Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti (42) embraces running back Michael Zordich (9) as they walk off the field after a senior recognition ceremony before Saturday's game against Wisconsin in University Park, Pa.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Friday after their walkthrough, the Penn State seniors had the opportunity to speak their minds in front of the entire team. The concept was new for them but familiar for those who know Bill O'Brien from his college days.
Some seniors spoke briefly and some spoke for a long time. Junior offensive guard John Urschel said linebacker Michael Mauti's speech was particularly inspiring.
Senior cornerback Stephon Morris loved hearing from his classmates. He said Jake Fagnano and Matt McGloin told the stories of how they made it from walk-ons to contributors. He said he didn't expect Gerald Hodges to get emotional, but he did.
"We shared our life," Morris said. "Pretty much what Penn State means to us."
Among the differing speeches, senior center Matt Stankiewitch noticed a common thread. Every senior thanked O'Brien.
"For building the staff that he did," Stankiewitch said, "and building up the Penn State community from the shadows and ashes."
Twenty years ago, on a different team, under different circumstances, the same scene played out. O'Brien was in his last year at Brown University. His coach, Mickey Kwiatkowski had the tradition that O'Brien shared with Penn State last week: On the night before the last game of the season, the seniors stood in front of the team and gave speeches.
That 1992 season had been awful. Brown lost all 10 of its games. But Kwiatkowski still remembers those speeches: Every senior thanked O'Brien for making the season tolerable.
This summer, Kwiatkowski said O'Brien was the perfect man for the job.
"I have such a feeling about this kid," he said then, his New England accent thick. "It just makes me believe not only is Penn State going to pull through this in time but maybe come out in the end better than they were. That's my belief in Billy O'Brien."
Kwiatkowski sounded like he meant it but, as a friend and former mentor, of course he would say such things. Months later, Penn State has finished 8-4. O'Brien's name leads the discussion for many coach of the year awards. Kwiatkowski was right about his pupil, for now.
The future of O'Brien and Penn State is uncertain. Who knows how much the NCAA sanctions could sting in another year or two? Who knows how long he'll be here, especially if he continues to have success?
Rumors are already swirling. Last week, after the Indiana game, O'Brien was asked a yes-no question about next season. He didn't express interest in leaving, but he didn't ensure that he would stay.
The players clearly hope his tenure lasts. As their speeches indicated, they're happy to have him here.
"Every little thing he does is so great for this team," Stankiewitch said. "Everything he says he just leads us. Coach O'Brien is awesome. He's the man."