Bill O'Brien said he'll never be the prolific fundraiser Joe Paterno was. And he doesn't intend to try.
But Penn State's second-year football coach understands the role he plays in the fiscal health of his university's athletic department. With a $60 million fine to pay, and a significant revenue stream being cut during the NCAA sanctions, Penn State more than ever knows the value of a full Beaver Stadium.
"It's way bigger than football," O'Brien said Tuesday.
As a result, O'Brien has embarked on his second Penn State Coaches Caravan tour, which stopped Tuesday at the Holiday Inn Breinigsville. More than 350 Penn State alumni and fans came to meet O'Brien, field hockey coach Char Morett and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik and ask questions about the football team.
But they also heard a pitch. O'Brien implored the crowd on his second stop of the day to fill Beaver Stadium next fall, calling it vital to the athletic department's financial health.
At Penn State, whose athletic department is self-funding and receives no money from the university budget, football has paid the bills for a long time. According to Penn State's most recent financial report, the football program generated $66.2 million of the athletic department's total operating revenue of $108.2 million.
Those numbers covered the 2011-12 fiscal year, the last prior to the NCAA sanctions. The athletic department is paying the $60 million in installments and will not receive its share of the Big Ten's bowl revenue from 2012-16. The Big Ten estimated that total at $13 million.
Further, home football attendance last year slipped to its lowest total since Beaver Stadium's most recent expansion in 2001. Average attendance was 96,730, still the fifth-highest in the nation, but nearly 5,000 lower than the 2011 season.
O'Brien said he began this Caravan with two specific intentions: to thank Penn State football fans for their support and to ask them for more.
"You drive onto Penn State's campus, and you have 31 sports there, but no matter where you are what do you see?" O'Brien said during a pre-event interview session. "You see, in my opinion, the best stadium in the country.
"But I'm not saying it's a football school. I'm just telling you, when you look at the athletic department, everybody realizes that football is the sport that generates the most money."
As do his fellow coaches. Morett and Pavlik entertained the crowd with stories about Penn State (both are graduates) but also said that a full Beaver Stadium improves their sports as well. Morett said football revenue is vital for facilities maintenance and upgrades, calling it her team's "lifeline" from the athletic department.
"I'm sure people walk into the stadium looking for a football game," Pavlik said, "but they really are supporting everybody under [Penn State's intercollegiate athletics] banner."
O'Brien pitched the crowd by paraphrasing one Paterno's favorite fundraising openers: "I want your money but I don't want your two cents."
"I don't think anyone will raise money quite the way Joe Paterno did," O'Brien said. "That's incredible. I'm not looking to do that. No one will ever do that. But I think it's important to do your part as a football coach to help sell tickets, raise money and give people a positive feeling about what you're trying to do."
O'Brien invoked Paterno's name often during his speech. He called Paterno "the best coach of all time" and told the story of promising the ailing coach 10 days before his death that he would continue the program's record of successful graduation rates.
He also described the night last July when about 500 football lettermen met with the team after the sanctions were announced. They came on short notice to help keep the team together.
"If that doesn't tell you about the culture of Penn State," O'Brien said, "nothing will."
NOTEWORTHY: O'Brien attempted to "set the record straight" regarding his Wisconsin postgame TV interview in which he called his team "a bunch of fighters." Still, his mother called several times that night to voice her displeasure, because it sounded like another word that begins with the letter "F."
"I can't believe you embarrassed our family like that on national television," she said.
O'Brien responded, saying he hasn't and wouldn't say "something like that on national television." That prompted his mother to remember seeing her son as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.
"You did too. Two years ago you were screaming at Tom Brady in the same manner."
O'Brien also said that he made "a lot of mistakes" in his first season as a head coach, particularly regarding preseason camp. "We probably peaked a little too soon [during training camp] last year," he said. "We were playing well midway through [camp] and then we kind of went too far, and I don't think we were at our best during the first two weeks of the season." Penn State lost its opening two games before winning eight of its remaining 10.