Penn State's 2012 season could have easily been a forgotten one, but Bill O'Brien and a special group of senior players ensured it would go down as one of the most memorable in program history.
It all starts with the head coach: Bill O'Brien. Before ever having a chance to coach a game at Happy Valley, O'Brien was met with an obstacle his predecessor had never had to confront over the length of his coaching career. For the first time in school history, Penn State was slapped with hefty NCAA sanctions. O'Brien could have asked out of his contract at Penn State if he wanted and perhaps nobody would have criticized him for doing so. But he stuck with the program, determined to get Penn State through some sure-to-be tough times.
"This was a place that could combine great academics with good, tough, hard-nosed football," Bill O'Brien said July 24, a day after the NCAA imposes those harsh sanctions against his new program. "And none of that has changed."
Penn State was hit with a four-year postseason ban, a $60 million fine and players on the roster were given a free opportunity to transfer without having to sit out a full season if they desired to play elsewhere.
O'Brien was quick to review and come to grips with the sanctions against Penn State. It was his ability to accept them for what they were and continue to move forward that became the theme for the program's coaches and players. O'Brien's leadership at a time when some were calling for the banishment of Penn State football and his continued focus on moving forward were greatly respected by even those who felt Penn State football should cease to exist, at least for a year or two. Had O'Brien gone a different direction with his reaction, perhaps the rest of the story would have changed as well.
O'Brien was angry, but he knew there was little he could do about the outcome and the circumstances. All he could do was establish a plan to get through the next four years and he was quick to lay out some of those ideas with his players. He also made every attempt to be as honest as possible with the media.
Fans and media did not know much about O'Brien before he came to Penn State, but he made a fantastic first impression when he was introduced as head coach in January 2012. He would later go on a bus tour with coaches from Penn State's other athletics programs to meet with alumni at a number of events to give fans a chance to ask him questions and get to know him.
His openness helped the transition of power within Penn State football go a little smoother than most would have expected. His openness continued to show with the media once the sanctions hit and he had calm and thoughtful answers for how he and the program would continue.
"I would say in coaching that one of the things you learn right away is you always have to be ready for anything," O'Brien said when talking with the media on July 24. "Whether you are calling plays in a game or you are in a meeting with Bill Belichick, you have to be ready for anything. At the end of the day, this is the plan we have already started to implement for these new rules and that's where we are headed."
That plan included working the walk-on rules to their advantage, managing recruiting with extra care and selection and bringing a new style to Penn State. As it would turn out, O'Brien would add player names to the back of the traditionally plain uniforms to recognize those who did stay committed to the program. After all, it was those players who stayed with the program who helped with delivering a message of unity to avoid a potential breakdown in the season.
Some players left for other programs, but leaders like Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich spoke out on behalf of the players who stuck through adversity from the start. It was not easy at times, especially after Penn State dropped to 0-2 to start the year, but O'Brien continued to send the message that quitting was not going to be an option and his players bought into it. Had Penn State sunk any more before opening Big Ten play or started flat in conference play, things could have gotten ugly.
Instead, O'Brien, his staff and players continued to put up a good fight. Their hard-working attitude and commitment to get better was noticeable. Instead of looking for new ways to explain losses, O'Brien and his players focused on the positives and nobody took shots at others on the team. O'Brien established a new team identity at Penn State That was what was needed to avoid badgering media criticism and commentary.
The 2012 season, for the most part, was a significant success for O'Brien and Penn State. The ability to avoid a media firestorm was masterful.
Quotes provided by Penn State Athletics.