Are you going to ask me some serious" -- (let's call it stuff) -- "today, or what?" Bill O'Brien asks a group of reporters. It's a Thursday at a relatively high high-rise Marriott in Lancaster, but it could just as easily be a Tuesday at a Penn State satellite campus in Williamsport or a Wednesday at a plush ballroom near Times Square.
O'Brien looks a little haggard. Maybe fatigue from the road has caught up to him. At this juncture of the trip, not quite midway through the Penn State coaches caravan part deux, he has traveled for 476 miles as part of this grand spring gesture to reach out to alumni. Trace the journey on a Google map and it looks like the contour of a wolf's head, the neck being Baltimore/D.C., the ear being Reading and the snout Philadelphia. Lancaster is where the eye would go.
Here, O'Brien is wearing a sports coat, not the suit and shiny Nittany Lion tie he wore in Philly, Reading, Washington and Baltimore.
"My neck is just really irritating me right here," he says, pointing to the sides of his Adam's apple.
O'Brien has given four speeches by this point; he still has eight (eight!) more to go before the two-week journey ends. He has answered numerous queries from the media, and he has answered even more from fans. Too many questions, too many miles, too many Windsor knots. Such is his life.
Being the coach at a major Division I university can be overbearing anywhere, but Penn State introduces a set of circumstances unique in their ability to frustrate. Here, unprecedented sanctions threaten success, alumni pick fights with the president and the board of trustees while vowing to never forget Joe Paterno, and fines and the specter of a less-than-full Beaver Stadium have given the athletic department reason to be concerned of a financial shortfall. In short, all kinds of serious -- let's call it stuff -- is going down at Penn State all the time.
Anyone who has paid more than casual attention to O'Brien in the past year-plus can guess he would rather be away from the seriousness of suits, handshakes and the constant media requests, and instead be smack in the middle of the coach's world, where every wall has a whiteboard, every season ends with a bowl game and every clothing item except for sweatpants is sold out of Nittany Mall.
A few minutes after his jaunt with reporters in Lancaster, O'Brien is on stage, unquestionably the star at every caravan stop, the last speaker. Upon the announcement of his name, the crowd gives a standing ovation. He motions the fans to sit down with his hands. A short highlight video ensues: O'Brien in the locker room, O'Brien miked up at the spring game, O'Brien this and O'Brien that and O'Brien this. Then the crowd is at it again. The people rise for another ovation, saluting the man they trust to lead.
"I wouldn't say that I'm always totally comfortable with that responsibility, but I definitely understand it," O'Brien says. "And I do the best I can with it."
On the stump
Three criteria exist as motivation for traveling across a portion of the country on a bus: for explicit political purpose, for attending a Grateful Dead tour or for whatever Sarah Palin did back in 2011. O'Brien is not Sarah Palin, and he would claim he doesn't have enough spare time to listen to most of the Dead's songs, so we'll go with the first option.
Such excursions are part of his job. Way back in the 1920s, coaching began fusing with university representation. Amos Alonzo Stagg, coach of the University of Chicago, became a celebrity because of his ebullient marketing of the football team. Later, Bear Bryant and Knute Rockne achieved legendary status. At the most renowned programs, coaches become symbols of their university, far more recognizable (and likely adored) than university presidents.
At Penn State, Paterno carried the intersection of football and ambassadorship to another level. His first national championship led him to lobby successfully for greater donations to Penn State, and congressmen were guests at his famous dinner parties. By the late 1980s, he had braided the strands of coach and public figure so tightly he gave a speech at the Republican National Convention.
It goes without saying that none of Paterno's influence or stature would have existed if he wasn't a successful football coach. Winning is the ultimate enhancer for a public image. And O'Brien won in his first season. He finished 8-4 after the infliction of sanctions and an 0-2 start.
It doesn't matter that the 8-4 mark is middling compared to the all-time great seasons in Happy Valley; Penn State fans don't see it that way. They measure O'Brien and his success as something "greater than football," ascribing to him a transcendent value.
This is a sampling of comments made toward O'Brien at some of the caravan stops in May -- "Thank you for 2012 ... it was magical." "I knew you were a man of integrity." "I just wanted to thank you for staying and not going to the NFL." "I thank Coach O'Brien for helping with the healing and bringing up coach Paterno's name and recognizing why we're all here."
On stage, O'Brien didn't always evoke the image of seasoned orator. He often rubbed his face with his hands and stared into space. During the fan Q&A session at the caravan stop in Williamsport, O'Brien became visibly irritated by a line of questioning and insisted that the session end.
