Penn State Football: It’s Fun, Billieve It Or Not
It was Wednesday, and the Penn State football team was betwixt and between Ohio State and Purdue. To say nothing of finally breathing easy after Sandy never came.
The Buckeyes were a hard loss and while the Boilermakers hardly look like an easy win, the potential exists for the Nittany Lions to look back, to look past and to just plain overlook.
“So, is this is a trap game?” I asked a semi-regular on the football team. “Will you guys be ready to play?”
The player just smiled, then chuckled a bit.
“Oh, yeah, we’ll be ready. We like to play. It’s fun.”
Fun and Penn State football seemingly haven’t gone hand-in-hand for going on 364 days now. At least from the outside. At least until the wild comeback against Northwestern, that wild-ass NASCAR stuff, the wildly fun fourth-down calls and the College Girls (and Boys) Gone Wild WhiteOut.
But look again. Listen to the underclassman, a kid who decided to stay who through it all is becoming more of a man -- and football player -- faster than he or his folks ever thought possible.
Look again. Look at the unbridled excitement of Michael Mauti and his running mate Gerald Hodges when they make a big play. They run like Jim Valvano after Lorenzo Charles grabbed an airball and then dunked it, giving North Carolina State the NCAA title in 1983. They, like Valvano, are at once celebrating and seeking someone with whom to share it all.
It’s not old school Penn State, but you can’t help but love their enthusiasm and joy and fun. Fun to do -- and fun to watch.
It was Wednesday, and the Penn State football team was betwixt and between Ohio State and Purdue. Sandy had pushed back Bill O’Brien’s weekly press conference in the Beaver Stadium media room from Tuesday to Wednesday. When he walked in the door, O'Brien looked none too pleased.
It was 12:45 p.m., and the first question was about Saturday’s 35-23 loss to Ohio State – a game that ended almost 88 hours ago. That made it more than a half-week old. I think it got old a lot sooner than that. I know O’Brien did.
“Really, to be frank with you,” O’Brien said to the first questioner on the teleconference, “we have moved on from Ohio State and moved on to Purdue. Hopefully we have corrected the mistakes from that game in practice and will continue to do that over the next three days here. But we have a big challenge for us at Purdue, and we've turned the page. We're working on Purdue and we turned the page on Monday.”
It was Wednesday. And as the questions continued via the cantaloupe-sized telephone speaker, as static increasingly garbled the voices – and their questions -- on the other end of the line, O'Brien was clearly not having fun. (In fact, it was the only thing that was clear.)
O’Brien has a very expressive face, and in this instance he stared at the speakerphone, a bit incredulous. Then he looked to the ceiling, showing the whites of his eyes as he raised his eyebrows. He grimaced. He shook his head. This went on for a couple of calls.
“We have to get another speaker, Jeff,” he finally said to his PR guy, Jeff Nelson.
Then a pause. And this part did not make the official transcript of the press conference. A pity:
“That’s like Charlie Brown’s teacher,” O’Brien said. “Wah, wah, wah.”
Cracked everyone up. Changed the mood, too – of O’Brien, of the assembled media. Later, O’Brien joked that his strength coach, Craig Fitzgerald, belongs on “Dancing With the Stars.” Off-camera, off-the-record O’Brien is funny a lot. Wry observations and biting anecdotes. And, he can be plain biting.
The past nine months haven’t allowed for a lot of the softer side of O’Brien. But later in the press conference he shared – just as one of his players did earlier in the day – that he’s having his share of fun, too.
Not that practice is a barrel of monkeys or a yuck a minute. The media gets about a 25-minute glance of practice once a week, and I usually go. O’Brien’s a brash barker, but a diligent hands-on teacher, too. During team stretches, he makes a point of talking one-on-one with a couple of players – seemingly different ones each time.
“I can't tell you how much I enjoy these players,” O’Brien said on Wednesday. “I've had the most fun coaching that I've had compared to any year. I had a ton of fun last year -- we went to a Super Bowl, that was great. This has been just as much if not more fun and rewarding, coaching this team and being around these players.”
He followed that up on Thursday night during his radio show, giving a personal example: “Eric Shrive is one of my favorite guys on the team,” O’Brien said. “Great sense of humor, great work ethic. I think he's really improved and we've got another year with him.”
That was Thursday, and a lot of Penn Staters -- and other people, too -- were betwixt and between Graham Spanier and Tom Corbett and Linda Kelly all day long.
Another storm had landed, this one involving Sandy’s spouse. Not that there’s anything fun or funny about that, for sure.
But consider this: The latest round of charges and presentments is a trap game of its own type as well. And that player I talked with and the coach I listened to know an Ohio State game when they see it – study the films, learn from your mistakes, admit your failings, move on.