STATE COLLEGE – The peacoat he donned gave Bill O’Brien an authoritative look before he even uttered a word.
Soon enough, he would have the undivided attention of his new players in his first meeting as Penn State coach in January 2012.
Open, straightforward and to the point.
More than a year later, the Penn State football program is remarkably back on steady ground after one of the most challenging seasons ever for a college football team. Year 2 of the O’Brien era in Happy Valley gets its first major milestone when the Nittany Lions’ first recruiting class since the NCAA hit the program with sanctions is finalized Wednesday.
The tone was set that very first day.
“Honesty. A lot of guys immediately expected that,” Michael Mauti, the standout linebacker, said in recounting the first team meeting with O’Brien. “That definitely resonated through everything he did. Whether meeting with guys about playing time or their positions” or just to check in on academics or off-the-field life.
“You knew exactly where you stood … you as a player and person,” Mauti said. “That goes a long way.”
•Sounds simple enough. What O’Brien espoused – honesty, hard work and trust, among other core beliefs – could have come right out of the model playbook for a rookie coach. But those words have especially resonated with a team that, until his hiring, had been thrust into the middle of unimaginable turmoil not of its doing.
The arrest of retired assistant Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges in November 2011 led to the ouster of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno just days later. Veteran defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as the interim coach, yet rumors constantly swirled around the Nittany Lions about the future and direction of the team.
Forty-six years of stability under Paterno suddenly came to a startling halt.
But O’Brien wanted the job, that task of getting Penn State “back.”
Then offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O’Brien was meticulously prepared for his interview even while helping to guide his team to the Super Bowl.
“The qualities I saw were exceptional leadership skills, high integrity, a long pattern of success in his life – both personal and business – very confident but laid-back at the same time,” said Penn State trustee and prominent donor Ira Lubert, who was on the search committee.
“Finally, a great passion to succeed and a work ethic required to achieve the mission.”
In other words, he had a playbook of sorts before Penn State had even kicked off its new era on the field.
“The main, No. 1 rule for me is to make sure you have a direction, you have a message, a plan,” O’Brien said. “You can’t be a good leader and be all over the map. You’ve got to be consistent in what your beliefs are, and your kids need to understand that, too.”
They did, of course, eventually. But it wasn’t easy.
•Pre-dawn workouts. Rock music blaring from loudspeakers that echoed heavy bass beats off nearby campus buildings in the darkness. A settled quarterback situation after two seasons of uncertainty.
By the spring, O’Brien had already shaken some things up. At the same time, he also promised the program would continue to its honor its long, storied history of success both on and off the field.
The NCAA sanctions promised to make the job even more difficult. Few, if any observers had expected the serious penalties against the Nittany Lions including a four-year postseason ban, steep scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine. The coaching staff scrambled to keep most of the team together, with big assists from team leaders like Mauti, fullback Michael Zordich and defensive tackle Jordan Hill.
“The emphasis of that first team meeting,” O’Brien said, “always remains the same.”
In a sense, football ended up being a respite by the time preseason practice opened in August.
What Penn State did on the field has since become well-known to most college football fans. Few, if any, prognosticators picked Penn State to finish 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten) and second in the Leaders Division behind only undefeated Ohio State.
“It was pretty impressive. To be down there, in the middle of that, wasn’t a good situation. Even the students were feeling bad,” said Terry Pegula, owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and another big donor to the university. “So Bill turned into the shining light in the whole thing. He had a lot of pressure on him and he did a heck of a job.”
•California beckoned Matt McGloin.
Soon, he hopes the NFL does, too.
The former walk-on quarterback from blue-collar Scranton headed west to work out and prepare for the draft at a facility that he said also hosted prospects like Oregon running back Kenjon Barmer and Alabama offensive lineman Chance Warmack.
But his memories of Penn State will last forever. And what he did under O’Brien, and in his offense, was a key ingredient to the coach’s strategy. Indeed, if one player personified O’Brien’s impact on Penn State, it would be McGloin, who ended his career holding a number of school passing records following two years of splitting time with Rob Bolden.
“He always has a positive attitude and brings it every day,” McGloin said. “You have to match his intensity. I just fed off him.”
With the change in coach came a change in interactions.
Paterno died last January at age 85. Physical ailments limited what he could do on the field during practice in the latter years of his career. He could charm a room and win over recruits and their parents in Happy Valley, but Paterno rarely went on the road to visit prospects in his final years.
Perhaps just as important as O’Brien’s straightforward message was how he has delivered it. He is a different voice walking the figurative coaching line of being an authoritative figure while lending a sympathetic ear to players.
A year – and eight wins – later, McGloin said he will be friends with O’Brien for the rest of his life.
“He understands that Penn State lives around football,” he said. “It helps the community, the businesses.”
•The next generation of Nittany Lions should sign their letters-of-intent by Wednesday and join camp in August. It would be the first recruiting class since the sanctions were announced in July, and the first class to fall under the sanctions.
Some notable prospects have decided to look elsewhere, according to recruiting analysts. But O’Brien seems to be doing well overall. Tight end Adam Breneman is already a Nittany Lion after finishing high school early and enrolling last month.
Virginia high school quarterback Christian Hackenberg could be Penn State’s signal-caller of the future. Any lingering doubts about whether he’ll sign on Wednesday might be erased with a quick look at his Twitter page, which labels him a “Nittany Lion for life.”
In the weight room, O’Brien said he planned some tweaks to how the team lifts. He knows the offense won’t be the same with a new quarterback now that McGloin has graduated. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof headed home to Georgia to take the same job at Georgia Tech, but the Nittany Lions will play the same aggressive, multiple-look 4-3 scheme.
Otherwise, there’s a welcome status quo for fans in Happy Valley.
“The theme,” O’Brien said. “will never change at Penn State as long as I’m the coach here.”
Hard not to believe him.