O'Brien debuts, Penn St wraps up spring practice
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - Penn State's new coach draped a whistle around his neck, wore a headset and anxiously paced the Beaver Stadium sideline in blue and gray sweats.
Indeed, it is a new era in Happy Valley.
Nearly four months after taking the Nittany Lions job, Bill O'Brien made his sideline debut as Penn State closed out spring practice with the annual Blue-White game Saturday.
It was the most visible step forward so far for a football program transitioning from the 46-year tenure of O'Brien's predecessor, the late Joe Paterno.
There were mixed emotions among many in the thousands of fans who showed up on a cloudy afternoon.
Some came to the life-sized, bronzed statue of Paterno outside the stadium to share stories about the Hall of Famer and leave flowers. The game Saturday was the first event at the stadium since Paterno died in January at age 85 of lung cancer.
The day started with a local florist delivering 409 bouquets of blue and white carnations to the statue - one for each of Paterno's career victories. Emotions among some fans are still raw after Paterno was ousted by school trustees in the aftermath of child sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
"Thanks so much to all the people leaving flowers at the statue today. It was very moving this morning,'' Paterno's son and former quarterbacks coach, Jay Paterno, said on Twitter.
Jay Paterno hugged well-wishers and spoke with former Penn State running back Franco Harris, an ardent supporter of the Paterno family, after the flowers were delivered.
But most fans also say they're looking forward to the future under O'Brien, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
Paterno was unmistakable on the sideline with his khakis and jet-black sneakers. He didn't wear a headset, preferring to stay old school to relay messages with coaches in the press box through an assistant. Paterno had said wearing a headset made him lose a feel for the game.
Not O'Brien, who looked as if he was still coaching Tom Brady in his previous job as offensive coordinator for the Patriots. He called plays off a sheet he religiously clutched in his right hand while he communicated with his staff in the press box over a headset.
Near the end of the first half of the glorified scrimmage, instead of getting one more play in with less than 10 seconds left, he motioned for his players to head to the locker room for an early breather.
But his new charges most definitely aren't the Patriots. No Brady. No Rob Gronkowski at tight end rumbling down the seam to bowl over a defensive back.
O'Brien, though, is trying to incorporate the base of the New England offense into Penn State's revamped scheme - one of the biggest changes of the spring. He also instituted a new strength and conditioning program based more on Olympic-style lifting and free weights.
Recruiting for the 2013 class appears to be going well so far, too.
Pamela Burg, of Harrisburg, helped organized the flower drop-off at the Paterno statue, part of the reason the lifelong Penn State fan attended her first spring football game.
"And welcoming coach O'Brien and supporting'' the players, she said. "Especially those kids in the new class that even after this scandal, this controversy, decided to come to Penn State. That really takes a pretty mature man to want to do that.''
Among notable names at the game was Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, a guest of Penn State head athletic trainer Tim Bream.
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