Mr. O’Brien Goes to Washington
He signed 21 autographs. He posed for 68 photos. He shook 101 hands.
That was the tally—part of it, anyway—for Bill O’Brien Tuesday night in Washington D.C., on the fourth stop of the Penn State Coaches Caravan. For about 40 minutes—from the time he entered the ballroom at the Washington Hilton until the time he excused himself to make his way up to the stage—I watched O’Brien stand at the front an impromptu receiving line and greet Penn State alumni and fans. For those 40 minutes, I tracked every interaction O’Brien had.
Washington seemed the right place to document the most campaign-like aspect of the caravan, and O’Brien’s role in it. I joked before I stepped onto the bus Monday morning that I felt a bit like a reporter embedding with a presidential candidate; seeing O’Brien address the handshake line for the fourth time in two days—knowing how many more hands he’ll shake, pictures he’ll take, and autographs he’ll sign in the coming days and weeks—only reinforced the analogy. Unlike your average candidate for public office, of course, O’Brien already has the job. But this is no less an effort to generate support, to whip up excitement and increase turnout—to convince the electorate, if you will, to get behind his cause.
On Tuesday, for those 40 minutes, that meant greeting a steady stream of Penn Staters that might have continued indefinitely if the schedule had allowed. In every case, O’Brien accommodated whatever they wanted: A quick handshake, or a grip that lingered. His signature on a helmet, hat, football or poster. Folks who wanted nothing more than to say hello, and folks who offered detailed advice for next season’s play calling. O’Brien checked his phone once or twice, and paused a couple of times to grab a bite of crab cake (brought by a waiter who noticed him missing the cocktail hour and insisted, “Coach, you gotta eat!”). He bounced to stretch his calves a few times. But everyone got what they came for.
No matter how much you like people, meeting with and chatting up hundreds of strangers can be wearying. But O’Brien is out here by choice, because he understands the importance of reaching out to a fan base that largely has never known a “new” coach, and because he seems to be committed to doing everything he can to make sure Penn State succeeds on his watch.
His 40 minutes over, O’Brien took the stage Tuesday night with Denise St. Pierre, Beth Alford-Sullivan and Patrick Chambers, eventually following his fellow coaches with a run through the PowerPoint presentation outlining his philosophy for the football program. Another Q&A followed, and as has been the case on every stop thus far, most of the audience questions went to O’Brien.
One of the last alumni to take the microphone began his question with a statement, directed less at O’Brien than at the evening itself. It was a thank you, he said, because this event was “the first time in a long time for a lot of us to be in a room with friends, and not have to be defensive.” Everyone knew what he meant. Everyone seemed to appreciate it.
The sentiment wasn’t about Bill O’Brien, of course. But the coach’s willingness to hit the road and be the focal point of these events is the primary reason these (relatively) far-flung Penn Staters had an excuse to get together. There’s a value in that, intangible though it may be, that makes all those handshakes worthwhile.
Ryan Jones, senior editor