Blue White Illustrated

February 2022

Penn State Sports Magazine

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F E B R U A R Y 2 0 2 2 6 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M Meanwhile, O'Brien also was putting his staff together, retaining longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and eventually hiring six new assistants. One of his first moves was to bring in Craig Fitzgerald from the University of South Carolina as director of strength and con- ditioning to take charge of the winter workouts for the players. The players were stunned when Fitzgerald told them to be at the Lasch Building at 5 a.m. on the outdoor practice fields adjoining the Lasch Building facilities. On Feb. 5, the New York Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, 21-17, and O'Brien returned immediately to Penn State. On Feb. 17, O' Brien invited the media to attend an early morning workout. As I described in my book "We Are Penn State: The Remarkable Journey of the 2012 Nittany Lions," the temperature at 5:15 a.m. when the workout started was 37 degrees with a wind chill below freezing. The players were wearing vari- ous layers of clothing and winter knit caps, and some 20 reporters there were shocked to see Fitzgerald wearing just a T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap. For more than an hour, with heavy metal music blaring, Fitzgerald and O'Brien ran the players through a series of intense drills. There were sprints, leg lifts, all-out WWE-style wrestling matches and tugs- of-war between one player from the of- fense and one from the defense. Equipment manager Spider Caldwell said that at first players vocally wondered, "Who is this crazy guy?" But there was a method to the madness. "It's important for these guys to under- stand that when you walk off this field, there's a winner and a loser," O'Brien said. "That's what we're doing right now. When you're out here, that's what it's all about. You either win or you lose. There's really no gray area in football. We try to make it fun, but at the same time, we make them understand who's won and who's lost." O'Brien said the early morning ses- sions gave him a sense of optimism that players were warming to his brand of leadership. "There's a lot of spirit and enthusi- asm," he said. "That's what Fitz does. And at the same time, they're getting better. I wouldn't say it's 100 percent buy-in, but we're getting there. The guys have seen improvement in their own performance already, so it's good." He added, "We want guys who are moving. We want guys who play fast. We want guys who are in great condi- tion. We're going to try to play at a high tempo next year, and we want guys who are trying to get stronger every day. We want to move weight, and that's what's really important." The following month, O'Brien sur- prised the Penn State beat reporters on the opening day of spring practice by inviting them to watch the last hour of that day's practice. Throughout the Pa- terno years, practices were off-limits. Meanwhile, prosecutors were fast- tracking the charges against Sandusky. He went on trial on June 5 and three weeks later was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse involving 10 boys. Af- ter various appeals, on Oct. 8 the judge sentenced him to a prison term of 30 to 60 years. Seventeen days after Sandusky's con- viction, Freeh disclosed the results of his investigation in a news release issued July 12. His damning report focused on failures of leadership within the foot- ball program and in Old Main. Freeh did not meet with the board of trustees be- fore or after issuing the 267-page docu- ment, and the board apparently never discussed the report with him. Two weeks later, in another televised news conference, the NCAA astonished the public and media by issuing unprec- edented and severe sanctions against the Penn State football program, citing a lack of "institutional control." It was the first time in a major case that the NCAA did not conduct its own investigation and also the first time that it had acted in a criminal matter. What the NCAA didn't do was imple- ment the infamous death penalty, which would have closed down the football program for a number of years. NCAA president Mark Emmert said the death penalty would cause "significant harm to many who had nothing to do with this case." During the rest of the spring and summer, O'Brien kept the team together by bonding with its leaders, particularly eventual co-captains Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich. O'Brien also set up a meeting at the football facility with dozens of lettermen from all over the country. Everything came together for the 2012 team to post an amazing 8-4 record. Because of the unprecedented circumstances, it is remembered as one of Penn State's all-time great teams. O'Brien was named Big Ten Coach of the Year and later won the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award, which goes to the na- tional coach of the year. He coached at Penn State for one more season, going 7-5 in 2013 before returning to the NFL as head coach of the Houston Texans. O'Brien was back in the college game this past season, serving as Alabama's offensive coordinator during its run to the SEC title and the championship game of the College Football Playoff. As of mid-January, he was reportedly un- der consideration for one of several va- cant NFL head coaching positions. His first year at Penn State was like noth- ing he could have ever expected, but it helped turn him into one of the most recognizable figures in football. ■ "We want guys who are moving. We want guys who play fast. We want guys who are in great condition. We're going to try to play at a high tempo next year, and we want guys who are trying to get stronger every day. We want to move weight, and that's what's really important." B I L L O ' B R I E N

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