The sun crept over Mount Nittany at 6:20 a.m. last Thursday, flooding the second-floor office on the northeast corner of the Lasch Football Building with soft light. Joe Paterno once ruled the Penn State program from this perch, but by the time Bill O'Brien arrived in February, the trophies, plaques and other evidence of Paterno's 46-year reign as head coach were gone. The room was a blank slate, just like the football program O'Brien had taken over.
The new coach, 42, has filled the office with photos of his sons, Jack, 10, and Michael, 7, and with memorabilia from five seasons as a New England Patriots' assistant. His players, many of whom never saw the inside of the office during the waning years of the Paterno era, are free to enter whenever they wish. When they do, they might find O'Brien at his computer, scripting practice, as he was on this morning. Or they might find him staring at practice video projected onto the wall. Or they might find him with his feet up on the credenza, watching the flat-screen behind his desk, as he was on the morning of July 23 when NCAA president Mark Emmert made O'Brien's job exponentially more difficult. The coach already knew he needed to pull Penn State out of a time warp and into the 21st century, but he didn't know until then that his task would be encumbered by some of the most crippling sanctions in NCAA history—including a four-year postseason ban, the loss of 80 scholarships (20 a year for four years) and a $60 million fine.
"You have two choices," O'Brien says. "You either sit here every day and say, 'Oh, God, what are we going to do?' Or you can charge ahead."
August 27, 2012
The Weight Room
Penn State's immersion into the modern era was on display here at 8:15 a.m., 11 days before the start of classes. As a remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs'"Heads Will Roll" caromed off the gray bricks of the weight room, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, dominator emblazoned across the back of his shirt, bounced from station to station as offensive players alternated between squats and balance-ball push-ups. Then Fitzgerald, a rock-jawed former Maryland defensive lineman, turned down the music and described the next set of lifts. Players would be doing power cleans and dead lifts, a familiar routine after seven months of Fitzgerald's punishing workouts—but with a twist. At the top of the dead lift, they would transition to a shrug that would set their shoulders ablaze. "A dead lift," Fitzgerald said with a wicked grin, "with a f-----' cherry on top."
Fitzgerald and his staff know exactly how these workouts feel. They come in at 4:30 a.m. and complete the same lifts. The routines, and especially the salty language that rings out within these walls, are prime examples of the changes O'Brien made when he inherited one of college football's most conservative programs. For years the Nittany Lions had trained using equipment that hadn't been cutting edge since Ronald Reagan lived in the White House. When O'Brien first saw the weight room, he was stunned to see rows of machines that were not suitable for elite college football players. "It looked like a Bally's," O'Brien says. He turned over the room to Fitzgerald, who was hired away from South Carolina in January after helping the Gamecocks to the best three-year run in that program's history. Fitzgerald ordered 24 identical, custom-built stations, and over a weekend last winter, the future was installed.
The Meeting Room
Importing the complicated offense that quarterback Tom Brady runs so smoothly for New England has been a challenge. Bigger playbooks have meant extra study for players as they learn to make additional reads and run more complex routes. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has picked up the offense faster than most of his teammates, and O'Brien rewarded the quick study with a spot on the first team. Sophomore Paul Jones, who sat out last year because of academic issues, will back up the 6'1", 210-pound McGloin, but the offense could look quite different with the 6'3" 258-pounder in the game. Jones is best used in a zone-read package that allows him to take advantage of his size and speed. "Got a genetic mismatch there, Paul," quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher had joked in an earlier quarterback meeting as a video showed Jones in position to steamroller a smaller defender.
O'Brien and his staff have walked a fine line as they overhaul the program. Paterno's old-school ways are still revered by many Penn Staters, so O'Brien always speaks in the context of moving forward. Sometimes, though, he has to shake his head. During a special teams meeting, for example, the Nittany Lions examined video of a punt return against Iowa from 2011. A Penn State blocker slammed a Hawkeye to the ground—a brilliant block—and inexplicably began to wander toward the sideline instead of staying with the guy he'd just taken down. The fallen Hawkeye rose and made a touchdown-saving tackle. "That might be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," O'Brien told his players. "Anybody who does that won't be on my team." In an offensive meeting the same day O'Brien beseeched his players to forget what happened before and concentrate on the future. "I don't care what we've done in the past," O'Brien told them. "People say, 'We've never gained a yard against this defense.' Who cares? Turn the page."
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., one of only two Paterno assistants retained by O'Brien, appreciates the fresh air. "He embraces the tradition, but he says all the time that this is a new era," Johnson says. "This is the new Penn State football." The extreme scope of the scandal and the resulting sanctions have made wholesale change easier to swallow. "We all knew it was going to be a transition. But after we got here, it escalated tremendously," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter says. "In some ways, it was a little easier in that everybody knew we had to hit a new direction. All of a sudden, it was a frenzy, and we've got to do something about it."
