Commentary

Lions players adjust to big changes

Originally Published: May 1, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State players grew a lot older between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1.

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIMichael Mauti and the Lions' veterans were excited to get back on the field and concentrate on football.

November alone seemed like an eternity, as a child sex abuse scandal enveloped the program and the university. Days before a game against Nebraska, Penn State's players learned their coach, Joe Paterno, had been fired, which triggered emotion that poured into the streets as television cameras rolled. Those cameras then were turned toward the players, who had to address a mess they had nothing to do with.

The afternoon before the game at Ohio State, they learned that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Eight days later, their Big Ten title hopes vanished in a blowout loss at Wisconsin. Eight days after that, they learned they were passed over by several bowl games not wanting any part of Penn State and the bad p.r. that came with it.

December brought a seemingly rudderless coaching search and a locker room fight that left starting quarterback Matthew McGloin concussed and unable to play in the bowl. January began with a feeble performance in a blowout loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas. Four days later, Penn State hired a largely unknown NFL assistant named Bill O'Brien as coach, sparking more emotion, most of it negative. Then came Paterno's death Jan. 22 and a week of mourning that returned the national spotlight to Happy Valley.

In those three months, Lions players endured a coming of age unlike any other.

"Everyone was so tired of what was going on," linebacker Michael Mauti said. "The media was cramming it down our throats every day for three months. We all just wanted to get through it so badly. We were open to really anything because of the amount of turmoil that was here.

"We all just wanted to get moving forward."

The spring brought the chance for Mauti and his teammates to move forward … and sideways … and backward. No college football team in America needed to run around on a field more than Penn State did.

The running, hitting, cursing, screaming and celebrating reminded players that they were still young men playing a game they love.

"We're 18- to 22-year-old kids," Mauti said. "It's all about energy, it's all about momentum in football. We want to celebrate when we do something well. We've gone from zero to 100 in that phase."

The healing process is far from over. The emotional impact of what happened between November and February remains for those who love Penn State and its football team. An investigation of the school is ongoing, and jury selection for the trial of former Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky is scheduled to begin June 5. The fact Penn State will take the field Sept. 1 without Paterno -- who spent 62 years at the school, the final 46 as head coach -- remains hard to fathom. Change is rarely easy for college football fans, and at Penn State, they've seen none for decades.

Those best equipped to deal with the changes -- and under O'Brien, there are plenty -- are the men who will run out of the tunnel alongside their new coach.

"Of course, for older fans, for older alumni, it's more difficult," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "Maybe it's less difficult for younger players because we haven't been alive as long."

Added defensive tackle Jordan Hill: "Once you're used to something for so long, you don't want to change that up. Especially when it was a good thing. For a lot of fans, they've never had Coach Paterno not be the head coach of the team. There's a lot of uncertainty for people. But like everybody says, that's life. There's going to be changes in life. It might be later in life, but it's going to happen, and you've got to deal with it."

According to O'Brien, the players are dealing with the transition extremely well. Penn State added six new assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who replaced the popular Tom Bradley, the Lions' interim coach after Paterno's firing. O'Brien revamped the strength and conditioning program, bringing in a dynamic coach (Craig Fitzgerald) with a dramatically different philosophy in the iron jungle.

[+] EnlargePaul Jones
Rob Christy/US PresswirePenn State's spring game had a different look to it -- and not just because of the questions at quarterback.

New systems arrived as well: a "multiply aggressive" defense under Roof and O'Brien's complex offense, imported straight from the New England Patriots. O'Brien handed players a dense playbook, threw "everything" at them this spring and accelerated the tempo of practice.

There were mistakes, but no pushback.

"They've welcomed everything," O'Brien said. "It's all new. Teaching them how to power clean is new. Teaching how things work offensively is new. They've responded well. I've had the privilege of coaching guys that are 34 years old and guys that are 18 years old. The one common trait that players all have is they're very resilient. These guys have a tremendous amount of pride in being Penn State football players.

"I can't wait to go to practice every day. And I don't think I could say that about every single team I've ever been around."

O'Brien has a tough sell with fans and former players who only know Penn State as Paterno's program. The current players, meanwhile, aren't stiff-arming the changes.

"All we needed was a CEO," Mauti said, "somebody to tell us what to do, where to go. There was not one ounce of apprehension toward Coach O'Brien and his staff. They came in, and we had 100 percent confidence in them."

Penn State players never could have envisioned what transpired at their program between November and February. But they were prepared for change.

Even the fifth-year seniors signed with a coach pushing 80. Paterno's age and potential retirement were constant topics around the program.

"A lot of us came in here, in the back of our head not knowing if Joe was going be here the entire time we're here," senior tight end Garry Gilliam said. "Obviously, I didn't want that to happen, but I wasn't truly expecting him to go the whole way through. We weren't really set on everything staying the same."

Although Paterno worked with the current players in the twilight of his career and, as it turned out, his life, he made lasting impressions with them. Stankiewitch, who as a high school junior wrote an essay about simply wanting to meet Paterno, recalled how the coach used to purposely and playfully butcher his surname, calling him "Stankiewooski" and the like.

"Everyone has their own Joe Paterno voice," Stankiewitch said. "Everyone has their own Joe Paterno stories. It was a pleasure playing for the man, watching what he did here."

Pictures of Paterno remain scattered throughout the Lasch Building. O'Brien is focused on the present and the future, but he hasn't closed the curtain on the past.

"No one will ever replace Joe Paterno," O'Brien said. "I can promise you: I will not be here for 46 years or 409 wins. I will not be coaching when I'm 85. It's an amazing deal what he did here, and anybody who questions that is wrong. We just talk about what we stand for now in the new era of Penn State football, and some of those things are the same." Transition typically brings turbulence, and Penn State has been on quite a bumpy ride in recent months. Outside expectations aren't overly high, despite a wide-open Leaders division, as the Lions have a giant question mark at quarterback and slightly smaller ones at positions like wide receiver and defensive back.

Many would describe Penn State's task as difficult, daunting and uncertain. Stankiewitch uses different terms.

"Eighty of us are in a very unique place," he said. "There hasn't been a coaching change here in many, many, many years, and we've been through three head coaches. It's a very unique time, a very exciting time."

Penn State will be under the national microscope when the season kicks off. From O'Brien to the new schemes to the fan/alumni reaction to game day in the post-Paterno era, the plotlines are plentiful.

Defensive end Pete Massaro said Lions veterans addressed the impending scrutiny as soon as the team turned the page toward 2012.

"The eyes of the world, so to speak, are going to be on us in the fall," Massaro said.

Perhaps more than anyone else, the players will be ready.

"It's about time we show Penn State in a good light," Mauti said. "That's how it should be."