STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The hand-drawn posters on the outside of the Lasch building seem plucked from a high school program, a cheery way for people to root on their Nittany Lions, the football players who become heroes in this town. The posters are jarring, though, knowing what went on at Penn State, the locker room showers becoming infamous and horrifying because of a pedophile, the scandal leading to the downfall of a beloved coach and program.
Inside, it is quiet. Few people are in the building at 8 a.m. on a summer Friday, just days into training camp. But new coach Bill O’Brien is upstairs, in an office fit for a CEO, a room that instantly conveys his stature on this campus.
O’Brien, who spent the last five years coaching under the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, seems slightly uncomfortable with the room’s vastness as he ushers in a visitor. It is an office that represents the opposite of perspective, which O’Brien is doing his best to change but his predecessor reveled in.
O’Brien is not trying to be king. He is not trying to be more than he is. In fact, he is trying to do a job that seems impossible — to be, simply, a football coach at Penn State. That doesn’t work, not after the child sexual abuse scandal involving ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky that brought down legendary head man Joe Paterno and Penn State.
O’Brien has to be more. He has to rebuild, dealing with sanctions that are the worst since the NCAA gave the death penalty to Southern Methodist University. He has to heal, righting a community in turn outraged and protective. He has to bridge the gap, making sure he continues the important traditions and gets rid of the damaging ones, in a place that hangs tight to the past and doesn’t let go.
He has to pick up the pieces from a tragedy he didn’t create, paying for the sins of those who came before.
“We have to understand that we all chose to be here,” said O’Brien. “We came in here with our eyes wide open. Now, did we think the NCAA sanctions would be as harsh as they were? No, I’d be a liar to tell you that, and when they came out they were very harsh.
“But at the end of the day, we chose to be here.”
Matter of perspective
The pressure remains, in a way. This is a town that has lived and died with its football team, breeding an atmosphere in which child abuse was allowed to go on unchecked. The windows of each store, each restaurant, each bar, have signs pledging their support for Penn State, for football.
“I think it’s important that people, in a lot of ways, take it down a notch,” O’Brien said. “This is a football program. It’s an important part of the university, but in so many ways it’s no more important than any other part of the university. We all have to understand that.”
O’Brien knows perspective. He lives with it. His older son, Jack, was born with lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain malformation. He knows what’s important every time he walks in the front door of his home.
Still, he is a football coach. And football is important. But that’s not all O’Brien has to contend with at the moment. He has to answer all the questions, from the town, the media, the current players, the recruits. He has to make them understand.
“We’ve got to show people that the culture is changing, the culture has to change,” O’Brien said. “That people still love their football team here, but our football team is going to be involved as much as it can be in the community, especially as it relates to helping to put an end to child abuse.”
This is, however, not just about giving back. It’s about taking a shattered team and making it whole. It’s about keeping it together, about going out every week with the expectation that the team can win.
“It’s kind of our personal responsibility to hold this team together, hold this university together,” said linebacker Michael Mauti, one of the more vocal players. “Because we’re in a position to do that and it doesn’t seem like many people are, to that extent.
“It’s our responsibility, it’s our fans, it’s our university, our team, our coaches. That’s something we put on our backs.”
Game has changed
When O’Brien was hired, he didn’t know it would be quite like this. He knew it would be difficult, succeeding Paterno, moving on from the Sandusky scandal. But at that point, the full story wasn’t known, the sanctions hadn’t come out, and a convicted child abuser hadn’t been led away from a courthouse in handcuffs.
So the program O’Brien heads now — one that has been docked $60 million, four years of postseason football, and a significant amount of scholarships — is far different than the one he thought he would be guiding.
The loss of scholarships is the most crippling part, forcing O’Brien to review and alter the way the school recruits. Penn State will be docked 10 per season for four years, and will be unable to exceed 65 scholarship players in a year until the 2018 season; programs normally are allowed to have 85. Players can also transfer — or stay in school, but not play football — without penalty.
“He’s turned it up, really, which is something you don’t see in a lot of guys,” Mauti said. “Which has been the opposite of some other people that I’ve been around. It really has been encouraging to see.
“For him to stick with us after only seven months, it says a lot about him. I wouldn’t trust anybody else to carry us through this. He’s the glue that’s keeping this together. I’d follow that dude into a burning house.”
Said defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who worked with O’Brien at Duke and Georgia Tech, “As football coaches you have to adapt and change. That’s what you’re trained to do during the course of a game.
“He assessed the situation and right away it was: How are we going to move forward? Because there’s nothing we can do about that. But how can we move this forward? Gave us a detailed plan on how to do it and he’s been very strong throughout this.”
Hard work ahead
It seems like an overwhelming test for a first-year college head coach, starting with being forced to recruit his own players to stay. More than 90 percent did.
“He had to change into a father figure after all the sanctions because he had to let guys know everything is going to be all right,” senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “He had to take all of us under his wing.”
Given the sanctions, Penn State is unlikely to be able to compete with the rest of the Big Ten, let alone the major college powers.
“It’s not daunting,” O’Brien said. “Life is about adversity and challenging situations and, at the end of the day, it’s football. So we’re going to do the best we can every single day for these kids.
“If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. We go find another job. That’s what coaches do.”
There is a plan, he says, but he’s keeping tight-lipped about it. Mostly.
“The plan is basically to understand that we’re not going to settle for anything but the best in recruiting,” said O’Brien. “We still want good players that are good students that are high-character kids.”
That will include expanding the walk-on program, especially in-state. That will include finding the Danny Woodhead- or Wes Welker-types. That will include ignoring the high school rankings and focusing on players who fit Penn State.
“Maybe we need to work a little harder than other people,” the coach said.
“But we have a lot to sell here.”
Some differences already
This is, in so many ways, no longer Paterno’s team.
That is evident in the iPod — O’Brien’s own, though he admits the music is the players’ — blaring DJ Khaled’s “All I do is Win” during training camp. It is evident in the facial hair that members of the team have begun to sprout. It will be evident in the names on the back of the jerseys, one of the more obvious alterations.
Most importantly, though, it will be there in the blue ribbons on the helmets that will symbolize support for victims of child abuse.
“At the end of the day, these kids understand why we’re in this position,” said O’Brien, an Andover, Mass., native. “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 — that this is about helping a community.”
Some might not like the changes, he knows. Some didn’t like that he was hired, from outside the Penn State family.
O’Brien doesn’t care.
It’s not his concern, never has been.
Right now, his concern is simply football practice.
That is the refuge. It’s where there’s no need to think about missing scholarships and absent teammates.
There’s no need to think about the evils that lurk behind the sanctions, the charity work that will never make up for it, and the school that likely never quite will move past what has happened.
This is a new time for Penn State and its football team, a new era.
“We know that there’s challenges ahead,” O’Brien said. “We understand that as the years go on we’re not going to be on the same level playing field as everybody else, but this year we are.
“I think this is a really important year. If we can go out there this year and show people that this team stuck together and these are good kids that work hard on and off the field and we can win, then this year can help us move forward.”
O’Brien hopes to get Penn State through, with a bit of new and a bit of old, and a great deal of penance.
He hopes to find the right players, say the right things, and hopefully even win.
“I never wavered,” he said. “You chose to be here. You can’t run. You’ve got to face it head-on. You’ve got to figure it out, and that’s what we’re doing.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.