O'Brien embraces role in PSU's outreach

When Penn State's coaches' caravan set out last May, Bill O'Brien found himself in the awkward spot of new guy/object of curiosity.

"I barely even knew the people I was on the bus with," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Thursday.

He knew a lot more about his fellow Nittany Lions coaches when they boarded the bus last week for this year's caravan. He also knew a lot more about the program he represented.

Penn State fans knew a lot more about O'Brien, too, especially after he guided the Lions to an 8-4 record, including wins in eight of the final 10 games, last season. Each caravan stop this year felt less like a job interview and more like a pep rally.

"This year, I'm not standing up there doing a PowerPoint presentation," O'Brien said. "I'm talking to these people about how much we appreciate their support and how much we need their support now more than ever."

Penn State's 12-stop caravan wrapped up Thursday night in Pittsburgh. O'Brien and several other Lions coaches, including men's basketball's Patrick Chambers, made nine appearances around the state of Pennsylvania as well as in New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

O'Brien said more than 5,000 people attended the events. He signed autographs and gave updates on the program heading into the 2013 season. But there was a fundraising component, too.

Penn State must pay a $60 million fine as part of NCAA sanctions leveled last summer. The school also isn't receiving its bowl revenue share from the Big Ten until the 2016 season. Penn State saw a decline in overall athletic revenue last year, although football-related donations increased considerably.

Football attendance ranked fifth nationally in 2012 (96,730), down from 101,427 in 2011.

"Regardless of sanctions, one of your responsibilities as the head football coach at a place like Penn State is to help do your part in raising money," O'Brien said. "I'm just trying to do my part in helping our chief fundraisers. We have 90,000 alums in Philadelphia, so it's important to get out and talk to those people."

O'Brien is a unifying figure for Penn State fans, many of whom remain upset at the university's leadership for their decisions after the child sex-abuse scandal broke in November 2011. The tension puts the coach in an awkward position, as he must acknowledge all viewpoints while urging the fans to move forward together.

I asked O'Brien what he thinks Penn State's fans are feeling about the program and the school right now. Not surprisingly, he only talked about the program.

"People are very proud of last year's football team," he said. "People have passion and energy for the 2013 season. I hope we fill that stadium, and I hope we go out there and play well in front of our fans. That's a big part of it."

In leveling the severe sanctions last summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert said a "football-first culture" at Penn State enabled former Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky to commit his heinous crimes over the years. That word -- culture -- has stirred Penn State fans more than any other, as they take pride in the program's athletic and academic success.

O'Brien spent part of the caravan talking about the program culture he has observed.

"Our culture at Penn State is a good culture," he said. "We have a culture of academics and good football. Our kids leave practice early to go to class. They're students first, and that's the way it is at Penn State.

"It's important for me to update our fans and our alums on that."

O'Brien will keep providing these yearly updates as long as he's at Penn State. Although he's not a huge fan of riding the bus -- "I don't know if I can handle it another year," he joked -- he understands his role in outreach at such an important time.

"I'm going to try and chip in," he said. "If they want me to get on a bus again, I'll get on a bus, but more than anything, it's just important to get out and thank the supporters of Penn State."