On Saturday afternoon, Penn State's annual spring game closed the door on one legacy and started another.
Despite the fact that late head coach Joe Paterno was relieved of his duties Nov. 9, the Penn State football program has spent much of the last six months grappling with his 61-year legacy. Along with the wins and national rankings he achieved with the Nittany Lions, there of course was the sexual abuse scandal that proved to be Paterno's downfall. But on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, it seemed like the estimated 60,000 fans in attendance had finally embraced Bill O'Brien as their new head coach. So too did his players.
The score didn't matter much and neither did the play of either offense - both sides of the intrasquad scrimmage struggled to move the ball in the annual Blue-White Game. Using a system that awarded points not only for touchdowns and field goals but also for plays such as turnovers and sacks, the defense in blue uniforms beat the offense in white 77-65. Truth be told, the result was secondary.
Just months after the Jerry Sandusky scandal brought shame to the campus and ended the Paterno legacy after 409 wins and two national championships, the football program seems to have fully embraced the transition to O'Brien.
"This is a very unique year. The seniors, we're going to set traditions and we're going to keep some old traditions or start new ones," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "We don't really know yet what we want to keep but some stuff we are keeping. Coach O'Brien has incorporated some of the old stuff and some of the new stuff. Every day is just a new experience."
Old traditions die hard in a place where Paterno was synonymous with not just the football team but the entire university. He wasn't just the school in Happy Valley — he was bigger than the school, which made his fall terribly hard for a school that adored him. It also leaves behind awfully big shoes for O'Brien to fill.
Despite the persona of Paterno, the campus was rocked by the scandal which alleged that Sandusky, a former Nittany Lions defense coordinator, had molested young boys in his mentorship program on the ground of the State College campus. Further mucking the situation was that the athletic department had covered up the events. With Paterno's passing this past January, perhaps as much from a broken heart as from his battle with lung cancer, O'Brien is now very much the face of the program.
And his coaching staff, which meshes parts of Paterno's storied coaches along with new faces, had the opportunity to get the feel of game conditions with their new team for the first time.
"It's learning a new language for a lot of guys," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "We're not re-inventing the wheel. It's just: what may have been called apples are now called oranges. We're doing some experimenting with a couple of things, and, as a coach, one of the goals going into spring ball was finding out who we are. You know? What can we do well? Because, I think good coaches figure out what their players can do and then adjust their job description based on that.
"It's good for us to get a feel of where we are, and moving forward some of the things we really do well and some of the things we need to reevaluate and see if we need to make adjustments and how we do it or whatever. But, the spring was really good as far as that aspect."
Despite receiving an initial cold response from former Penn State players and alumni who wanted one of their own on the sidelines, O'Brien is saying and doing all the right things. As important as spring practice and the spring game is to next season, Saturday was every bit about recruiting and making impressions. So far, O'Brien's NFL pedigree is paying dividends.
Already O'Brien and his staff have hauled in eight recruits, including six four-star prospects according to Rivals.com. It has been a fast and furious start for the new staff on the recruiting trail, especially considering that in the last two years under Paterno, the Nittany Lions hauled in "just" seven four-star recruits during that time.
Saturday afternoon in front of approximately 60,000 fans for the spring scrimmage, O'Brien completed a spring season that was as much about transitioning from Paterno's 61 years with the program as it was about shaping his team for this fall.
"It was a great day. It was really pretty neat for me to run out with the team, and we've got a bunch of guys that are very excited to be a part of this Penn State football family," O'Brien said.
"It was a fun day for me to coach a spring game in Beaver Stadium."
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