PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Dressed in a navy blue suit with a dark tie and a Penn State button pinned near his heart, new Nittany Lions football coach Bill O'Brien kicked off the first leg of a nine-day, 18-stop bus tour in Philadelphia on Monday.
Joined by head men's basketball coach Pat Chambers and field hockey coach Charlene Morett, O'Brien received an enthusiastic welcome from about 250 alumni, former players and supporters who attended the luncheon at the Doubletree Hotel.
"I know it's a very special place," O'Brien said. "What I try to do every single day is go in there with our staff and our players, and work extremely hard to make sure that we carry on the tradition of winning football games and graduating players."
It's quite a task. After all, O'Brien replaced Joe Paterno, who died in January at age 85. And he was hired two months after the child sexual abuse scandal that erupted following the arrest of Jerry Sandusky. A retired defensive coordinator, Sandusky has proclaimed his innocence while awaiting trial scheduled to start in June.
But O'Brien is ready to move the Nittany Lions forward in this ultra-competitive landscape that is college football, while at the same time, embrace Penn State's age-old tradition. It's a difficult recipe to master, but he's intent on trying.
"I want them to know," O'Brien said, "that I'm in charge of a football program that is part of a great athletic program that is a part of a very special university."
Those on hand certainly agreed Monday. And they were more than appreciative when hearing O'Brien, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, speak of the school's long-standing staples, including the simple uniforms and traveling on blue buses.
"That's what makes Penn State special," said Joseph Lally, a former defensive end. "Riding in the blue bus as a player is so exciting and motivational. Wearing those uniforms made us feel pretty special, and they are the same, year in and year out.
"These are important traditions."
After introductory remarks by the coaches, O'Brien fielded the majority of the questions from the generation-spanning fan base.
O'Brien has kept a busy schedule over the past few months as he has ingratiated himself in the community, despite his New England roots. He has made numerous campus appearances and talked with students.
Now, it's his time to talk with former players and alumni who may or may not support the program as much as in years past. So, he's hit the road to meet and greet. Former player Adam Taliaferro, whose recovery from a paralyzing spinal cord injury gained national media attention, thought the event represented a good chance for the fans to have some quality face time with the new leader.
"I've had the opportunity to speak to Coach O'Brien a couple times," Taliaferro said. "He's a great guy, and I think he's going to be a great asset to Penn State University. It was great that everyone got to see him, got to know him as a person."
Taliaferro added that the Penn State community shouldn't be upset that O'Brien didn't graduate from the school.
"When they first hired Coach O'Brien, I told him that all of us become Penn Staters at one point in our lives," Taliaferro said. "Let's give him all the support we can."
While many of the stops are in regions with strong Penn State ties, many are also in important recruiting areas. Some sites are both. On Tuesday, in fact, the caravan is scheduled to arrive in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. There will be a stop in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday.
Near the end of the trip - being run as season-ticket sales continue in State College - O'Brien will visit Hartford, Conn., the state that produced top tailback Silas Redd and linebacker Khairi Fortt. After that, O'Brien will visit Youngstown, Ohio, the hometown of former star quarterback Daryll Clark.
While other coaches will join O'Brien during the tour, only the football coach will be at each location. Clearly, he has the stage to show those "Penn Staters" just who he is, and what his program will eventually be.
"It's a beautiful place here," O'Brien said. "I was in the office the other day and (new offensive line coach) Mac McWhorter came in and said that he climbed Mt. Nittany on Saturday. When you get to the top - which I haven't been able to do yet, eventually I will - he talked about the views and the people he met along the trail. It's a great community here.
"It's named Happy Valley for a reason."O'Brien kicks off caravan tour