- Associated Press - Friday, April 20, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - In nearly four months in Happy Valley, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has delivered speeches, overseen pre-dawn conditioning drills and started installing a new high-octane offense.

But the most memorable day yet of his new job arrives Saturday.

The Blue-White game ending Penn State spring practice will mark the first time O’Brien will jog on to the Beaver Stadium field as coach _ another milestone in the school’s historic transition from the 46-year tenure of the late Joe Paterno.

“People will look at it as more important than the average Blue-White game,” left tackle Adam Gress said this week. “All the fans want to see what coach O’Brien has to offer.”

In many respects though, Saturday is much more than about football.

The glorified scrimmage, which typically draws tens of thousands of blue-and-white backers, is also the first event at the stadium since Paterno died in January at age 85, less than three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. His funeral procession wound through campus and right by the stadium tunnel through which Paterno ambled into work on fall Saturdays.

Among many loyal fans, the emotional wounds over his death as well as the end of his tenure as coach last November are still fresh. School trustees ousted Paterno in the aftermath of child sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Sandusky has maintained his innocence as he awaits trial. Paterno testified before a grand jury investigating Sandusky that he relayed a 2002 allegation brought to him by a graduate assistant to his campus superiors, including the administrator overseeing the police department.

Authorities have said Paterno wasn’t a target of the probe. The Board of Trustees ousted him citing in part a moral obligation to do more to alert authorities outside the school, and a “failure of leadership.”

The wrangling continued this week after Penn State agreed to provide millions in payments and benefits to Paterno’s estate and family members under the late football coach’s employment contract, although a family lawyer says the Paternos did not sign away their right to sue.

Outside the stadium Friday, Alice Reber and two friends snapped pictures at the life-sized, bronzed statue of Paterno. A bouquet of blue and white flowers in a glass vase sat at its feet. The statue has turned into a makeshift memorial at times, especially since Paterno’s death.

Like other fans interviewed Friday, Reber said that while Paterno may share some blame, she also didn’t like how the trustees handled his departure.

“It wasn’t all football that Joe Paterno had invested in this school. It was the kids, the caliber of kids and the sense of family,” said Reber, of Exton, whose son graduated from Penn State two years ago. She also said the attention over Paterno and the trustees shouldn’t make people lose sight of the broader issue of stopping or reporting instances of child abuse.

The scandal though, “hasn’t made us dislike Penn State. Penn State can go on without these cast of characters,” she said.

But while the administrators, alumni, students and other members of the campus community try to focus on the future, the various investigations into the scandal keep drumming up the past.

O’Brien, for one, has done his best to keep his sights on the football program moving forward.

“That’s all we talk about. We don’t talk about the past. We weren’t here when that happened,” he said last week. “At the same time, we’re very mindful of things like child abuse and making sure we understand we have to reach out to victims of child abuse, charitable organizations and things like that.”

O’Brien was hired in January after serving as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. He had no previous connections to Penn State, and some former players briefly questioned his credentials since it did not include previous head-coaching experience.

He has worked hard since then to win over lettermen, and his outreach efforts appeared to have gone over well with fans, too.

“After he got on board, he made a lot of good moves,” said Dan McCahan, 48, of Charlotte, N.C., a Penn State graduate who visited the Paterno statue while his daughter was on a campus tour. “He’s positioned the Penn State football program in a better light through his efforts.”

While promising to uphold the traditions and focus on academics that Paterno championed, O’Brien has also started to imprint his own stamp on the program.

A re-tooled offense based on the pass-happy attack he ran with the Patriots is the biggest change. There’s also a new strength and conditioning program based more on Olympic-style lifting and free weights.

“Once we started spring ball, it was really icing on the cake to get out there and just start hitting each other again,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said.

Instead of dividing the entire team into two separate squads for the Blue-White game, Saturday will feature a new “offense versus defense” scoring system. For instance, the defense could score six points for a turnover and four points for a sack.

At least one thing hasn’t changed under O’Brien: for the third straight season, Penn State is undecided on its starting quarterback. O’Brien plans to rotate Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones for equal stints Saturday, and hopes to narrow the field going into the offseason.

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