The cameras came last summer to record a program being torn down. They returned a year later to discover exactly how it’s still standing.
At the center of it is Bill O’Brien, who started his second training camp as Penn State’s head coach being tailed by ESPN into the team’s Lasch Building headquarters.
“We’ll play teams that have more players than us, numbers-wise,” O’Brien told the Nittany Lions in their first meeting in August as the cameras rolled. “Who cares?”
The coach’s voice grew louder.
“And who cares what everybody out there says. And what everybody out there thinks. It doesn’t matter. It matters what the people in this room think. And what we believe. And what we’re building.
“What we’re going to do is show people the work that we’ve put in. And that we can win games.”
As the 2013 season opens this week, the goals have remained the same for Penn State despite the NCAA sanctions that still loom over Happy Valley.
O’Brien and the Lions survived Round 1. They not only avoided the widely predicted knockout, they probably came out ahead on points.
Round 2 begins Saturday. How did they pull it off?
For the players, the word that immediately comes to mind when talking about O’Brien is “honest.” It’s sometimes preceded by “brutally.”
One thing O’Brien has not done is sugar-coat Penn State’s situation, as they break camp with 66 scholarship players, nearly 20 fewer than most of their Big Ten foes will be armed with. Of those 66, two are already out for the season with injuries — junior defensive end Brad Bars and true freshman receiver DaeSean Hamilton.
Because of that, O’Brien and his staff have had to leave their comfort zones and do some experimenting. A shortage of healthy linebackers? See if the safeties can help out in certain packages. Play two quarterbacks? If they have to, they will.
What has helped the Lions move forward is that O’Brien isn’t about to complain about any of it.
Identify a problem. Fix it. Sanctions or no.
“We can’t stick our head in the sand and think that everything’s going to be glorious every single day,” O’Brien said. “We understand that this is unprecedented. Uncharted waters.
“But we don’t see it as daunting. We just see it as a challenge that nobody’s had to go through in coaching. And maybe we can write the roadmap for it.”
That attitude helped keep the program together last summer when players were allowed to transfer immediately and without penalty to escape the sanctions. That threat very nearly destroyed the roster.
An effort spearheaded by O’Brien and 2012 captains Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich stopped it from happening.
“He really kept this team together. He’s a hell of a football coach,” senior guard John Urschel said. “And we’re blessed to have him. We wouldn’t rather have any other football coach at Penn State. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
“That guy could have easily cut and run on us. But he stuck with us. He’s still with us. We’re better for it.”
“Honestly, I can’t even imagine that,” Urschel said. “Because without him, I don’t even know where we are right now. He’s crucial in getting us to where we are today.”
A sign hangs high on the wall in the coaches’ meeting room at the Lasch Building, positioned above the head of the table where O’Brien sits.
WE ARE NOT COLLECTING TALENT.
WE ARE BUILDING A TEAM.
Good advice for any college program. Absolutely essential for Penn State at the moment.
For the future, it’s especially important for the Lions’ recruiting classes, the next three of which are capped at 15 scholarships because of the sanctions. With those reduced numbers, the Lions simply can’t afford to miss on the prospects they sign.
Now more than ever, the focus has to be on a player’s attitude, his work ethic and where he’ll fit on the roster as much as his recruiting ranking.
The foundation for what Penn State’s program must become moving forward has been built by the players who elected to stay in State College.
“A lot of people thought we were done,” said senior lineman Garry Gilliam, who may have been the first player last summer to publicly pledge his commitment to the program.
O’Brien is quick to downplay his role in it all, rightfully pointing out that the year was salvaged primarily because the team rebounded to win eight of the final 10 games.
And when it came to keeping the roster together, the 2012 senior class likely had the biggest impact. Last July, players were far more attached to teammates than they were to an overhauled coaching staff.
“I don’t think people know how much love the players on this team have for each other,” Urschel said. “And how much we’d fight for each other.”
Nothing is going to recreate the exact atmosphere — the good and the bad — as last year. Mauti and Zordich are both gone, as are fellow captains Matt McGloin, Jordan Hill and a host of other vocal Penn State veterans.
And while the program owes those departed leaders a great debt, O’Brien wanted to make sure the underclassmen got their due credit as well.
“The (2012 seniors), that was a fantastic group of guys, and they were instrumental in keeping us together,” O’Brien said. “But if you think about it, where were those seniors gonna go? They were bleeding blue and white. So the commitment from guys that had two and three years of eligibility left and the ‘13 recruting class, those guys meant a ton. They came to Penn State during a time that will go down in history as not the easiest of times, but also a special time.
“Who knows where this road’s going. But in five, six years, if we have a championship year, we’ll always look back at these (underclassmen) that were a bunch of guys got through a tough period and what they meant for the program.”
Players like former Wyoming Valley Conference star Eugene Lewis faced the prospect of not being able to play in a bowl game or compete for a championship for their entire careers. Lewis and fellow District 2 alum Nyeem Wartman were both able to redshirt in 2012 and will see the postseason ban lifted should they stay for a fifth and final season of eligibility.
The key message from O’Brien to his team is that they can’t afford to dwell on the past. While it’s certainly tempting to remain bitter about the NCAA or Jerry Sandusky or the media, that can’t be what drives them.
As the 2013 seniors tell it, the love of the game and the team has to win out over any anger over their circumstances.
“It’s not an issue of us against the world,” Urschel said. “We’re just a football team, full of good football players. We love to play the game and we love to play each other. That’s it. And we really love to play football.
“Football has never been more fun for me than it was last year. And I hope this season is even more fun. Even more enjoyable.”
And then there are those cameras.
Penn State football has changed in the past 18 months because it had no other choice. While the fanbase will always debate if the changes are necessary — the names on the uniforms inevitably comes up — many of them have been implemented to try and combat the sanctions.
Right at the top of the list is the mostly all-access pass Penn State gave to ESPN this summer to follow coaches and players through training camp. While it would be correct to say that Joe Paterno would never think of signing off on that endeavor, it would be just as correct to say that Joe Paterno never had to recruit players and promote his school under the cloud of a historic scandal.
For O’Brien’s part, to be sure, it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I hesitated a little bit with that,” O’Brien said. “But I think at the end of the day, I always think about our players. And I think we have fantastic guys here that represent this place very well. You can get on national TV and have those cameras see these guys play football for us, go to school and are just really great kids.
“I can’t tell you enough what fantastic kids these guys are. Fun to coach. And so I thought that was a big part of it and I hope that’s what comes out of it.”
The series dubbed “Training Days” began with an hour-long special on ESPN and portrayed O’Brien, Penn State and its players in a very positive light.
At the end of program, O’Brien gave his answer to how Penn State has managed to stay afloat so far. And why the players have held together.
“When you think about what these kids have committed to — none of these kids have to be here right now,” he said. “Why are they here?
“They’re here because they care about each other.
“They’re here because they believe in what we’re doing.
“They’re here because when you run out of that tunnel in front of 108,000 fans, that means a lot to you.
“They’re here because it’s Penn State.”