SI Vault
August 27, 2012
As Penn State coach Bill O'Brien begins a monumental rebuilding effort, he gave SI a behind-the-scenes look at how far his team has come—and how far it still has to go
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August 27, 2012

Present At The Re-creation

As Penn State coach Bill O'Brien begins a monumental rebuilding effort, he gave SI a behind-the-scenes look at how far his team has come—and how far it still has to go

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Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., one of only two Paterno assistants retained by O'Brien, appreciates the fresh air. "He embraces the tradition, but he says all the time that this is a new era," Johnson says. "This is the new Penn State football." The extreme scope of the scandal and the resulting sanctions have made wholesale change easier to swallow. "We all knew it was going to be a transition. But after we got here, it escalated tremendously," offensive line coach Mac McWhorter says. "In some ways, it was a little easier in that everybody knew we had to hit a new direction. All of a sudden, it was a frenzy, and we've got to do something about it."

The Field

Brad (Spider) Caldwell enrolled at Penn State in 1983. That year he began working with the football team as a student manager. After graduation he joined the staff and rose to equipment manager, making him the custodian of one of the most iconic uniforms in sports. The simple navy blue jersey remained unadorned until January 1993, when the Nittany Lions wore Big Ten patches in the Blockbuster Bowl to celebrate their new conference. "They've been kind of plain," says Caldwell, whose gift for quick, in-practice helmet repair is surpassed only by his gift for understatement.

For 19 years Caldwell's wife, Karen, has sewn all patches on Penn State jerseys using her old Singer sewing machine at the couple's log cabin in nearby Port Matilda, Pa. Karen Caldwell, who recently finished sewing the Big Ten--mandated b1g logo patches onto Penn State's white away jerseys, has taken on a bigger project. Beginning with the blue home jerseys Penn State will wear on Sept. 1 against Ohio, Karen will sew nameplates on the back of all 120 Nittany Lions jerseys. The program that eschewed the emphasis of self over team for decades will break tradition because, without these particular players, there might be no team at all.

O'Brien authorized the names on the jerseys to honor those who stayed when they could have easily abandoned the program. In the days following the announcement of the sanctions and the news that players would be eligible immediately at any school they transferred to, there was a recruiting frenzy. Illinois sent eight assistants to State College. Coaches from other schools loitered in the parking lot adjacent to Penn State's weight room and at apartment complexes where many players live.

Seniors Gerald Hodges, Mike Mauti, Jordan Hill and Mike Zordich pledged to stay, and they joined their coaches in re-recruiting their teammates. When Mauti, Hill and junior offensive guard John Urschel traveled to Chicago for Big Ten media day on July 26, they compared notes to ensure they texted and called on-the-fence teammates.

Nine players transferred, including top performers such as tailback Silas Redd, linebacker Khairi Fortt and receiver Justin Brown. Two more left the team but are still at Penn State. The remaining Nittany Lions don't wish ill of their departed teammates—in fact, Penn State's academic support staff worked to ensure Brown, a senior, can take classes at Oklahoma that will count toward a Penn State degree—but they refuse to dwell on what might have been.

For the current players, the bond has grown even stronger. Hodges considers each teammate to be a member of his own family. "That hodges on the back of my jersey, they're all part of that," he says.

The Office (Again)

O'Brien recently received an invitation he thinks will make his mother proud. The Church of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic congregation in State College, has invited O'Brien to join the flock. "We have prayed for you specifically, knowing how formidable are the challenges you face," Father Charlie Amershek wrote in a cover letter that came with a binder filled with well wishes.

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