Thursday was media day at Beaver Stadium. Training camp started Monday. The countdown is under way. The Jerry Sandusky scandal, its complicated aftermath and the NCAA sanctions are history, too. As O'Brien has continually preached, nothing good can come from looking back. It's become his theme. And it's the only productive way to attack the reality of their situation. The only certainty, going forward, is that they're in this as one. Because they chose to.
"I should have charged admission," is the way the former New England Patriots' assistant opened his press conference. Then he got serious. Because he has an unenviable job. And this is merely the beginning.
"The morale has been excellent," O'Brien said. "We've got a lot of guys who care about playing Penn State football. I try not to live in a world of uncertainty. I try to take it day by day, situation by situation. You have to stay true to your principles. I've got guys who understand why we're in the situation we're in. They're the ones who are going to guide us through the next few years. Time will tell. Football's about playing through the ups and downs. We have expectations of playing good football. We have leaders throughout this team. We're going to let them lead."
It's an ongoing process. That isn't likely to change any time soon. He's already lost players, including some key ones, and he may well lose some more, sooner or later. That's the hand they have to play. He has holes to fill. Some areas are stronger than others. Yet he's confident in his ability, and those of the ones he's surrounded himself with. That's a start. For the time being, that'll have to be enough.
"I try to keep things in perspective, teach them how to play football your way," O'Brien said. "We have to stop arguing about [what happened]. I respect every individual's decision to do what they have to do, but we have to get going that way. That's my goal with this team, and I hope that helps the [entire] university.
“It's important to set the tone every day, not [just] year to year. And that leads to that week, that game, that year. We have some depth issues, but there's no [positions] that keep me up at night. It's the next guy up, your chance to shine. That's why you're here. We have to be positive."
That probably can take you so far. At some point, you have to line up against people who could be bringing more to the equation. So the margin for error has seemingly shrunk. There is a core group that remains in place, and that will have to carry them even more than originally projected. There were some who thought this team, which can't compete for a Big Ten title or go to a bowl game, could win as many as nine or 10 times. That was before Silas Redd took his running-back talents to Southern Cal, or Anthony Fera became a placekicker/punter at Texas. They're not the only defections that will be felt, just the most notable. But what are you going to do except find somebody else to take their spots?
One Las Vegas line, for whatever it's worth, has installed the over-under on victories at 5 1/2.
"I have no problem with anyone who decided to leave," said senior fullback Michael Zordich, whose father was a Nittany Lion. "I wish them the best. We're still here playing football. We're just happy that we can do it day in and day out. To be practicing and playing, it's an exciting time for us. It's just great going out there. Enough with everything that's going on around us. We're still showing up on Saturdays.
“We can't concern ourselves [with any possible appeals to the NCAA]. There's nothing we can do. It'll be too late when the season starts. Our role in this is to play football. This is what we do. It's what we've been waiting for for a while now. And what we can't wait for [Sept. 1]. We're way better than a [.500] team.
“If you're a football player, [the NCAA restrictions] don't change a thing."
How about if you're the one in charge?
"[O'Brien] is the perfect man to lead [Penn State] out of this," McGloin insisted.
Of course, it would help if maybe he had a few more experienced receivers, or some extra bodies in the secondary. But you play with what you've got. Today, next month, in 2013 and beyond. Keeping it together after this season might take on a whole different meaning. O'Brien's has to take the potential and coach it up. He says he has a plan, the details of which he won't divulge, and that it's already being implemented. Until we see results, it remains what it is. Saying the right things is one thing. It's about Saturdays. And preparing for them.
"Training camp is awesome," O'Brien said. "It's fun. It's competition, building something. It's hard, and it can be a grind, but you're doing it together. You're thinking about what you have to accomplish that day. It's a great time of year."
He's in his element, maybe for the first real time since he was hired in January. Or at least since his summer vacation in Cape Cod was rudely interrupted. So he can put those outside distractions on hold and try to do what he does best.
Which, for him, only involves changing almost everything.
Someone wanted to know if his weekly captains would be walking off the bus ahead of him, or behind. Seriously.
"I might drive the bus," he answered with a smile. "Do you need a special license for that? Maybe people better get out of the way."
There's no doubt who's holding the keys. And who knows? Perhaps they should be keeping an eye out for him. Just in case.
Contact Mike Kern at firstname.lastname@example.org