UNIVERSITY PARK - After Saturday's thrilling 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin that triggered a wild midfield celebration, Bill O'Brien grabbed a microphone and yelled to the Beaver Stadium student section, "I only have one thing to say: 'We are!'''
Then O'Brien hustled up the tunnel to the Nittany Lion locker room, where more emotion awaited.
The players chanted, "Coach O-B, Coach O-B," and tears flowed - O'Brien's and his players - after a roller-coaster season unlike any in college football history ended with Penn State's eighth victory in 10 games and a championship feeling.
"We've had some good victory celebrations, but this one was special," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "Lot of tears of joy."
O'Brien told the Lions that he's coached many teams, but this one, because of the adversity it overcame in staying together, recovering from an 0-2 start and finishing strong, "is special."
And it was - because of him.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Bill O'Brien went 8-4 in his first season at Penn State.
Though O'Brien likes to credit the players, especially the seniors, the manner in which he handled replacing a legend in Joe Paterno and the NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, was exemplary.
He not only kept the team focused, but he involved the players in important decisions, such as putting names on the uniforms and honoring the injured Michael Mauti by placing the No. 42 on each helmet for Saturday's game.
"It's a players' game," O'Brien said.
He also brought an exciting offensive style, the likes of which Penn State fans had never seen.
He took a borderline talent in quarterback Matt McGloin and made him the best passer in the Big Ten.
"Saved my career," McGloin said Saturday.
He brought the tight end into prominence with Jesse James' three catches for 90 yards and a 41-yard touchdown among the keys to beating Wisconsin.
He installed a fast-paced NASCAR offense that kept the Big Ten on its heels and showcased a punishing running game behind Zach Zwinak while
embracing a gambling defensive style that featured considerable blitzing and man-to-man coverage.
"He makes the game so much fun," Carson, who will be a team leader in 2013, said. "I just had a blast playing for him."
O'Brien also nurtured placekicker Sam Ficken, fragile from an 0-for-4 performance in an early-season 17-16 loss to Virginia, back into reliability that was rewarded - for the player and the team - with a game-winning field goal that beat the Badgers.
It was one more example of the home-run hire Penn State made in January.
"He's was the right man for the job," McGloin said.
Mauti called O'Brien "a great leader and a phenomenal head coach. I think the program is definitely going in the right direction, and that's a testament to him.
Then Mauti added, "That's the [national] coach of the year."
Though there are no current openings in the NFL, where O'Brien spent the last five years as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, and despite a long-term contract here, his name likely will come up when the Sunday league starts its annual housecleaning in January.
Saturday, though, he sounded like a coach who expects to be back on the Beaver Stadium sidelines.
He said he and his staff plan "to hit the ground Monday," on next year. That will include a recruiting trip Wednesday through Friday and welcoming a large number of prospects next weekend.
A one-on-one with each returning player in the upcoming days will be a priority, he said, as "kind of an exit interview from this year - a 15-minute talk of where they are academically and what they have to do to be better [on the field]."
He said this year's schematic template may be much different by the spring.
"Who knows? Maybe we'll come out in the wishbone next year," he said. "Whatever suits us. It takes time to evaluate that, but as far as our coaching staff and myself, we're ready to go to the next stage, which is recruiting."
A whirlwind year that began with his hiring, a trip to the Super Bowl, a coaches' caravan to stir/rebuild interest and dealing with the disappointment/disbelief of the NCAA sanctions, O'Brien emerged Saturday eager to build on 2012.
"I feel we've accomplished a lot this year," he said. "Hopefully we can go into the offseason and figure out what we can do better."
That would be called an encore.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.