Penn State officials wanted to get Bill O'Brien on the road before O'Brien became the school's football coach.
Bill O'Brien says meeting alumni and fans is a critical part of his new job.
The idea for the Coaches Caravan barnstorming tour, which is making stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond and Harrisburg this week, originated several months ago, and it was born out of a desire to connect with alumni in different areas of the region and to help the school with its relatively fresh problem of marketing and selling the remainder of its football season tickets.
O'Brien was one of the final pieces of the puzzle, as well as the most important.
"It was very difficult the last few years for Coach (Joe) Paterno to go out because of his health," said John Nitardy, Penn State's director of major gifts and one of the key organizers of the Coaches Caravan. "With a new coach coming in, we didn't know who it was going to be, but we felt like we needed to have a plan ready to at least put in front of him."
The idea was to hit the major cities in Penn State's prime recruiting base as well as a number of other stops within driving distance. Fullington Tours, a longtime vendor for the Penn State athletics department, footed the bill for a custom bus, allowing the coaches to ride in style.
Eighteen stops were grouped into three different "three-day loops." At least two of Penn State's other head coaches, including Patrick Chambers, Coquese Washington and Russ Rose, are scheduled to accompany O'Brien to each stop.
O'Brien is the chief attraction, though. And he was more than ready to get started.
'It was his idea to say, 'Let's just load it up on a bus,'" Nitardy said. "We stretched him for three weeks, but he was great about it," Nitardy said. "And then we got back with the alumni association and we kind of went from there."
In addition to meeting with reporters at each stop and giving a brief talk to crowds of 200-300 alumni and fans, O'Brien is spending time shaking hands and getting to know -- however briefly -- members of one of the nation's largest support systems.
"I enjoy meeting the fans, the alums, the lettermen that have played here," he said Tuesday before a luncheon at the Marriott Inner Harbor in Baltimore, the third leg of the trip. "I love hearing the history of Penn State."
O'Brien has had a clear plan since he came to Penn State about what he wants to accomplish with his team and with recruiting. That plan extends to those who will spend a lot of Saturdays in Beaver Stadium but will never play a snap.
"It would be crazy for me to think that I could just come in here and sit in my office in the Lasch building and hang out with our players in the weight room and coach on the practice field and not get out and meet as many people as possible," O'Brien said. "I realize the job that I have, and I realize the support, especially when you have 570,000 alums and all these lettermen that stand on the sidelines at our games.
"I realize that I have to get out there and make sure people at least meet me and hear me. They may not like me, but they're going to hear what my vision for Penn State football is. That's my job, to make sure that I get out there and meet these people."
More than 200 people have attended each of the first four events and tickets are still being sold. Nitardy said plans are in the works to hold similar events next January in Florida, the Atlanta area and the West Coast -- the coach will likely forgo the bus for an airplane on those trips -- but Penn State officials hope the caravan becomes a habit.
"Our goal is to try to do it every year," Nitardy said.
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