Penn State Football: At Halftime, Who’s Winning the Coaches Caravan?
It’s halftime of the 2013 Penn State Coaches Caravan. And once again, Bill O’Brien is winning.
Last May, in his rookie year, O’Brien led a Penn State contingent that visited seven states in nine days with 18 stops. This May, the barnstorming tour is a bit less intense, but the message remains clear.
“No. 1, I just want to personally thank everyone for their support of the program and how much that’s going to mean to us moving forward,” O’Brien said last Tuesday at the tour’s first stop, Penn State’s Berks campus in Reading.
“The other goal is to give everyone the truth. Tell them where the program is at, where we think it’s headed and how we intend to go from there.”
That thinking basically drove the big blue Fullington bus last week, with succeeding stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Lancaster and Camp Hill. In all, O’Brien, some fellow Penn State head coaches and a supporting cast of alumni and athletic administrators traveled about 625 miles.
Starting Tuesday, they return to the road, heading to Williamsport, the Lehigh Valley, New York City, Scranton, DuBois and Pittsburgh. (O'Brien and his wife Colleen were in Hershey Saturday night as well, attending a gala benefiting the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Also in attendance was Gov. Tom Corbett.)
Last week, the Caravan met with over 2,100 alumni and fans and, at every stop, O’Brien held a press conference beforehand. The dynamics of O’Brien’s “Meet the Press” sessions varied. The first Q&A drew almost 25 reporters and TV people, and the questioning was hard-core. But the mini-pressers in Baltimore and D.C. drew only five media types at each. As the week went along, many of the questions were recycled -- Steven Bench, Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg; the NCAA sanctions and reduced scholarships; recruiting. And so were the answers. The same was true in sessions with the fans.
A conversation with just a few reporters in Lancaster featured a wide range of subjects – from music at practice to why it’s better to have more tackles than any other offensive line position. (OB’s reason: A good OT can also play OG and C.) This is where O’Brien was at his best and most thoughtful, sans tie, with insight into his thought process a bit more open -- especially when it comes to football strategy. When he’s in a mode like that, it’s like an old-fashioned chalk talk and gives a neat glimpse into the depth of his thinking.
Overall, the tour – however challenging – has already registered five big wins for O’Brien and Penn State:
1. Messages With Legs. Whether there were two dozen or just a handful of reporters at each stop, O’Brien’s straightforward message got out there again and again. Filings from the Associated Press were part of the reason, but just as impactful were links to stories and blogs and videos that spread seamlessly across the Internet. A few writers and TV people, augmented by some top-notch video work by Penn State athletics itself, did the work of many.
2. BOT Antidote. Penn State’s Board of Trustees election and organizational realignment grabbed plenty of headlines last week, continually harkening back to the Sandusky scandal and the turmoil that ensued. Having an alternate message out that there, focusing primarily on the Nittany Lions' success on the field and secondarily on the success of Penn State athletics as a whole, provided some counterweight. Obviously, that’s been an ongoing challenge for O’Brien – and will continue to be.
3. Pennsylvania’s Team. The core constituency of the 2013 Caravan is folks who live in Pennsylvania. Three of the events are on Penn State campuses, while the overall focus is much more concentrated on staying in-state in 2013. This not only truncates the travel itinerary, but goes right at the ticket-buyers, donors and loyalists who comprise the core of Penn State football support – now more than ever. It’s a big reason why the Penn State Alumni Association and the Nittany Lion Club are footing the bill.
4. Shows Off Cael Sanderson. The Penn State wrestling coach recently won his third consecutive NCAA title, and he may have gone 159-0 as a collegiate wrestler, but he’s still in the shadows a bit. But on the tour many folks saw his other sides – funny, humble, thoughtful, approachable. A big win for the big guy.
5. Sets The Table. A spoonful of sugar may help make the medicine go down, but O’Brien wasn’t very syrupy in his state of the program addresses. Penn State is already down to its NCAA minimum 65 scholarships a year early. The Blue-White Game will probably change. Vagaries of the sanctions. Run-on dynamics.
Whether with the media or the fans, part of O’Brien’s charge was not to paint a pretty picture, but rather an honest one. That strategy, as much as anything, will help keep expectations in check in the next few months – and years.