Some 60,000 fans filed into Beaver Stadium last spring for the annual Blue-White scrimmage.
While many wanted to show support for a program that was reeling from the loss of its legendary coach and a winter of scandal, the prevailing mood that afternoon was curiosity.
They were curious about a coach that few had heard of before he officially took the job some 3 1/2 months earlier.
They were curious about the NFL offense that he was bringing in and they were curious about how the players would take to that system.
Maybe most of all they were curious whether they’d get any indication, maybe some sliver of hope, that the program would be OK for the coming fall and hopefully for years to come.
Most likely, they left a little perplexed — about as confused as anyone trying to figure out how they came up with the final score: Blue (defense) 77, White 65.
As we head back into the stadium a year later, we still may not have any idea about the Blue-White game is scored, but the curiosity about Bill O’Brien certainly has been satisfied.
Toby Keith couldn’t have sung it better. “How do you like me now?”
That answer is easy, a year after we first saw a glimpse — by O’Brien’s admission last spring of about 10 percent — of what was going on the field and the resolve of the program’s new leader and his players.
A year ago, Jerry Sandusky had not gone to trial for the heinous crimes for which he now sits in a prisoncell. The Freeh Report was not complete and the subsequent NCAA sanctions, seemingly designed to bury the program for many years to come, had not been handed down.
Somehow through this maze of trouble, O’Brien guided the Nittany Lions through an 8-4 season. After an 0-2 start, the team won 8 of 10 games and was playing some of the best football in the Big Ten as the season finished.
Once the offense, based on the New England Patriots’ model, got rolling, Penn State became one of the most entertaining teams to watch. Matt McGloin, the former walk-on who shared time in each of his previous two seasons, became one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Could anyone have truly believed after losing to Ohio and Virginia out of the gate, that football would be a winner?
And that success has translated off the field. While Penn State did lose players — a couple of key ones — thanks to the NCAA allowing transfers without a penalty, the bulk of the roster stayed together and forged a season that rekindled some lost pride. That kept the recruits excited about the program. And though some did reconsider, O’Brien and his staff put together a recruiting class that was ranked among the nation’s best, even with the NCAA’s imposed scholarship restrictions. Those players, many of them outspoken, have become true believers and have aided the recruiting process for future other top-rated talent.
About the only thing that could throw a wet blanket on this party was the NFL. O’Brien, who needed a trophy case for all of the coaching accolades he received after last season, interviewed for a pair of NFL jobs before deciding to stay at Penn State. While O’Brien is signed for long term, that doesn’t mean the NFL won’t come calling again and again.
But as we file through the gates to watch what is basically practice No. 15 for this spring, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to be OK. There’s more than hope that the program will survive bowl bans, scholarship restrictions and loss of revenue to keep its status among the nation’s elite.
While there was so much curiosity surrounding last year’s scrimmage, that will be limited more to the seeing some old faces and new ones on the turf.
The seemingly annual battle for the quarterback spot will be a hot topic. There will be to an opportunity to see some of the players that redshirted last fall. Maybe some of the starters at other key positions — offensive line and secondary — will shake out.
The emphasis totally will be on football, something that’s a welcome respite from the questions that surrounded the program and its new leader a year ago.
So sit back and try to figure out the scoring.
There’s no more curiosity about this cat.
Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. Follow him on Twitter@wmoodycdt.