UNIVERSITY PARK - If Bill O'Brien's hiring wasn't the proverbial big-name grand slam for which Nittany Lions fans were hoping, Penn State's new football coach clearly hit the ball way out of the park during an introductory press conference Saturday.
Now, if he can coach and recruit as well as he talks, the Nittany Nation will be quite pleased.
O'Brien wowed a packed ballroom of media, PSU staff and supporters at the Nittany Lion Inn with an impressive measure of determination, respect, humility, a sense of humor and an in-charge presence.
He recognized his family and thanked those who molded him en route to this point.
His first good call was to confirm his retention of popular defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
He paid fitting tribute to Joe Paterno, but the most impressive thing he said - even before being asked - was grasping his role as the healer of a fractured Penn State nation.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
(From left) Penn State President Rodney Erickson, football coach Bill O’Brien and acting Athletic Director David Joyner talk prior to O’Brien’s introduction Saturday at the Nittany Lion Inn.
O'Brien crafted his thoughts over the past two nights. He is sending a letter to the entire Lettermen's Club, many members of which are rankled by Paterno's firing and many of whom supported Tom Bradley.
Part of what he wrote follows:
"I understand that there's some controversy out there right now. I can see it. I understand that. But it's my job to head it in the right direction.
"We respect the right to one's opinions, beliefs and contributions to Penn State. We admire one's loyalties to Penn State, Penn State football, its grand tradition, Coach Paterno and all of his football staffs and present and former players. We respectfully request the opportunity to earn your trust."
It was that kind of strong message that, despite O'Brien's lack of head-coaching experience, impressed a search committee that had reached out to him.
He said he will be available to any past player because, knowing he's an outside hire, he senses the importance of relationships, and "the Penn State legacy, in addition to Coach Paterno, is about all these great players who played here."
"I'll be on the phone working 24/7, in addition to recruiting," he said.
But the bottom line, ultimately, will be the bottom line. As O'Brien noted, "winning cures everything."
While he'll do everything possible to salvage this recruiting class, he sees the big picture, underscoring the loyalty shown by staying with the New England Patriots through the NFL playoffs.
"I'm not as concerned about signing this many kids in the next three weeks," he said. "I'm concerned about the next 10 to 20 years here. The best thing I can do is show our team the loyalty and commitment I can for the Patriots."
True, plus the deeper New England goes - not that we're rooting for them against the Steelers - the more exposure O'Brien and Penn State will get.
On the field, O'Brien won't have as much of a challenge. It's no secret that the Lions - given their resources and their history - underachieved for the better part of the last 15 years, especially in big games and especially on offense.
But O'Brien won't distance himself from the Lions' staples, saying, "Defensively, we will continue the great tradition of defenses that have gone before us here."
While at Brown, O'Brien didn't play against Penn State, but his brother Tom played for Brown in a 38-21 loss at Beaver Stadium in 1983.
"He claims as a sophomore to have made a tackle on the kickoff team," O'Brien said. "We've got to go check the film and see if that's correct."
The coach poked fun at himself, too, referencing his baldness by saying, "I look like I'm 50, but I'm only 42, follicularly challenged."
He was blown away by his reception - "unbelievable, what a special program," and said he'll wear his heart on his sleeve.
"I'm myself, so if I see something I think is pretty neat, I'm going to tell you," he said. "When I walked up on the stage, I just thought it was pretty cool to have a lot of people here and that much interest in Penn State football. I knew about it, but it was cool to see it firsthand."
When there were questions O'Brien didn't want to answer, he didn't, and based on the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the uncertainty that awaits, that's not a bad approach.
All in all, O'Brien easily went 1-0 Saturday, and among the admirers was the most loyal and beloved of Penn Staters, Fran Fisher, who watched the proceedings from the back of the room.
"I was impressed, particularly when he was speaking without his notes," Fisher, 88, said. "I was rooting for Bradley - I'll admit that, because I know what he did for this program - but [O'Brien] is our coach, and we've got to stick with him. I wish him well."
So, too, will the Nittany Nation.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoona