Published August 28, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Bill O'Brien has turned into Penn State's steady, even-keeled rock through tough times, but even he'll allow himself to be a little nervous before his first game as Nittany Lions coach.
After all, a new era is about to begin in Happy Valley.
"I will certainly have butterflies before this game. I'd be crazy to tell you otherwise," he said Tuesday about Saturday's season opener against Ohio. "I mean, this is my first football game as a head football coach."
O'Brien expects those nerves to disappear come kickoff once he settles into the routine of coaching.
And yet almost everything else about Saturday won't be routine, either.
It's the first season opener at Penn State without Hall of Famer Joe Paterno as head coach since 1965.
It's the first game since the NCAA meted down landmark sanctions on the program because of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Paterno was fired days after Sandusky was arrested in November.
It's the first time the Nittany Lions who stayed with O'Brien will take the field since the NCAA allowed players to seek immediate transfers in light of the sanctions. Nine players have moved on since the penalties were announced July 23, most notably 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd.
Bowl games and Big Ten titles are out for the next four years. More than 90 percent of the roster stayed, but the defections have many pundits counting out Penn State as a Big Ten also-ran.
Senior linebacker Gerald Hodges seems as motivated as ever.
"There are a lot of guys in that locker room that feel they have something to play for," Hodges said. "All that anger filled up. All that tension filled up ... I can just tell we can't wait to unleash something."
Part of O'Brien's job this week is to help keep his players' emotions in check, beyond the usual opening-day jitters. Hodges and many other players have said they've also been energized by a university community that has rallied around players who had nothing to do with the scandal but have taken the brunt of the punishment.
"So I think if our guys can control their emotions and play within themselves and not try to be heroes and just play the way they've been playing in practice, then we'll have a shot to control those emotions early on," O'Brien said. "But it's something that we have talked about and we'll continue to talk about."
The former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, O'Brien walked into the Beaver Stadium media room for his inaugural weekly press conference a few minutes early -- much like the late Paterno did. He settled into the same spot at the podium, deftly and patiently answering numerous questions around the theme of whether Saturday's game had added significance for a program in an historic transition.
"You know, again, I've said this before, that there is a lot of this that is a little bit more than -- about a little bit more than football, and I understand that," O'Brien said. "But as we head into this first game and we get out there on Saturday, it's about football."
And much like he has the past several months, O'Brien proclaimed a new era for the school. He reiterated that Penn State players would continue to focus on academics and be involved with the community.
In another recently announced change, players will wear blue ribbons on the back of their helmets in support of victims of child abuse. O'Brien also sought to add names to the backs of jerseys to honor the players who decided to stay to help rebuild the program.
"But again, they're just a part of this whole thing," he said. "We're just the football program that's trying to be a part of making sure that we go out there and play well but also help the community as much as we possibly can as a part of it."
There are obvious changes on the field, too, tweaks that in any other year would draw most of the attention at the opening-week news conference.
O'Brien has revamped the offense based off the playbook for the Patriots' high-scoring attack. Roughly a dozen freshmen are listed as first- or-second stringers for Week 1, a depth chart necessitated in part by transfers related to the sanctions and other unrelated offseason departures.
"That first game, you're never quite sure how it's going to go. You're always optimistic about everything," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "As a coach, you want to see how your players react."