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Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Walking into the Nittany Lions' den

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- They shared a tricked-out bus, holing up in the back seats for three-plus hours of nonstop conversation.

The back seats, any elementary schooler will tell you, are reserved for the cool kids. Typically you wouldn't find the Penn State basketball coach there, at least not if the football coach was on the same bus.

Bill O'Brien
New football coach Bill O'Brien said he's found a kindred spirit in hoops coach Patrick Chambers, a fellow Penn State outsider brought in to effect change.

But these are different times in the Penn State athletic department. Where once pigskin was king, walking like royalty 25 paces ahead of its in-house brethren, it is rediscovering its place among the common folk.

That's the point of the bus, really, the one that Bill O'Brien and Patrick Chambers were kibitzing on from State College to Philly on Monday morning.

It is the caravan behind the Penn State Caravan, an unoriginal idea in plenty of places but a veritable brain burst for Penn State. Joe Paterno did his appearances here and there, but those were as much about fundraising as they were about glad-handing, and he hadn't seen a bus-riding stump since the early '60s.

This is the real deal: 18 cities in nine days with O'Brien along for all 18 stops and joined at various points by Chambers and nine other Penn State head coaches.

It was O'Brien's idea, a chance for the former NFL assistant to meet, connect with, assuage, interact with and appease a fan base that has felt adrift and unhinged in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

It is no doubt a brilliant PR decision. Fans need to hear, feel and touch O'Brien, and the NFL playoffs made that impossible when he was first hired.

But even beyond the spin, this is still a move that could be beneficial for everyone involved. "Look, just for me to have the chance to be on his undercard, so to speak, is big for us,'' said Chambers, who knows the 300 folks at the DoubleTree in Philly were there to see and hear O'Brien, not him.

Penn State basketball has always needed football.

What's different: Football needs basketball, field hockey and just about everything else more than ever.

The narrative, painted broadly and loudly, is that the hubris of the program and the people involved allowed Sandusky to go unchecked seven years after the university was first alerted to a potential accusation of child molestation.

Whether everyone chooses to believe that simplistic explanation is irrelevant. It's out there and therefore, especially in today's 140-character day and age, it is gospel truth.

Along with healing and winning games, part of O'Brien's charge is to bring football back into the fold, to eliminate the notion that one sport not only wagged the dog, it decided how to run the kennel.

Along those lines, O'Brien has vowed to run a more open and transparent team, a promise that extends not just to media now permitted to attend an occasional practice, but apparently to his coaching peers, too. Field hockey coach Char Morett, he said, has attended a practice and watched weight training. "No. 1, I love sports, all sports, and I enjoy talking to coaches,'' O'Brien said. "I like to trade ideas and listen. Maybe they have a better way of doing things, something I can learn from. But I also think it's important that we're on the same page as a department. We may not always agree, but we have to share the same message.''

Patrick Chambers
The expectations for Chambers' basketball program don't come close to what O'Brien faces on the football field.

In searching for that, O'Brien said he's found a real kindred spirit in Chambers, a fellow Penn State outsider brought in to effect change. Each says they are cut of the same cloth, off the fabric spool of the "no-nonsense, no-B.S." types, in O'Brien's words.

Except when have Penn State football and basketball ever had more than team colors in common? One is king; the other a joker. One makes money; one spends it. One was forever represented by an icon, the other by an interchangeable cast of nobodies.

Yet here they are, coming from disparate degrees of success and each, in essence, starting from scratch.

It would be nice to call basketball in State College an afterthought, but that would imply a first thought. It is a program that shows up about once a decade -- the stunning Sweet 16 run for the Crispin brothers in 2001, the upset of UCLA in 1991.

That his team finished 12-20 and he was roundly patted on the back tells you just where the expectation meter jumps in State College. "It's hard because it takes time and it takes patience,'' Chambers said. "You have to build a perception here as much as anything.''

And there was a time that the conundrum that is Penn State basketball -- with a die-hard fan base, decent facilities, a great league and little success -- would have saddled Chambers with arguably one of the tougher jobs in big-time college sports.

Now he doesn't even have the toughest job on his own campus.

O'Brien is left with a proud tradition in shambles, the ghost of a man who remains deified by some and vilified by others, and 100 or so players who feel like babies taking their first steps in cleats. "Everything is different for them,'' O'Brien said. "They have a new head coach. The tempo of practice is different. How we lift weights is different, how we tape ankles. It's everywhere.''

You get the feeling Chambers will have an easier time winning the rooms on this caravan. Part of it is personality. He is of the Jay Wright effervescent family tree and O'Brien of the Bill Belichick reticent branch.

Most of it is task.

Chambers is the upstart little brother, leading the program that contentedly has ridden coattails for its entire existence. Busloads of students giddily converged on New York three years ago for the NIT final four. You won't find quite the same heartwarming reaction to a non-BCS bowl bid.

He has nowhere to go but up. People weren't happy because Chambers' team won 12 games a year ago; they were happy because they knew he had little in the way of talent yet still managed to win 12 games.

Now he's got a terrific backcourt -- one he has brazenly labeled the "best in the country" -- in the form of senior Tim Frazier and Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill, and the promise of a top four-star recruit for next year in Brandon Austin.

He is hope and possibility and all that is good about something new.

O'Brien, meanwhile, is the frightening unknown of change to a machine that, until a horrific week in November, never seemed in desperate need of repair.

As the football coach, he has to find a way to keep the cloak open for everyone -- "Let's face it, I know where my paycheck comes from,'' Chambers said candidly -- yet make it seem as if he's not untouchable royalty.