Coquese Washington, the Penn State women's basketball coach, says, "You know what, Bill's probably really uncomfortable with that, to be honest. As he always says, 'I'm just a football coach.' He's just a football coach, but he understands that being the football coach at such a prestigious university carries with it a certain platform and he uses that platform. He uses it for good."
To be a face/ambassador/platform-using do-gooder, he had to be someone he had never been. Of speeches and public relations, O'Brien said plainly, "you don't do this in pro football."
When he left the New England Patriots and took the Penn State job, O'Brien says, he wanted to adjust for the role he would be required to fill outside of coaching. He says he consciously worked on his public-speaking skills and studied the university he would have to represent, living around and talking to Penn Staters and reading several books on the history of Penn State football and the history of the university in general. To prove the depth of his knowledge, O'Brien recites without hesitating that he knows Dwight Eisenhower's brother was a former school president.
Not fade away
O'Brien's speeches followed the same pattern: talk some football, make a joke that no one is allowed to ask about his starting quarterback, ask for money (the somewhat serious part) and then get really serious.
"We need your support more than ever," O'Brien said, "but we have to be unified."
The people who came to listen were mostly white and mostly middle-aged or elderly. Many invoked Paterno in their questions and the NCAA sanctions and the importance of traditions. He emphasized the present.
"2012 is over," he said. "It was fantastic. 2011 is over. 1987 is over. 1982 is over. It's time to focus on 13, 14 and 15."
Three days after he said those words the alumni overwhelmingly elected three new members to the university's board of trustees, all of whom have been outspoken critics of the current board's actions during the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. The newly minted trustee who received the most votes, Barbara Doran, described one of her top priorities as re-investigating Freeh Report issues -- i.e., focusing on the past.
About two weeks after those words, a Sports Illustrated story was published, revealing a possible issue with medical care in Penn State athletics, but more representative of the national release of a political conflict. Film director Baz Luhrmann could make a Shakespeare-influenced movie out of this: A new coach takes the throne after the controversial removal of the longtime leader. The old coach's court still lingers, though, and these perturbed loyalists don't want to cede any of the influence they once had. The community is fractured.
"I mean, we are all trying to win football games and graduate players," O'Brien said. "Like who would undermine that? I don't even think in that world. I'm not even in that realm. ... I guess I'm naïve."
As much as he said he wants unity, he says he doesn't believe he's the one to directly precipitate it. This goes back to his "I'm the football coach" mantra. Let politics be politics.
Colleagues and friends say O'Brien has a knack for maintaining composure and even humility in difficult circumstances. They ardently endorse him.
Last year, for instance, this reporter attempted to interview John Perry, a close friend of O'Brien's since childhood who is now the football coach at Merrimack University. The deadline passed without a connection, but Perry was so eager to chat about O'Brien that he wrote a 700-word email detailing several specific instances in which O'Brien faced substantial challenges and rose right up, specifying his friend's intelligence and compassion as two of his enduring characteristics.
In the email, Perry discussed the first time he visited his friend at Penn State, last spring: "I said, 'This must be a firestorm for you.' His response was typical of Billy. He told me, 'I can't imagine what those victims and the parents of the victims have gone through. Penn State and the football program will rebound. I hope the victims can also.' He always thinks of others first. He is the perfect leader for Penn State right now."
Back to football
Presumably, now that the caravan has ended, O'Brien is back on his regular schedule, which is working copious hours to shore up football details inconceivable to most. In the summer, he likes to come into his office on weekends. At these times, he says, "I know there's not going to be anybody in there. I get a lot of work done."
The distractions never entirely dissipate, though, certainly not in Happy Valley. His position ensures he'll never get to immerse fully into football; he'll be counted on for more and portrayed as representing more, too.
At the onset of the coaches' caravan, O'Brien estimated that he had done 55 speaking engagements since the 2012 season ended. The 12 appearances on the caravan made it 67.
In New York City, the bus arrived late -- gridlock in the Lincoln Tunnel. He was whisked out so quickly he didn't have time to put on his tie.
"I'm worn out," he said.
An hour-ish later, when O'Brien addressed the cocktail-party-attired crowd, he apologized for his suit-and-no-tie look. They didn't mind. The last person selected to speak during the Q&A session didn't actually ask a question. All he wanted to do was praise Penn State's football coach.
He said the past couple of years had been rough on Penn Staters, especially the students who were recent graduates. He said that had changed. He said because of a football coach, this man on stage leaning back in his chair, sans tie, Penn State's pride had been restored. O'Brien didn't have anything to say.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM