By GENARO C. ARMAS, Associated Press
ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) — Bill O'Brien has quickly put to rest any notion that he plans to stick around as long as the last Penn State football coach.
Don't expect his tenure in Happy Valley to last 46 years.
"I can tell you that 46 years from now, I'll be 88 years old. I promise you that ... I'll start taking golf lessons when I'm about 70," a straight-faced O'Brien said Monday morning. "Hopefully I can last until I'm 70 on this job."
With that question out of the way, the Nittany Lions' new leader can go on introducing himself to the team's massive fan base before he ever coaches a game.
O'Brien's comments before about 200 alumni in Altoona started Week 3 of the Penn State coaches caravan. Traveling on a bus retrofitted with the school's blue and white color scheme, the rookie head coach has embarked on an ambitious effort to connect with alumni from Connecticut to Virginia, New York to Ohio.
It's a public relations campaign and media blitz mixed in with a pinch of staff bonding. Other Penn State coaches have boarded the bus, too, including men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers and women's basketball coach Coquese Washington. Hockey coach Guy Gadowsky and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik joined O'Brien in Altoona.
But only O'Brien has been at every event, and he's going straight through until the 18th and final stop Wednesday night in Buffalo, N.Y. After each event, fans still anguished in part over the end of the Joe Paterno era appear to be coalescing behind O'Brien.
"I think considering everything that's happened over the last year that this is an occasion for Penn State to get together and look ahead," Nicholas Roslevege, a 1988 graduate, said last week before O'Brien spoke in Hazleton. "People are wishing him the best of luck up there. ... I think that's what people are feeling overall right now."
The Associated Press was allowed to accompany O'Brien on one leg of his caravan last week for stops in Hazleton and Bethlehem and has also covered stops in New York. This story looks at the different roles played by O'Brien at a critical juncture in the school's storied football history.
THE COACH NEXT DOOR: The black SUV pulled into the parking lot with 10 minutes to spare before the bus was scheduled to depart to Hazleton. Out stepped O'Brien from the driver's seat with a white towel draped over his right shoulder, sporting a look that called to mind another well-known coach.
He wasn't paying homage to retired Georgetown coach John Thompson. It's just a habit that O'Brien said he picked up while coaching on the sideline at his previous stop as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. This day, O'Brien was coming from a workout at the gym.
Barely a few seconds into a chit-chat with the bus driver, and O'Brien started poking fun at himself, about how his back hurts after a new workout regime.
Other times, he'll jokingly lament about his receding hairline, or the time he brought a cheesesteak to a brown-bag lunch with fellow Penn State coaches who were eating salads.
"He's just a funny guy," Washington said. "I always find myself laughing when he says something. Maybe it's the way that he says things that makes it really funny."
The sense of humor goes back to his childhood growing up in the suburbs of Boston, the youngest of three boys in an Irish Catholic family
"A lot of (the laughs) were at my expense. So it was a little bit of chop-busting. It's definitely a Boston sense of humor," O'Brien said in an interview with the AP. "These guys are getting used to it, but they all know it's in good fun."
O'Brien was hired in early January, but he didn't take over full time until after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants a month later. He has been a near-constant presence since then on campus and around town, from showing up at basketball games and handing out cupcakes at the student union to giving speeches at community events.
Now he's taken that tireless energy on the road to sign autographs, take pictures and offer his vision for Penn State football. His friendly demeanor and self-deprecating sense of humor have helped him connect with fans.
Unless, of course, he's encountering a fan wearing a New York Jets jersey with cornerback Darrelle Revis' name, as happened while O'Brien left the stadium after the Blue-White spring game last month. The Jets and O'Brien's former employers, the Patriots, are bitter AFC East rivals, so O'Brien gave a terse response when the fan asked for two autographs and a picture.
Recounting the story in Altoona, O'Brien jokingly snapped. "I said, 'No, no and no!'"
AMBASSADOR O'BRIEN: The prospect of replacing Paterno, Division I's winningest coach with 409 victories, was tough enough even before the crisis that engulfed Penn State last November.
The child sexual abuse scandal involving retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky added a new layer of problems unseen before in college athletics. Sandusky, who is scheduled to stand trial next month, has denied the charges. Paterno was ousted as part of the fallout from the scandal. He died in January at 85, less than three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Despite numerous efforts by university leadership, many alumni remain hurt by how Paterno was let go. It was evident especially in Bethlehem, where four or five questions or comments from fans in an interactive session with O'Brien referenced Paterno or the scandal.
"Thank you for bringing healing to the Penn State family," one fan said, drawing hearty applause.
O'Brien has turned into an ambassador for Penn State's future while various investigations continue to sort out the past. Instead of shying away from potentially touchy subjects like Paterno's legacy — tensions between university leadership and the Paterno family have been high since his ouster — O'Brien embraces the issue head-on.
He has stressed that football is a part — albeit a big part — of the athletic program and the university as a whole, echoing comments made by school leaders. Some critics, especially outside Penn State, have questioned whether football had too much influence at the university in light of the scandal.
At the same time, O'Brien has also been the most vocal voice at Penn State about honoring Paterno, who was held in high regard in the community for his philanthropic and off-field efforts along with his football resume.
"Whenever I meet lettermen, and the effect he had on their lives, I can only hope to fulfill just a small part of that in my career," O'Brien said Monday. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for what coach Paterno did here. ... I can tell you that we will keep his honor, what he stood for and everything he built here. In many, many ways, we'll keep it going because we have so much respect for what he did here."
Most in the crowd of 200 at the Penn State-Altoona gym immediately applauded.
THE NEW PENN STATE CEO: Any lingering doubts in Bethlehem about who was in charge were likely erased after O'Brien's talk before a crowd of about 400.
With the lights dimmed except for spotlights on the stage, O'Brien spoke passionately on various issues before emerging from behind the podium to offer his vision for the program's future — complete with a PowerPoint presentation. It had the look and feel at times of a motivational speech for a corporate retreat.
"It's very, very important that you leave tonight with that vision. Whether you agree with everything or not, that's not up to me, that is up to you," O'Brien said. "What's up to me is to tell you the vision that we have and the direction that we're going.
One slide identified the four cornerstones of O'Brien's program: academics, football, respect and integrity.
"What is important to me is that the foundation of this program stays," O'Brien said. "What built this program, what people believed in this program will never change, and it's built on four cornerstones."
Acting athletic director David Joyner said O'Brien's preparation and organizational skills were evident from early on in the interview process. A few weeks after being hired, O'Brien handed Joyner a white, spiral-bound booklet about a half-inch thick that contained his policies and procedures for the program.
"I think he's been working on his plan for being a head coach for a long, long time," Joyner said at his campus office.
An assistant coaching veteran, O'Brien cites stints at Georgia Tech under George O'Leary and with the Patriots under Bill Belichick as influences for fulfilling a lifelong pursuit to become a head coach.
The questions about football itself? O'Brien doesn't mind answering them one bit, even if it's about the ongoing saga over the starting quarterback race.
But for some fans like Susan Docker, a 2004 graduate and paralegal from Easton, what happens on the field is the least of their concerns.
"I wouldn't care so much about how the football team does. I just hope that he can restore some semblance of normalcy and moving on in the wake of this situation," she said. "Never to forget what happened, but to move forward."
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