STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Coming soon to a city near you: Penn State coach Bill O’Brien!
The Nittany Lions’ new leader is embarking on a nine-day, 18-stop bus tour spread out over the next three weeks. It’s an extensive meet-and-greet road trip through seven states with an itinerary that might make a presidential candidate blush.
First stop: Philadelphia on Monday.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting everybody out on the road — the alumni, the fans — and really talking to people about my vision of the football program,” O’Brien said.
It’s not unusual in one respect for a rookie head coach of such a high-profile team to be so pro-active with outreach. With an alumni base of more than a half-million strong across the country, Penn State draws a passionate football following.
But O’Brien took on more than just the typical big-school coaching job — and that was even before the child sexual abuse scandal that erupted following the arrest of Jerry Sandusky. A retired defensive coordinator, Sandusky has proclaimed his innocence while awaiting trial scheduled to start in June.
Sandusky’s former boss was the late Joe Paterno, who was ousted in November in the aftermath of the scandal by university trustees. Division I’s winningest coach with 409 victories paced the sideline in his jet-black Nikes for 46 seasons and became one of the most recognizable figures in Pennsylvania, if not college sports.
Paterno died in January at age 85. He used to be a regular on the caravan circuit, too, but scaled back in recent years in part because of health issues.
“Joe was a living legend, and the head football coach for nearly 50 years. I’m not sure how many caravans he had to do,” O’Brien said recently. “I think I have to reach out to make sure people get to know me.”
With such a busy public schedule over the past few months since taking the job, O’Brien almost seems to be everywhere on campus. Awards luncheon banquets. Announcing the winner of a “Best Chicken Wing” contest. Meeting students at the student union.
O’Brien has turned into a symbol for a school and campus community trying to move forward from crisis.
“Coach O’Brien has done everything well so far,” Penn State senior Lea Olecki said last week while visiting the statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. “He’s not trying to replace Joe. He’s doing his own thing.”
The next phase of the ambitious outreach effort appears to be blanketing the rest of Pennsylvania and surrounding states during this bus tour. Other coaches are joining O’Brien for stretches, but only the new football coach will be at every stop.
Scandal aside, there was a part of the Penn State fan base that had sought a coaching change and a more wide-open offense. Some of those fans were worried that the program under Paterno was losing out on more top recruits. Paterno’s teams won two national titles in the 1980s, but the crowd also fretted about losing ground to rival Ohio State.
The former offensive coordinator for the potent New England Patriots, O’Brien appears to have appeased those concerns — at least through the spring. He’s installing a new offense at Penn State, and the Nittany Lions are off to a good start on the recruiting trail.
“How can I come into this job and close ranks without trying to get to know people, and get people to get to know me and how I see the football program,” O’Brien said. “Whether they agree with it or not, we’re going to communicate about it, and that was something I felt was necessary to do.”
Other issues may also be at play.
Whether or not by design, many stops on the trip are also fertile territory for Penn State recruiting. The caravan on Tuesday pulls into Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., on Wednesday a region where the Nittany Lions have long drawn talent. O’Brien on May 10, goes to Hartford, Conn. a state from which Penn State recruited top tailback Silas Redd and promising linebacker Khairi Fortt.
And O’Brien crosses into eastern Ohio on May 15 with visits to Youngstown — the hometown of former star quarterback Daryll Clark — and Cleveland.
The trip also comes at a time when season tickets are also being sold for the 107,000-plus seat Beaver Stadium. It’s been a year since the program switched to a new season-ticket pricing structure that forced some fans to donate more to the booster club to keep their seats.
Last season, there appeared to be more visiting fans — or at least fans not wearing blue and white — interspersed among the crowds at several games throughout the stadium. Typically, visiting fans were concentrated in the corner of the stadium reserved for the away team.
Acting Athletic Director David Joyner last week said ticket sales were “a little behind” from last year, though it was still early in the process. Booster club contributions were going well, he said.
“Obviously with ticket sales … it remains to be seen,” Joyner said. “There’s plenty of time to see what happens.”
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