I’m a believer, now more than ever. Having spent three days on the Coaches Caravan with new head football coach Bill O’Brien, first-year men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers, and veteran coaches Char Morett (field hockey), Beth Alford-Sullivan (men’s and women’s cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track & field) and Denise St. Pierre (women’s golf), I’m incredibly excited about the future of Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics.
A couple of years ago, Myles Brand, then the president of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) cited Penn State as the national exemplar for doing it right in college sports when it comes to aligning academic success with athletic success. And when you hear these coaches talk, you know why. Sport for sport, on both sides of the gender line, I defy you to show me a better line-up of head coaches than Penn State is fielding in its 31-sport varsity program.
What particularly impresses me about Coach O’Brien is the way he has reached out to his fellow head coaches—and they to him—to reinforce the “one for all, and all for one” philosophy.
“We aren’t 31 separate corporations,” O’Brien told Coaches Caravan audiences this week. “We are one team, all part of a unique and very special intercollegiate athletics program, which is part of a unique and very special university.”
At the top of their priorities is academic achievement. And it isn’t happy talk, a politically correct party line or public relations blather. The Penn State coaches up and down the line preach academics first and foremost. If a recruit isn’t interested in going to class, working hard to attain a Penn State degree and becoming a well-rounded, community-minded student-athlete, the coaches stop right there. And the Dean’s List honors, the academic All-Americans and the graduation rates for student-athletes put Penn State at the top of national rankings year after year.
Of course, a big part of this ethos stems from the late Coach Joe Paterno. The coaches know this, and on the tour they pay homage to the example he set. In my view, the final tribute to his legacy was the 5th Annual Academic Bowl Championship Series, conducted by the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch. This process took the final 2011 BCS standings and re-ranked the universities based on team graduation and academic progress rates. As you might expect, Stanford showed well with 100 points, good for a No. 4 ranking. Penn State showed even better with 117 points and a No. 1 ranking.
You see this same academic ethos in O’Brien. He comes from a family that placed a high value on higher education. His parents both graduated from Brown (his dad, John, at age 80 still works in economic development for the Cape Cod business community, and his mother was a career librarian). They thought son Bill might go on to law school after Brown (sound familiar?). A political science and business major, O’Brien went directly onto the coaching field at his alma mater after graduation, and the rest is history.
This week, on the first leg of the Coaches Caravan, O’Brien impressed every audience he spoke to—the 550 Penn Staters at our two Philadelphia events; the 225 in Baltimore; the 400 in Washington, D.C.; the 170 in Richmond, Va.; and the 400 in Harrisburg, Pa.
He became familiar with Penn State as he grew up. In New England, the major college team that appeared on TV more frequently than any other was Penn State. So O’Brien said he became familiar with the “Penn State way” during his formative years. It’s a tradition he deeply respects.
That’s why there will be no change to the no-name uniforms and the black shoes. That’s why he’s keeping the familiar blue bus tradition on game day. And it’s why he’s starting a new tradition. After the end of every home game, the team will approach the Blue Band and sing the Alma Mater on the field.
He’s direct, straightforward, friendly with a good sense of humor, but no-nonsense as well. He understands what he’s getting into. He treated our alumni audiences exceptionally well this week—mixing and mingling, signing autographs, posing for photos and answering questions.
And, oh yeah, he wants to win a few football games this year. In response to the standing ovation he got in Richmond, Va., he said, “I hope you’ll be clapping just as hard for me at this same time next year.”
So the Penn State Alumni Association and the Nittany Lion Club will be resuming our Coaches Caravan next week beginning Tuesday, May 8—heading east to Hazleton, Pa.; the Lehigh Valley; Scranton, Pa.; Woodbridge, N.J.; New York City; and Hartford, Conn. The week after, beginning May 14, we head west—Penn State Altoona; Pittsburgh; Youngstown, Ohio; Cleveland; Penn State Erie; then winding up in Buffalo, N.Y. on May 16.
It’s not too late to register. If you can make it, we’d love to see you.
For the Future,
Roger L. Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g