Lions officially going to Ireland

Penn State won’t be able go to a bowl game because of the NCAA sanctions, but players on next year’s team will get to enjoy a rare and unique experience with a trip to Ireland.

Penn State made it official Sunday when it announced the football team will play Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland on Aug. 30, 2014 at Croke Park. It’s being called the Croke Park Classic, and it will serve as a reward trip for the players that coach Bill O’Brien indicated very early on in his PSU tenure that he would like to do.

The Nittany Lions originally were scheduled to host Temple on Aug. 30 next year, but that game has been pushed back to Nov. 15 at Beaver Stadium. Penn State was to have had a bye that week, but now the Temple game will be between road trips to Big Ten opponents Indiana (Nov. 8) and Illinois (Nov. 22).

Next year’s game in Dublin will be the first international contest in the 127-year history of the Penn State football program. It will kick off at 8:30 a.m. EST – 1:30 p.m. local time in Dublin – and Croke Park will have an estimated seating capacity of 69,000.

Despite its spelling, the name of the stadium is pronounced “Crow” Park. The facility opened in 1913 and was renovated in 2004.

“We are thrilled to announce that we will play UCF at Croke Park to open the 2014 season, ” O’Brien said in a university statement. “Our players and coaches are so excited to go to Ireland and play a college football game in such a historic and outstanding venue.”

Notre Dame and Navy played in Ireland last year, and that country’s officials said the game generated about $130 million for the economy.

It’s unclear how much time Penn State will get to spend in Ireland before the game. It might not be long, if the Lions follow Notre Dame’s travel plans from a year ago.

The Fighting Irish didn’t fly out until Wednesday night arriving early Thursday – and returned after the game. So their stay in Ireland amounted to only three days, barely any time for sightseeing, especially with a game to prepare for on Saturday.

There’s a natural fit to Penn State playing Central Florida in such a unique game because of the connection between the two coaches. O’Brien’s friend and former boss, George O’Leary, is Central Florida’s head coach, and the two also are of Irish descent.

O’Leary was head coach at Georgia Tech and had O’Brien on his staff from 1995-2001. When O’Leary got the head coaching job at Notre Dame in 2001, O’Brien was slated to become his offensive coordinator. Inaccuracies were found on O’Leary’s resume, and he resigned at Notre Dame just days after being hired, with O’Brien then returning to the Georgia Tech staff under new head coach Chan Gailey.

O’Leary took over at Central Florida in 2004, and after going 0-11 in his first season, he turned the program around in a hurry by going 8-5 and to a bowl game the next year. He has compiled a 60-55 record with four bowl appearances at UCF.

“I have great respect for Coach O’Leary and his team, and playing UCF in Ireland will be a fantastic experience for all the players, coaches and fans,” O’Brien said.

While the game provides Penn State players a chance to have a bowl-like experience, O’Leary pointed out it gives Central Florida “a chance for us to grow the exposure of our football program.”

“On a personal level, obviously Coach O’Brien and I are both of Irish heritage, so it means a great deal to both of us to be in a position to bring our teams here,” O’Leary said in the statement released by PSU.

“We are confident that Croke Park will be an excellent venue for us to play in, we have been hugely impressed to date with the facilities and we are looking forward to a huge crowd to get our 2014 season off to a flying start. We are confident that Croke Park will generate an unforgettable atmosphere for this game.”

Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner visited Ireland over the weekend for the official announcement and said the trip “has only reinforced our reasons for wanting to come and play in Dublin.”

“We’ve not only grown our appreciation for the games so entrenched in the history and traditions here in Ireland, but have also confirmed that, because of the Irish people and their hospitality, Penn State fans are going to love their time here in late summer of 2014,” Joyner said.