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Column: O'Brien pulls back curtain

Garry Gilliam knows what takes place inside the Lasch Football Complex. But the Penn State tight end can appreciate what it must have been like for those of us on the outside for the last few decades.

"It was kind of like the Willy Wonka factory," Gilliam said Friday, smiling as the assembled reporters broke into laughter around him. "There were Oompa-Loompas in here working, no one knows what's going on.

"Now it's open. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. You guys see us play anyway, so why not watch us practice?"

Unlike his predecessor, Bill O'Brien -- for the most part -- shares that viewpoint.

Penn State's new coach has brought a lot of change to his program, but he's also made a few changes for the people who cover it. For the last several years, Joe Paterno kept the media (and just about everyone else) at an arm's length, keeping practices closed and allowing reporters only a handful of opportunities to talk to him or his players.

O'Brien, in his fourth month on the job, has already invited the media to three spring practices and a 5 a.m. winter workout. He was still coaching the New England Patriots on National Signing Day, but let reporters talk to his assistants about the new class in the Lasch Building, then took questions on a teleconference later in the day.

The door hasn't been thrown entirely open -- reporters were asked to leave Friday's practice about 20 minutes early -- and just how open it will be once the season starts remains to be seen, but it's been a promising start.

You could say that O'Brien is opening things up because he's been encouraged -- or directly told -- by the bosses in Old Main to foster Penn State's new favorite word, "transparency," in the still-steady wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. You could say that he's trying to win over reporters now so that they might be less critical of him should the Nittany Lions lose a few games.

I think O'Brien has another motive, and it's one that makes a lot of sense. His job is to make Penn State the best program it can be, and that means finding and molding the best players. I think O'Brien understands that his best recruiting tools are the players already on the team, and that shutting them off to the world is detrimental.

"It's good for the program when people can see the type of players we have here, which are high-character kids, kids that want to be coached and want to be good and most importantly want a great degree," O'Brien said Friday. "The more those guys are seen by the people in the community and around the country, to me, is good."

The challenge O'Brien must face is the same one Paterno undertook for so long, one that became increasingly difficult over the last few years: To win at the highest level, he must bring in elite talent. But to maintain the high standards of character and academic success that Paterno established -- and this, too, is a priority for O'Brien -- he must bring in talented players who are also solid students and good citizens.

I understood Paterno's desire to limit distractions for his players, and that he, like most coaches, didn't like the idea of having the media around when he was installing game plans. But I was always a little frustrated that, although he must have known his players, by and large, were outstanding representatives of both his program and the university, he didn't seem to realize that the more the public -- including potential recruits and their families -- got to see of them, the easier it would be for Penn State to keep bringing in those kinds of kids.

O'Brien isn't about to share any of his playbook with those of us with recorders and notebooks and television cameras, and it's unlikely we'll know much about personnel decisions until game days. But so far, Penn State's new coach does seem willing to share his players a little more than its former coach. The players don't seem to mind. And if helps push even a handful of prospects toward Penn State, it will be more than worth it.

I haven't seen any Oompa-Loompas yet, though.

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