UNVIERSITY PARK - As former Bellwood-Antis High School football standout and longtime official Buss Carr stood at the podium to accept his award for a lifetime of service to the sport in the commonwealth, his thoughts hearkened back to his days playing at Susquehanna University for the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg and he turned to the man seated to his right.
"He was there coaching, 89, 90-years old,'' Carr mused. "Do you think you'll make it, Bill?''
Bill O'Brien just shook his head, grinned and responded loud enough that, even without a microphone, those near the honorees table of the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel could hear him say, 'Not a chance,'' drawing a laugh.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
PSU football coach Bill O’Brien chats with Steve Jones (left) and Gary Chrisman (right).
O'Brien might last as long on the job as Stagg or as his own predecessor at Penn State, Joe Paterno, but it was apparent by the comments and the record crowd the Nittany Lions' new head coach attracted to the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame's 15th annual awards banquet on Sunday afternoon that he's made a strong first impression.
"I think he's a great man,'' said Huntingdon's Taylor Garman, one of 16 scholarship nominees from a group of more than 40 nominees present from high schools throughout the region. "I think he's going to uphold the traditional values of Penn State with the academic thing, but I think his experience in the NFL will bring something new.''
O'Brien took a couple of hours away from preparing to today's first day of spring practice at Penn State to be the featured speaker at the banquet. Beforehand, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator took questions from a handful of media members for about 20 minutes, then going on to accept well wishes from, take pictures with and sign footballs for those in attendance.
In addition to Carr and the high school scholarship winners, the chapter also presented Altoona Mirror managing editor Neil Rudel with its inaugural Fran Fisher Award for excellence in sports journalism, longtime Lycoming College coach Frank Girardi its Lifetime Achievement Award and Jackie George the Athletic Trainer of the Year Award.
Top senior scholar-athletes from nine central Pennsylvania colleges also were recognized, among them Juniata's Brett Shippey (Bedford), Lock Haven's Jarryd Burkett (Altoona), St. Francis' Luke McConnell (Bishop Guilfoyle) and IUP's Johnny Franco (Tyrone).
"We're excited. We've had a really good winter in the weight room and in our conditioning on the practice field and in Holuba [Hall]. We're ready to go. We've got a good bunch of kids, and we're really looking forward to starting,'' O'Brien said of his feelings about getting to open spring drills today during the pre-banquet reception. "I'm so sick of sitting in that office. I can't wait to get out there and start coaching football.''
O'Brien said some of the points of emphasis this spring will be to try to balance out the numbers on offense, defense and of specialists - he said there'll be some position changes - while beginning to identify the top 60 players on the team and installing his systems.
"From everything I've read, I think he's going to do very well,'' said Girardi, who posted a 257-95-5 record in a 36-year head coaching stint at Lycoming that overlapped with much of Paterno's career.
Girardi attributed the foundation of his success to good recruiting, and many of the questions O'Brien fielded from the media focused on that subject, as well. The Lions are off to a fast start with five four-star-or-better verbal commitments for their 2013 class.
"We have a tremendous university, a really, really good football program, a lot to sell academically, a huge amount to sell,'' O'Brien said. "Yesterday, we had about seven junior recruits on campus, and the more you're here, the more you realize how special it is.
"This is the jewel of college football. We need to understand that.''
O'Brien said he would like the core of the Lion roster to be made up of players from within driving distance of Penn State. To that end, events like Sunday's have been very important in getting his message out as well as connecting to the majority of the state's high school coaches with whom he had no contact before taking the job in January.
O'Brien already has spoken at clinics in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Allentown, and Penn State will host its spring coaches clinic this weekend.
"It's important for me and our team and our staff to get out in the community and get to know people, and it's important for people to see what we're all about as a staff and a team,'' O'Brien said.
The theme of O'Brien's speech was leadership and the qualities he felt it took to develop it, like communication, honesty, competence, a "good heart'' and courage.
"There's some important points I want to get across to these guys, because it's very rare that you can have a group of kids in one room who really are the future leaders, potentially of the state and the country,'' O'Brien said. "To me, we've got to do a better job with leadership overall.''
O'Brien engaged a crowd of about 650 at the banquet and a full conference room at the reception with the help of a dry wit - he broke up those in attendance and helped to make his points with personal anecdotes about how Patriots coach Bill Belichick calls today's social network "Spacebook'' instead of Facebook when it comes to the importance of face-to-face personal relationships and being told to leave early to catch a flight out of the State College airport because of the relatively heavy traffic after having lived the last five years in often-gridlocked Boston.
"He's very inspiring. He's a great speaker. He really knows how to draw the most out of people,'' said State College all-state running back Jack Haffner, who will be playing for O'Brien as a walk-on.
A member of Bellwood-Antis' undefeated 1946 team, Carr, the PIAA representative at the national rules committee meeting and the statewide rules interpreter since 1981, was recognized for his 40 years as a football official. He was touched almost of the point of tears when he talked about his family and his fellow officials' roles in his winning of the Lifetime of Service Award.
Rudel, now the senior writer for Penn State football entering his 36th season on the beat, expressed his admiration for Fisher, the longtime voice of the Nittany Lions, who introduced him.
"He's been a tremendous ambassador for Penn State,'' Rudel said. "I grew up watching him, looking up to him and listening to him on "Nittany Lion Hotline" before it was a call-in show.''
Along with Garman, Williamsburg's Lucas Hearn, Chestnut Ridge's Brad Hengst, Hollidaysburg's Dan Nagle, Altoona's Tyler Palfey, Central's Matt Ritchey and Central Cambria's Luke Zearing were area players presented scholarships for their combination of academic and on-field performance.
West Branch's Ronnie Gurbal won the Joe Sarra Community Service Award.