Brad (Spider) Caldwell enrolled at Penn State in 1983. That year he began working with the football team as a student manager. After graduation he joined the staff and rose to equipment manager, making him the custodian of one of the most iconic uniforms in sports. The simple navy blue jersey remained unadorned until January 1993, when the Nittany Lions wore Big Ten patches in the Blockbuster Bowl to celebrate their new conference. "They've been kind of plain," says Caldwell, whose gift for quick, in-practice helmet repair is surpassed only by his gift for understatement.
For 19 years Caldwell's wife, Karen, has sewn all patches on Penn State jerseys using her old Singer sewing machine at the couple's log cabin in nearby Port Matilda, Pa. Karen Caldwell, who recently finished sewing the Big Ten--mandated b1g logo patches onto Penn State's white away jerseys, has taken on a bigger project. Beginning with the blue home jerseys Penn State will wear on Sept. 1 against Ohio, Karen will sew nameplates on the back of all 120 Nittany Lions jerseys. The program that eschewed the emphasis of self over team for decades will break tradition because, without these particular players, there might be no team at all.
O'Brien authorized the names on the jerseys to honor those who stayed when they could have easily abandoned the program. In the days following the announcement of the sanctions and the news that players would be eligible immediately at any school they transferred to, there was a recruiting frenzy. Illinois sent eight assistants to State College. Coaches from other schools loitered in the parking lot adjacent to Penn State's weight room and at apartment complexes where many players live.
Seniors Gerald Hodges, Mike Mauti, Jordan Hill and Mike Zordich pledged to stay, and they joined their coaches in re-recruiting their teammates. When Mauti, Hill and junior offensive guard John Urschel traveled to Chicago for Big Ten media day on July 26, they compared notes to ensure they texted and called on-the-fence teammates.
Nine players transferred, including top performers such as tailback Silas Redd, linebacker Khairi Fortt and receiver Justin Brown. Two more left the team but are still at Penn State. The remaining Nittany Lions don't wish ill of their departed teammates—in fact, Penn State's academic support staff worked to ensure Brown, a senior, can take classes at Oklahoma that will count toward a Penn State degree—but they refuse to dwell on what might have been.
For the current players, the bond has grown even stronger. Hodges considers each teammate to be a member of his own family. "That hodges on the back of my jersey, they're all part of that," he says.
The Office (Again)
O'Brien recently received an invitation he thinks will make his mother proud. The Church of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic congregation in State College, has invited O'Brien to join the flock. "We have prayed for you specifically, knowing how formidable are the challenges you face," Father Charlie Amershek wrote in a cover letter that came with a binder filled with well wishes.
The faithful didn't pray only for gridiron success for O'Brien. They know he and his family face a challenge more serious than any blitz an opposing defensive coordinator might invent. O'Brien's son Jack suffers from lissencephaly, a rare brain disorder. Jack cannot talk or feed himself. Every day he suffers multiple seizures that can cause him to stop breathing. The seizures can last seconds or agonizing minutes. O'Brien's wife, Colleen, has learned how to best manage the seizures, but it never gets easier. So when O'Brien gets too wrapped up in football, he can look down at the photos of Jack and Michael on his desk.
While he understands football's place in the greater world, O'Brien doesn't want to be anything but a football coach. He doesn't want to be an icon. He isn't performing any Grand Experiment. He knows his job is to win games and make sure his players graduate. If he doesn't do that, he knows Penn State will find someone who will.
O'Brien got his big break in coaching with a graduate assistant job at Georgia Tech in 1995 because Yellow Jackets coach George O'Leary called Brown assistant Jim Bernhardt with a request. "I need somebody smart enough to get into Georgia Tech's grad school and dumb enough to want to be a football coach," Bernhardt remembers O'Leary saying. "I know just the guy," replied Bernhardt, who recommended O'Brien, the Andover, Mass., native who had played linebacker and then become an undersized defensive end when Brown needed one.
O'Brien rose through the ranks at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, then made his name working with Brady and the Patriots. Despite all that experience, O'Brien had no concept of the volume of work that would cross his desk when he finally got the top job. At Penn State he has faced far more headaches than most first-year coaches.
Fallout from the Sandusky scandal continues: lawyers for former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz went to Harrisburg for pretrial arguments last week. The news barely penetrated the bubble O'Brien and his staff have erected around the team as it prepares for the first season of the new era of Penn State football.
Charge ahead. Turn the page. That's all the Nittany Lions can do now. None of the current players had any hand in the cover-up that brought down an icon and humbled a university, but they are dedicated to picking up the pieces. "We're glad we can play football," Urschel says. "We're grateful we didn't get the death penalty." So, led by a smart guy dumb enough to want to be a football coach, Penn State players will pour into Beaver Stadium on Sept. 1 bearing their names—and the program—on their backs. "We're not beaten," Urschel says. "We're not broken down. They still have to beat us on the field."
"WE ALL KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE A TRANSITION," SAYS AN ASSISTANT. "BUT AFTER WE GOT HERE, IT ESCALATED TREMENDOUSLY."
How will a depleted Penn State fare in a stacked Big Ten? Get a report, and a profile of dark-horse BCS contender Michigan State at SI.com/cfb