For Bill O’Brien, Only One Direction To Go
There’s a fine line between careful and blunt—between cautious and direct—and Bill O’Brien has some practice walking it. On Thursday at Penn State’s preseason football media day, he was on the high wire again.
At issue are the competing emotions among so many Penn Staters about where to focus their energy, resources, and attention. In football terms, that means the question of whether to fight or accept harsh NCAA sanctions, whether to dispute or acknowledge the findings those sanctions were based on, and—symbolically, but just as important to some—how to feel about any changes at a football program where the word “tradition” is taken more seriously than almost anywhere else.
On Thursday, O’Brien tread carefully as he acknowledged all of the above; just don’t confuse “carefully” with “evasively.” Asked no fewer than four questions that touched on those themes, O’Brien was clear: He and the football program are moving forward. He hopes Penn Staters will join him.
“I’m very respectful of the traditions here—very respectful,” O’Brien said when asked about adding player names to the jerseys, an early topic in his 45-minute press conference. “But it’s a new era of Penn State football.” Asked later how much the job has differed from what he expected, O’Brien returned to the theme. “This is a special place. Now we all have to come together and realize the position we’re in. We have to. We have to stop arguing about it, and we’ve got to move forward.”
It was offered as respectful advice to fans and alumni, but for those within the program, moving forward is the only option. In some ways, that does mean change, of which there was ample evidence Thursday. Late on a hot, sunny morning, as players and media covered the Beaver Stadium turf, one sign of change was all that hair—longish on top, unshaved on necks and jaws. The jerseys don’t yet have the names attached—nor the blue ribbon O’Brien has promised—but it’s clear they will by opening day. Here’s Michael Mauti, emotional team leader and son of former Nittany Lion standout Rich Mauti ’89, on that still-sensitive topic:
“It’s not about the uniform. It’s never been about the uniform. That’s just a representation. The jersey’s just a piece of fabric. The name on the back is gonna represent the guys that have made a commitment to this program, built this new era, this new legacy—the guys who are gonna help Penn State through these next four years. I’m proud to wear that, too. Who’s going to argue with that?”
It’s a perspective with which none of Mauti’s teammates seems to be arguing, a unity that appears to apply to many aspects of this group. O’Brien says he expects the group that showed up for Monday’s opening practice to stay intact. “The morale’s been excellent,” he said, and the proof was apparent, both during the media session (that’s Eric Shrive (75) and Adam Gress (58) above, clowning with—and for—the cameras) and during an afternoon practice session, where players were loose and noisy while rock and hip-hop blared from custom speaker boxes on the sideline. Buoyed by the support of fans and a coaching staff that won’t let them feel sorry for themselves, these Lions hardly appear beaten-down.
Ryan Jones, senior editor