STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two days before coaching his first game at Penn State, Bill O'Brien was asked during his local radio show if he planned to run onto the field with the team, a move sure to evoke echoes of the icon he is succeeding. When O'Brien confirmed that he plans to lead the Nittany Lions into Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon against Ohio University, the radio host said, "It's your team, it's your team."
For the past 46 seasons, Penn State football and the university itself were synonymous with Joe Paterno, who was a paragon of success and virtue up until his firing last November in the wake of the child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky.
Since Paterno's death from cancer in January, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts and the football program was hit with a $60-million fine, a four-year bowl ban and a limit of 65 scholarships (20 below the maximum) starting in 2014. The university took pains to distance itself from Paterno by removing a statue of him that had become a shrine for his devotees. That action came in response to an investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh that concluded that Paterno aided the cover-up of Sandusky's criminal conduct.
It takes a determined man to step into the deep well of emotion and anger that still engulfs Penn State's bucolic campus and fill the shoes of a legend, but O'Brien was embraced at Friday night's "Football Eve" pep rally by a crowd approaching 25,000. Basketball coach Patrick Chambers even introduced a new chant, "O-B," that he said was for "our fearless leader, Bill O'Brien, baby!"
When the team appeared and O'Brien addressed the crowd, he got right to the point. "This is a very special group of players led by a special senior class that made a commitment to Penn State," O'Brien said to raucous cheers.
The memory of Joe Pa lingers, but O'Brien already is putting his stamp on a new era of Penn State football. For the first time ever, the Nittany Lions' stubbornly plain blue and white uniforms will have player names on the back. The idea is to honor those players who stayed instead of transferring, as they were free to do after NCAA sanctions were handed down.
"When we decided to put the names on the back of the jerseys," O'Brien explained earlier this week, "I felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were that stuck with this program, that stuck with this university."
Nine veterans transferred, including tailback Silas Redd. The current three-deep depth chart includes 12 true freshmen. Because Penn State will be playing shorthanded for years, the No. 1 priority for those sharing the foxhole is commitment.
In fact, O'Brien's motto -- "One Team" -- has been adopted by the entire State College community.
"You've got a group of guys that really understand they're in a very unique situation, but it has a chance to be a special situation," O'Brien said. "No matter what happens on the field, these guys have developed an unbreakable bond."
Of course, what happens on the field always has been the point around Happy Valley. "This is about a little bit more than football, and I understand that," O'Brien said. "But as we head into this first game and get out there on Saturday, it's about football."