STATE COLLEGE — The contingent, appropriately dressed in blue and white, gathered in front of the blue and white bus with the unmistakable logo of the Penn State mascot.
But one man was missing, with nearly 10 minutes to go Tuesday, before the 9:30 a.m. departure time.
“Who are we waiting for,” Penn State field hockey coach Char Morett asked an athletic department official. “The big guy?”
Five minutes later, Bill O’Brien appeared with a stuffed black briefcase in one hand, a jacket in the other.
It was time to start another week of the Penn State coaches caravan.
Crisscrossing Pennsylvania and neighboring states to hit Penn State alumni strongholds, the caravan was a thank-you trip to fans, as well as an opportunity to do some face-to-face fundraising, and promote ticket sales.
Some of Penn State’s true blue supporters showed, from current students to well-to-do alumni. After a successful first season on the sideline in the face of unprecedented pressures, O’Brien clearly has the respect of the fan base.
“I believe in Penn State, and I believe in what we’re trying to do here,” O’Brien said. “There are two goals for me in this caravan. Thank people for their support but also try to make sure they understand how important their continued support is and hopefully they can spread the word.”
Twelve stops in two weeks. It’s a grueling road trip, though not quite as ambitious as the three-week, 18-stop tour last year, before O’Brien ever coached a game in Happy Valley.
The Associated Press followed O’Brien on several stops and had permission to travel on the bus for a look at a typical day on the road. Here are some highlights.
OFF TO WILLIAMSPORT
At 9:31 a.m. Tuesday, the bus slowly pulled out of the Founders Entrance parking lot at the Jordan Center, where the Penn State athletic department has its offices. O’Brien settled into the plush blue couch in the back, briefcase nearby.
The smart phone was never far. Wearing a light-colored dress shirt, gray dress pants and sharp black dress shoes, O’Brien looked as if he could be headed to midtown Manhattan for another 12-hour day in the corner office.
But the vista out the window included small family farms with fields freshly plowed for spring planting, and grazing dairy cows. Williamsport was the first stop.
The sidekicks, drawn from the roster of coaches from other sports, switch from day to day, but O’Brien was the constant. This day, it’s Morett and affable men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik on the bus.
The coaches view this time as one of the favorite parts of the trip. The onstage program often depicts a bus ride full of lighthearted verbal jabs, like grown-up siblings on a family reunion.
But that’s not quite as obvious on Tuesday’s travel leg then the exchange of ideas and frank conversation about coaching in the back of the bus.
Soon enough, discussion turned to the long-term obstacles at football.
“It’s a six-year sanction. Starting in 2014, we’ve got to get down to 65,” O’Brien told Morett and Pavlik. He referred to one of the strict NCAA penalties for the child sex abuse scandal involving retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
The words “scandal” and “Sandusky” can induce cringes in weary Happy Valley. Those words were never specifically mentioned in the caravan program, perhaps wisely so.
In their place were the words “the situation.” Everyone in the friendly caravan crowds knows to what those words refer.
Karen Wright, of Williamsport, said she had her doubts when O’Brien first arrived at Penn State in January 2012 from the New England Patriots because he didn’t have Penn State ties.
“After I watched him, and how he interacted with the team, I was thrilled,” said Wright, who works at the caravan’s first stop at the Penn College campus in Williamsport. “He was the best thing that could have happened, when it happened.”
WILLIAMSPORT TO LEHIGH VALLEY
Nearly three hours after arriving in Williamsport, the caravan was off again. Next stop, a Holiday Inn conference center outside Allentown in the Lehigh Valley.
It’s also lunch time for the caravan crew. The coaches don’t eat much during the stops. Grilled chicken over salad for this meal on the bus, served in clear plastic containers.
The bus talk among the three coaches was just as much about volleyball and field hockey then it was about football. But the football topics sound a lot like the same questions that come up in news conferences, or in the question-and-answer periods with fans.
“You guys very rarely spend two hours of practice,” Pavlik inquired of O’Brien at one point.
Not two full hours of hitting each day during this year’s spring practice. With fewer scholarship players and depth concerns at certain positions, keeping players healthy for the fall is especially important.
“Penn State will always be known for physical play,” O’Brien said, “but we’ve got to manage how we get there.”
O’Brien’s predecessor, Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno, used to run 40-play scrimmages on Thursdays of game weeks. It was part of a regimen aimed at being more physical than opponents on Saturdays.
For as much as O’Brien is appreciated, there remains a healthy segment of fans who remain loyal to Paterno, who was fired days after Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011.
That’s evident amid the conversation over beers among fans at the hotel bar, and by a few “409” bumper stickers in the hotel parking lot. That’s the number of victories Paterno had before the NCAA vacated 111 of wins as part of the sanctions.
For this segment of fans at the caravan, there’s an appreciation for both the job O’Brien did in 2012 and Paterno’s 46-year tenure.
At the four stops attended this year by The Associated Press, O’Brien has relayed to fans his promise to Paterno before his death in January 2012 at age 85 that he said would continue to highlight academics while trying to win on the field.
“We’re going to try to uphold that tradition here and we always will. We owe that to coach Paterno and I’ll try to do that as long as I’m the head football coach,” O’Brien said to an applauding crowd.
OFF TO DUBOIS
By the first stop of the last day of the caravan Thursday, O’Brien had ditched the tie.
“How many questions do you have left, really,” he asked jokingly of reporters — most of whom had already attended other caravan stops.
By now, the questions about the open quarterback job have disappeared, both from media and fans.
Yes, Penn State is considering a trip to Ireland to play a game, though plans aren’t final yet.
“Oh for God’s sake, I can’t give you an update on that,” O’Brien told fans in his best rendition of an Irish brogue.
No, he didn’t mistakenly curse in a post-game television interview following the emotional 24-21 win in overtime over Wisconsin to finish the 2012 season.
He said “fighters.” Really.
“It was a very windy night,” he said, motioning with his hand. “Wind causes problems with the microphone.”
There was another appreciative helping of applause for O’Brien, Pavlik and men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, the newcomer on this caravan leg. O’Brien shook a few more hands and posed for a few more pictures while leaning down from the stage before exiting to his left.
It was time to get back on the bus.