In the past Penn State football was selective and abrupt in its outreach. Joe Paterno would fly into New York City, into Washington, D.C., maybe hit four cities all told, and that was the extent of a somewhat perfunctory effort to connect with Nittany Lions alums.
Things were good. There was no pressing need to shuttle one of college football's iconic coaches all over creation on a goodwill tour. But times have changed, bridges need rebuilding and Penn State's athletic department as a whole has spent this spring on a mission to reassure alumni and regain public trust.
New football coach Bill O'Brien was one of four coaches in attendance Wednesday evening as the Penn State athletic bus caravan made its 18th and final stop, this one at the Buffalo Niagara Marriott in Amherst. Some 150 alumni attended, including Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
"This was something right after I was hired that we talked about," O'Brien said in a pre-event media session. "We felt like it was very important to get out and meet people. Obviously there was a legendary, iconic head coach here for 46 years named Joe Paterno that did so many things for this university, for this football program, college football. So there's a new guy in town. So it was really important to get out and meet people and then at the same time to promote our athletic department."
A sonic scandal rocked Penn State last November when a grand jury indicted former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on 40 criminal counts on serial sex abuse of minors. Paterno and Penn State's president were fired. A university that prided itself on its integrity shook to the core.
There are no quick fixes. All the details will come to the fore soon again with the case against Sandusky on the verge of going to trial. Yet O'Brien, after five years as New England Patriots offensive coordinator, was quick to jump when Penn State called to gauge his interest in becoming head coach.
"What motivated me to take this job? There were a number of things," O'Brien said. "I felt I was a good fit for this job because I believe in the same things. I believe in being able to balance academics, football, respect, integrity. It's really the way I was brought up. So I believe in that.
"I grew up watching this football program knowing that I wanted to coach. Ever since I was a little kid this was a football program that I looked up to and a football coach in coach Paterno that I looked up to for many, many years. So when Penn State called and asked if I was interested in the job I jumped at the chance, because I felt this was one of the jewels of college football and a place where you could do a lot of great things and have an impact on a lot of kids' lives."
Two Western New York high school stars will be part of the first Penn State team in almost five decades that won't have Paterno as coach. Redshirt junior John Urschel tops the depth chart at right guard and was honored after spring practice with the Frank Patrick Total Commitment Memorial Award. Urschel has a 4.0 grade-point average.
"This is why you take a job like this," O'Brien said. "To me, you get to be around kids like John Urschel. You're talking about an excellent football player but so much more than that. Four point zero GPA in math and the guy's going to go on to play pro football more than likely but at the same time he's going to have a very successful life after his football career is over. He's had a tremendous spring. To me to he's one of the best players on our team right now the way I evaluate our team. I'm talking about every position."
Urschel will be joined by running back Akeel Lynch, the New York State Gatorade Player of the Year after rushing for a Msgr. Martin Association record 2,136 yards with St. Francis last season. Lynch had made a verbal commitment to Boston College before having a change of heart.
"We're extremely happy to have him coming on," O'Brien said. "He's a big physical back. Recruiting-wise, I was (coaching) in New England, so the way that would work was late at night I would work on a lot of recruiting things for Penn State, mainly watching film and getting to know some of these guys we were recruiting and he was one of the first guys I saw. And then I had the opportunity to meet him over the Blue-White weekend. He came up with his mom. Just a great kid, really think he's got a bright future for us and really happy to have him onboard."
University at Buffalo football has benefitted from the scant effort other schools made to recruit Western New York. James Starks (Niagara Falls) and Naaman Roosevelt (Saint Joseph's Collegiate) both went from the Bulls to the NFL. UB might not be so fortunate with O'Brien at Penn State.
"The (recruiting) focus is a six- to seven-hour driving distance from State College and obviously Western New York falls in that area," he said. "Pennsylvania's a huge focus for us and this is so close. We just came up here from Erie and to me this is a place where we can find good student-athletes, Division I football players that care about a meaningful degree."
O'Brien attended all 18 stops on the caravan. Joining him in Buffalo were men's hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, women's hockey coach Josh Brandwene and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik.