outside the school to hire Bill Belichick's top offensive assistant from the NFL's New England Patriots.
Asked if he's experienced much resistance or skepticism, O'Brien said, "I don't encounter those people. Not to my face. I encounter a lot of support."
When it comes to how he expects to handle the distractions surrounding the Sandusky case when they arise, he said, "Ignore the noise. The only thing that matters, as far as our football team, is what goes on in the football building, in the weight room, in the training room, on the practice fields. We have nothing to do with any of those things, trials, investigations. "None of that should affect how we play football, and none of that has affected how we've recruited."
Before Paterno died, the new man had a chance to speak on the telephone with the legend. "It was a nice conversation, and he was very supportive," said O'Brien, mentioning that Paterno appreciated he was being succeeded by a fellow Brown grad. "Since then, I've spoken to Jay . I know my wife has spoken to Sue Paterno and had a nice conversation with her.
"I mean what I say. I have a ton of respect for the family and for coach Paterno and what he did here."