Bill O'Brien spreads his message in Philly

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Football coach Bill O'Brien does not run Penn State. In practice, O'Brien is the face of the university. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

IN 1941, Father Marcial Maciel founded a lucrative, seductive order of priests and their pupils called the Legion of Christ in Mexico City. It raised outrageous amounts of money and spawned the careers of hundreds of brilliant priests, even as the Catholic Church shriveled globally.

As early as the 1950s, accusations of sexual abuse of young boys surfaced against Maciel. A charming leader, Maciel weathered decades of such accusations. The Vatican, alerted of Maciel's actions, allowed him to use his position of immense power to herd victims to himself.

As it rose to ever greater power, the Legion used connections inside and outside the Vatican to protect its secret. It flexed its ecclesiastical muscle, quieted righteous protesters and ignored the legion of victims, whose voices reached a crescendo during the tenure of Pope John Paul II.

After the pope's death in 2005, Maciel was sanctioned, in 2006, and died 2 years later. An overseer of the Legion was appointed - Cardinal Velasio de Paolis - and was tasked with reorganizing the order. Last year, the cardinal tapped Father Sylvester Heereman to restore the order's good name.

Sound familiar?

Last night, the Coaches' Caravan from Penn State settled into an opulent ballroom at a Center City hotel. Featured speaker: football coach Bill O'Brien.

In fact, football coach Bill O'Brien does not run Penn State. In practice, O'Brien is the face of the university.

In fact, O'Brien was hired only to coach football. He was not hired to also clear the rubble and rebuild from the ruin left by legendary coach Joe Paterno and the predator Paterno hired and sheltered, convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's chief assistant in the program's glory days. Sandusky, who retired in 1999, used his connections with the university and with Paterno to perpetuate his practice of luring young boys in his Second Mile charity to do his bidding.

Paterno died early last year, and missed Sandusky's conviction on 45 counts of child sex abuse last summer, and Sandusky's sentencing to a minimum 30 years in prison.

In practice, no one at Penn State could imagine how much rubble and ruin O'Brien could remediate in just 1 year.

The Nittany Lions were slapped with crippling sanctions in July: a 4-year postseason ban, 40 scholarships lost over those 4 years, and a $60 million fine. A dozen players reportedly left the program, 11 of them transferring to other schools, including a top receiver and running back.

Penn State went 8-4. O'Brien, in the first head-coaching position of his 20-year career, finished second in the national coach of the year voting.

Father Heereman can only pray he does so well.

O'Brien barnstormed the cities and counties of Pennsylvania a year ago, an introductory tour with a PowerPoint presentation that focused on how he wanted the program to be better at football. A year later, with the sanctions and the defections and the specter of the fine, O'Brien preaches forbearance.

"This year, it's more about making sure people understand what we're up against," he said. "What we're going to do to have a strategy to be successful these next few years. And making sure people understand how important I think it is to be unified."

Last night, he had a congregation of hundreds, grateful that he has fortified the place they love.

"There was a period of time when I was ashamed to have gone to Penn State," said George Allen, who goes by Hunter and is from Northeast Philadelphia.

He graduated in 2005 with a degree in business logistics. Allen's grandfather and father, both Georges, went to Penn State, too. His sister is there now. Hunter is lanky, 6-5 and emotive. His generation of Penn Staters, and his sister's, too, were the ones most blindsided by the scandal.

They were raised to believe Penn State stood for something good, something wholesome. The rottenness of it all left Hunter Allen, and thousands like him, confused and bereft.

"I didn't know if there was even going to be a university," he said. "What Paterno meant to the university - the downfall, and how everything turned - it made you wonder."

Of course, Allen said, the university system could absorb any fine, any scandal, any humiliation. But could the football program?

"What Bill O'Brien did for the university, with all the sanctions, to still have an extremely successful season - it made you feel like the ball was never dropped," Allen said. "It allowed you to forget about the sanctions. But it didn't allow you to forget about the people who were really hurt."

Last spring, with Sandusky's trial set to start, with the Second Mile disbanding, Allen was learning, along with his classmates, of the monster who was among them during their time in State College.

He was just hoping that O'Brien, a top NFL assistant, might restore a measure of respect to the Blue and White.

"I would not have been able to imagine this," Allen said. "For someone to come in, with no Penn State ties, to rebuild that community as quickly as it was knocked down? It's remarkable."

Yes, Allen fretted with the faithful when the Eagles and Browns courted O'Brien.

Yes, Allen rejoiced when O'Brien stuck out his jaw and declared, "I'm not a one-and-done guy."

That declaration, in the face of untold NFL riches and the unreal power that accompanies NFL jobs, validated Penn State as much as any bowl win might have.

O'Brien wanted to stay. Despite the Paterno family's embarrassing attempt to salvage Paterno's legacy; despite Gov. Corbett's political grandstanding against the NCAA.

Despite having just 64 scholarship players in uniform this season, 21 fewer than the maximum; despite losing starting quarterback Matt McGloin to the NFL, with a true freshman, Christian Hackenberg, the likely helmsman now.

O'Brien wanted to stay despite facing the continued chore of tending the flock, calming its fears, hoping it grows.

"The basic message I'm trying to convey is, Number One, to thank [the alumni]," O'Brien said. "If you're here [last night] . . . you're a big core supporter of Penn State. And I want to tell them now, more than ever, we need their support. We need a unified Penn State."

As in, one that does not wallow in the school's transgressions? O'Brien avoided that:

"I want them to continue to support our programs. I want them to continue to have that pride in Penn State."

O'Brien has done, and is doing, all he can to that end.

 


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