Bill O'Brien was introduced as Penn State's new head football coach during a press conference on campus Saturday. After nearly two hours of answering questions, he finished with a line meant to allay the fears of Nittany Lion fans.
No, we are not changing the uniforms, the 42-year-old said with a smile.
The offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O'Brien's hire is the latest move by a university trying to move past the turmoil created by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The upheaval included the firing of longtime head coach Joe Paterno, whom O'Brien is replacing.
O'Brien has no previous ties to Penn State, and is cognizant of the fact that he must balance the concept of starting a new era with the idea of paying proper respect to the Nittany Lions' rich tradition -- including the unadorned uniforms.
I grew up following the Penn State football program, said O'Brien, a Boston-area native. I was the type of person who liked to watch them because of the (white) helmets, because of the (plain) uniforms, the black cleats, no names on the backs of the jerseys. And also because of the man on the sideline, Coach Paterno.
There will never be enough words to say what he did for this program as far as wins, as far as graduating student/athletes every single year, he added. I can't wait to meet him, as soon as I can get that done.
There is a rub for the Penn State football program, though. While O'Brien has signed a five-year deal worth about $1 million per year, his full focus will not be on the program until the Patriots are out of the NFL playoffs this year.
How can I talk about loyalty and commitment and then leave the Patriots at the start of a playoff run? O'Brien said. I have committed to the Patriots to see them through that playoff run. That's my loyalty and my commitment to that organization and what they've done for me.
In college football, Jan. 13 marks the start of the final open recruiting period leading up to national signing day Feb. 1. To help solve the problem, O'Brien has already retained PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who is arguably the program's top recruiter.
I want to be part of the healing process, Johnson said. I want to continue to do that. I want to be here for my players. This is really easy (for me), to have a chance to stay here.
Johnson also interviewed for the head coaching position but obviously did not land the top job.
O'Brien said he will interview other current PSU assistant coaches but made no assurances that anyone else would be kept on the staff.
I'm going to put together the best staff for Penn State, O'Brien said. The best staff that fits what we need to do. Once I get that staff in place -- which will be very quickly, over the next two or three days -- those guys will hit the ground running.
Penn State acting athletic director Dave Joyner said O'Brien was the only candidate who was offered the job. Joyner also took exception to reports that more high-profile coaches showed little interest in the job because of the fallout from the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
It's been said that people ran away from this job, Joyner said. I can tell you, the interest in this job by high-level coaches was extremely high. Even last week, I was still getting resumes in from people that very legitimately could have been coaches here.
Bill O'Brien was my first choice and the (search) committee's first choice, he added. And it was a unanimous decision.
Joyner declined to name the high-profile coaches in question.
The decision to hire O'Brien, who has no head coaching experience, was initially met with skepticism by Penn State fans and even certain former players. Brandon Short, an All-American linebacker with the Lions in the 1990s, went so far as to tell USA Today that O'Brien is clueless and will not have the support of the majority of the (school's former) lettermen.
For his part, O'Brien acknowledged that he was walking into an emotionally charged situation and vowed to aid what has become known as the healing process at Penn State.
I understand that there's some controversy out there right now, O'Brien said. I can see it. I understand that. But it is my job to head it in the right direction.