At Penn State, Saturdays will be different this fall

Bill O'Brien, the successor to Joe Paterno, inherits a Penn State team depleted by transfers and facing years of NCAA sanctions. GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press
Bill O'Brien, the successor to Joe Paterno, inherits a Penn State team depleted by transfers and facing years of NCAA sanctions. GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press
Posted: August 27, 2012

Saturdays in the fall have always been about football at Penn State. For each of the previous 46 years, one bespectacled, energetic man always sparked the cheers by coming out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel leading the Nittany Lions into competition.

But starting next weekend when Bill O'Brien, and not Joe Paterno, takes the sideline for the first of 12 Saturdays in 2012 as the new head coach of Penn State, Saturdays are going to be about much more than football.

The players who stuck it out amid some of the worst NCAA penalties ever assessed against an athletic program

are thinking about winning. However, they have adopted the added responsibility of uniting a community that was shocked after the revelation of child sexual abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and stunned by developments ever since.

"We have a chance to make history here at Penn State," said Matt McGloin, the Penn State quarterback and one of the team's leaders. "We definitely have the opportunity to bring this great university back from the bottom. Not only that, we have a great opportunity to bring this community and Penn State nation back together. So it's definitely going to be on our minds Sept. 1."

When O'Brien came on in January, the university and the football program were reeling from the heinous charges against Sandusky. Among the most formidable of the new boss' tasks were to settle everyone down, restore respect for the program, and perform a delicate balancing act of honoring tradition while moving forward.

Since that time, however, a staggering volume of news has piled on the program, Penn State, and State College, including Paterno's death, Sandusky's conviction on 45 charges, and the Freeh report critical of Paterno and university officials for their handling of allegations later proven true against Sandusky.

And on July 23 the NCAA, using the Freeh report as its foundation, imposed harsh sanctions against the football program. The major penalties were a four-year ban on postseason play, scholarship reductions, a $60 million fine, and the vacating of 112 wins from 1998 through 2011.

Without the goal of a Big Ten championship or a bowl game to motivate, the Lions must find purpose and challenges from different sources. While winning is important, bringing together fans divided by the opinions about Paterno and whether to fight in court against NCAA penalties appears just as significant, if not more so.

Usually Penn State's opener finds some fans opting for a Labor Day holiday stay elsewhere and many students sleeping in, but Saturday vs. Ohio figures to be different. Starting when the Nittany Lions emerge from the tunnel with blue ribbons on their helmets in honor of victims of child abuse, and player names (!) across the backs of their jerseys, it should be electric.

"In a lot of ways, people turn to football," McGloin said. "This is kind of a football town, I guess you could call it. You don't get 110,000 fans anywhere in the country coming out every Saturday.

"With everything that's happened, a lot of people are going to see how we respond and see how we deal with everything. All I can say is we're going to go out there, play as hard as we can, and be in each and every game."

Since his introduction to the public on Jan. 7, O'Brien literally has been the face of Penn State, not just the football program but the entire university. He has handled himself with poise and class in the face of repeated questions about the effects of the Sandusky scandal on his program.

He believes it is necessary for fans not just to unite but to move forward, not looking back at the mess.

"We all have to come together and realize why we're in the position we're in," O'Brien said earlier this month. "We have to. We've got to stop arguing about it. We've got to move forward.

"I've got to make sure that our football team does a great job of coming together, playing as good a football as they can play, and then involving ourselves in the community in many ways, because we've got to move forward."

If you don't count the Blue-White Game last spring, this will be the first time seeing O'Brien on the sideline as he makes his debut as a head coach anywhere. The sanctions have dealt him a reduced roster; nine players took advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed them to transfer to another school and not have to sit out a year.

Following his mantra, though, O'Brien has moved forward. He has groomed sophomore Bill Belton, from Winslow Township, to take over Silas Redd's spot at tailback. He has seen sophomore Allen Robinson emerge from a crowd of inexperienced wideouts to claim the No. 1 receiver role in place of Justin Brown.

Even with all the instability, the Nittany Lions do have some talent, particularly in the defensive front seven led by all-Big Ten candidates Jordan Hill, a tackle, and Gerald Hodges, a linebacker from Paulsboro.

In any case, O'Brien won't allow the defections nor the penalties to get the better of him or his team.

"Winning is hugely important," he said. "We will never accept losing at Penn State."

The players won't, either. Fullback Michael Zordich, a member of the Lions' strong senior leadership group, said he was inspired and motivated by a speech from Navy SEAL Rick Slater, a former Penn State defensive tackle, during a recent team meeting.

"He said we've got the future of the program riding on" the season, Zordich said. "It's also the past, all the guys who used to play here, all the alumni, all the coaches. Everything is riding on this year, and it's very important for us to go out and make things happen for the university."


Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joejulesinq. Read his blog, "Lion Eyes," at www.philly.com/sports/lioneyes

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