Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is a product of the Emerald Isle.
His father's family hails from Cork and Clare in Ireland, while his mother's side, the Murphys, come from Sligo. O'Brien traveled to Ireland as a teenager and always has had a strong connection with the country. When the possibility surfaced of Penn State playing a game in Ireland, O'Brien was all for it.
"From a personal aspect, I’m very excited about going over there," O'Brien said.
O'Brien and Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner think Lions players and fans will have the same enthusiasm about the team's 2014 season opener against UCF at Dublin's Croke Park. The Aug. 30, 2014, game will mark Penn State's first on foreign soil in the program's 127-year history.
Joyner was intrigued by a game in Ireland after watching the 2012 season opener between Notre Dame and Navy in Dublin. Although Penn State also considered games in Hawaii and California, the Ireland contest quickly came into focus. UCF made sense largely because of O'Brien's connection to Knights coach George O'Leary, not only a fellow Irishman but one of O'Brien's coaching mentors. O'Brien joined O'Leary's staff at Georgia Tech as a graduate assistant in 1995 and remained with O'Leary for eight seasons.
UCF actually will be the home team for the Ireland game as it completes a home-and-home series with Penn State that begins Sept. 14 at Beaver Stadium.
"The excitement of playing in this game because of the O'Leary-O'Brien component to it," Joyner said, "and the fact UCF is a very good opponent, it’s just a great way to give our football team and our university a marquee place to play."
The Ireland trip will serve as a bowl game of sorts for Penn State players and fans, as the program is entering Year 2 of a four-year postseason ban imposed by the NCAA last summer. Joyner said the school might have explored the Ireland game even if the sanctions weren't in place, but he added, "It’s not bad that it falls right in the middle of everything that we need to get done with the four-year period. It's sort of a shot in the arm."
Penn State likely will travel to Dublin only a few days before the game as school is in session during that time. Joyner is comfortable with the team accommodations and practice sites, and O'Leary, who recently traveled to Ireland, filled in O'Brien about the setup at Croke Park with the press box, sidelines and locker rooms.
The biggest challenge could be getting all the players their passports.
"It was important for our players to be able to travel somewhere overseas," O'Brien said. "A lot of these guys, probably all of them, have never been overseas. That’s a great experience for our players. I also believe it's a fantastic opportunity for our fans."
O'Brien confirmed that quarterback Tyler Ferguson remains home in California visiting his mother, who has breast cancer. Ferguson's absence from last week's Lift for Life event in State College raised some eyebrows, but O'Brien reiterated that summer workouts and summer school are voluntary. "His mom is sick, and he’ll be back here for training camp," O'Brien said. "That's something, [the media] made a mountain out of a molehill on that one."