The sun crept over Mount Nittany at 6:20 a.m. last Thursday, flooding the second-floor office on the northeast corner of the Lasch Football Building with soft light. Joe Paterno once ruled the Penn State program from this perch, but by the time Bill O'Brien arrived in February, the trophies, plaques and other evidence of Paterno's 46-year reign as head coach were gone. The room was a blank slate, just like the football program O'Brien had taken over.
The new coach, 42, has filled the office with photos of his sons, Jack, 10, and Michael, 7, and with memorabilia from five seasons as a New England Patriots' assistant. His players, many of whom never saw the inside of the office during the waning years of the Paterno era, are free to enter whenever they wish. When they do, they might find O'Brien at his computer, scripting practice, as he was on this morning. Or they might find him staring at practice video projected onto the wall. Or they might find him with his feet up on the credenza, watching the flat-screen behind his desk, as he was on the morning of July 23 when NCAA president Mark Emmert made O'Brien's job exponentially more difficult. The coach already knew he needed to pull Penn State out of a time warp and into the 21st century, but he didn't know until then that his task would be encumbered by some of the most crippling sanctions in NCAA history—including a four-year postseason ban, the loss of 80 scholarships (20 a year for four years) and a $60 million fine.
"You have two choices," O'Brien says. "You either sit here every day and say, 'Oh, God, what are we going to do?' Or you can charge ahead."
The Weight Room
Penn State's immersion into the modern era was on display here at 8:15 a.m., 11 days before the start of classes. As a remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs'"Heads Will Roll" caromed off the gray bricks of the weight room, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, dominator emblazoned across the back of his shirt, bounced from station to station as offensive players alternated between squats and balance-ball push-ups. Then Fitzgerald, a rock-jawed former Maryland defensive lineman, turned down the music and described the next set of lifts. Players would be doing power cleans and dead lifts, a familiar routine after seven months of Fitzgerald's punishing workouts—but with a twist. At the top of the dead lift, they would transition to a shrug that would set their shoulders ablaze. "A dead lift," Fitzgerald said with a wicked grin, "with a f-----' cherry on top."
Fitzgerald and his staff know exactly how these workouts feel. They come in at 4:30 a.m. and complete the same lifts. The routines, and especially the salty language that rings out within these walls, are prime examples of the changes O'Brien made when he inherited one of college football's most conservative programs. For years the Nittany Lions had trained using equipment that hadn't been cutting edge since Ronald Reagan lived in the White House. When O'Brien first saw the weight room, he was stunned to see rows of machines that were not suitable for elite college football players. "It looked like a Bally's," O'Brien says. He turned over the room to Fitzgerald, who was hired away from South Carolina in January after helping the Gamecocks to the best three-year run in that program's history. Fitzgerald ordered 24 identical, custom-built stations, and over a weekend last winter, the future was installed.
The Meeting Room
Importing the complicated offense that quarterback Tom Brady runs so smoothly for New England has been a challenge. Bigger playbooks have meant extra study for players as they learn to make additional reads and run more complex routes. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has picked up the offense faster than most of his teammates, and O'Brien rewarded the quick study with a spot on the first team. Sophomore Paul Jones, who sat out last year because of academic issues, will back up the 6'1", 210-pound McGloin, but the offense could look quite different with the 6'3" 258-pounder in the game. Jones is best used in a zone-read package that allows him to take advantage of his size and speed. "Got a genetic mismatch there, Paul," quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher had joked in an earlier quarterback meeting as a video showed Jones in position to steamroller a smaller defender.
O'Brien and his staff have walked a fine line as they overhaul the program. Paterno's old-school ways are still revered by many Penn Staters, so O'Brien always speaks in the context of moving forward. Sometimes, though, he has to shake his head. During a special teams meeting, for example, the Nittany Lions examined video of a punt return against Iowa from 2011. A Penn State blocker slammed a Hawkeye to the ground—a brilliant block—and inexplicably began to wander toward the sideline instead of staying with the guy he'd just taken down. The fallen Hawkeye rose and made a touchdown-saving tackle. "That might be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," O'Brien told his players. "Anybody who does that won't be on my team." In an offensive meeting the same day O'Brien beseeched his players to forget what happened before and concentrate on the future. "I don't care what we've done in the past," O'Brien told them. "People say, 'We've never gained a yard against this defense.' Who cares? Turn the page."