UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- I guess the question was about crowd noise, but at some point, I started thinking about the Other Things. This tends to happen when I go back to my hometown these days, because I don't get back very often during football season, and when I do, I can't help but think about the Other Things. Two years later, the Other Things still form the subtext of my conversations about Penn State; there's a tacit and awkward acknowledgement that no one really knows how to appropriately handle the aftermath of the Other Things, and there's a recognition that everyone around here is utterly exhausted from thinking about the Other Things on a daily basis. And there is a belief -- at least, it is my belief, and I think it is the belief of many other rational people who also have a strong emotional attachment to the university, and to the town, where the horrific crimes of Jerry Sandusky occurred -- that there are probably truths that will never be fully revealed, that all we can do is let the impending trials unfold and let the investigations of the investigations play themselves out until the years finally dissipate the lingering emotions that the Other Things evoke.
And that until this happens, we are better off focusing on the present.
So anyway, the question was about crowd noise, and more specifically about handling the crowd noise of a hundred thousand people at Ohio State with an 18-year-old starting quarterback, and Bill O'Brien, the Penn State football coach, sat at a podium at the center of a well-lighted room and narrowed his eyes and struggled to answer the question in a way that would convey that this was something he'd contemplated many times himself. And what he said, eventually, was this:
I think what you have to do is be very, very focused on what your job is. So, as a coach, you're going through your calls, 'OK, this is what I anticipate the call on first-and-10 or two minutes or right before halftime or how are we going to use our timeouts,' things like that, as a coach. As a player you're thinking about, 'OK, if the first play is a run this is how I'm going to take the quarterback center snap. This is how I'm going to come out from under center. I'm going to focus on every little detail of every play that I could possibly run in this game,' and I think if you do that, that's what keeps you focused, and that, quote unquote, lets you ignore the noise and just focus on what the task at hand is.
I am certain Bill O'Brien wasn't thinking about anything else but crowd noise when he uttered these sentences on Tuesday, and I assume no one else in the room, the reporters who cover Penn State for a living, was thinking about anything but crowd noise, either. I assume they were, in doing their own jobs, wholly focused on what is the Nittany Lions' most challenging game of the season, on the road against a team that's ranked fourth in the country and hasn't lost a game since Mitt Romney was stumping for votes in Iowa. I assume I was the only one whose mind, in that moment, turned to the Other Things, to that which Bill O'Brien had nothing to do with and has been working to minimize since the day he took the job at Penn State, to the way he had somehow managed to instill a sense of stability at a place where it felt like nothing might ever feel stable again.
I assume I was the only one who heard Bill O'Brien say those things, and thought about an entirely different kind of crowd noise.
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A few weeks ago, Penn State went to Indiana to play against a team the Nittany Lions had never lost to in two decades of Big Ten membership, and they got blown out -- by Indiana -- and they looked so utterly disjointed that the worst of the message-board trolls momentarily pivoted from their archaeological excavations into the Freeh Report and called for the firing of defensive coordinator John Butler. A friend of mine, who works for the university, called it the most refreshing loss of the O'Brien era, because the aftermath felt the way a blowout loss to Indiana should feel. People were angry about things related to football, and O'Brien was so pissed off that he didn't even want to talk about the game, and all that conventional standoffishness felt kind of good after two years of enduring arguments that rended the soul of the university.
It was just a football game, and the next week, when Penn State beat Michigan in four overtimes, that was just a football game, too, with a capacity crowd of 107,000 and a white out and the sort of atmosphere that hearkened back to the Nittany Lions' upset win over Ohio State in 2005. It was not emotional in the way every Penn State game last season was, as if we were constantly rubbing up against a raw wound; it was emotional because it was a four-overtime nationally televised night game against Michigan, and because Penn State receiver Allen Robinson made one of the iconic catches in school history, and because, frankly, it may have salvaged a season that seemed on the verge of sinking into the abyss.
And I think we all know that it could sink back into that abyss at any time, and probably would have months ago, if O'Brien had not maintained his almost maniacal focus on the present moment. His team is depleted by injuries and by the scholarship reductions that the Other Things brought on; he is breaking in a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who is very talented and very young and very inconsistent, and he has almost no depth at linebacker, and one of his long snappers is a walk-on who watched this year's home opener from the stands. (Honestly, at this point, a victory at Ohio State this Saturday might be the greatest upset in Penn State history.) He is still dealing with the lingering resentment from those who remained mired in the Other Things at the expense of the present, those that the excellent Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist David Jones refers to as the "Joebots." He endured, in the offseason, a punch-less Sports Illustrated report about shortcomings in the athletic medicine program that read like a petty and byzantine Politico dispatch. There are still daily headlines about trials and settlements; just this week, the local newspaper led with a story about Penn State and other state universities fighting against full transparency under right-to-know laws.
And O'Brien handled all of this by burrowing deeper into his job, by exerting control over the things he could control. In the midst of it he chose to stay at Penn State rather than accept a lifeline from the NFL, and he was rewarded by the NCAA's recent decision to relax the overreaching sanctions that have so hamstrung him in the first place. I don't know if he can keep it up forever, but for now, he does the little things so well: He plays basketball with students waiting in line for tickets, and he addresses reporters by their first name, and a few weeks ago, when the openly gay sportswriter LZ Granderson spoke on campus, O'Brien showed up to introduce him.
And maybe his job will continue to get easier from here, and maybe normalcy will continue to creep back in. But it is still a tenuous time, and the Other Things are still there, lingering beneath the surface, and I do believe that Bill O'Brien is the one person holding this tentative contraption that is Penn State football together, the one person who can keep those Other Things from rising to the surface again. Ignore the noise, and after a while, maybe people stop making it.