Despite disappointing Penn State loss, fans promise to support team’ ‘for the long haul’

Updated 11:47 AM EDT, Sun September 2, 2012

Story highlights

Penn State loses season opener to Ohio University

Fans come from near and far to cheer on Penn State's new coach and team

Students and alumni in blue and white came out in force Friday night -- 20,000 strong

(CNN) —  

This wasn’t how Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien hoped things would start.

He rushed off the field in disappointment after his Nittany Lions lost 24-14 to Ohio University.

But judging by the scene around him, you wouldn’t have known it.

As the two teams knelt in prayer at the end of the game, many of the more than 97,000 faithful fans in attendance proudly sang the school’s alma mater.

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In the student section at one end zone, students, many of whom had camped out for first-row seats since Wednesday night, stood shoulder to shoulder with their arms around each other as they belted out the words.

“For the glory of old State, for her founders strong and great, for the future that we wait, raise the song, raise the song.”

One woman wiped tears from her eyes, smearing the blue paint that covered her face.

“I’m not crying because we lost,” freshman Kelly Jordan said. “I mean, I was really hoping we could show everyone that they were wrong about us. But how can you not be proud of what happened here today? This is who we are – united. I’m proud of what those guys did on the field. They had a tall mountain to climb, but just couldn’t get all the way there.”

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The team had the full support of alumni from near and far and the boisterous cheers from the student section. They led into the third quarter and gassed out, losing 24-14. It was a disappointing outcome for the team, though there were many things stacked against them from the start.

In the wake of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked campus and saw former coach Jerry Sandusky convicted of abusing 10 boys over 15 years, the football program was rocked. NCAA sanctions that included a post-season ban led to many of their key starters transferring. Legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired, and the team had to rebuild from scratch.

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And in the third quarter it showed. Costly errors, missed tackles and fumbled passes got the best of them. But O’Brien put the blame entirely on himself, falling on the sword in a press conference after the game.

“I think we all gotta coach better and that starts with me,” he told a packed room of reporters. “I gotta coach a lot better.”

While he may be right and there are still kinks to work out, the scoreboard at the end of the game told only part of the story.

Complete coverage of Penn State

Fans had turned out in the thousands more than four hours before kickoff to show the new coach they supported him.

“It means more than anything. It means so much to be a part of this rebuilding process,” freshman Avi Kallmeyer said as he prepared to take his seat in the first row of the student section. “We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Many held up signs proclaiming ‘We Stand With You” as blue buses pulled up with the players and coaches. It’s a longtime tradition at Penn State. The crowds roared for nearly five minutes, long after the players had already entered the tunnel into the stadium.

The game was the culmination of a long week of pep rallies of sorts – both official and unofficial.

On Friday night the school held its Football Eve pep rally to get students and alums pumped about the new season. After nine months of clouds hanging over them they were ready to get the season – and in many ways the healing – started.

They were thankful. They were excited. They knew that together they have something to prove to the world. And they were ready to take the first major step toward writing a new chapter for the storied football team.

The same could be said about the crowd Saturday afternoon, even after losing to a team in a mid-major conference for the first time in a home opener since the 1960s.

While there were looks of disappointment, the overall enthusiasm did not waver even ask the clock ticked down with Ohio in the lead.

Chants of “We Are Penn State!” and “Bill O’Brien!” rocked the stadium. Penn State’s student section, known for being one of the most passionate in the nation, stood the entire game cheering the team on until the very last moment.

That passion, and more importantly, the support was not lost on O’Brien. And although he appeared stoic during the press conference, he made sure to acknowledge how much it meant to him.

“I thought it was a great atmosphere,” he said. “I think it was a good crowd and just want them to keep coming and support the football team. And we really appreciate the support of the fans.”

As they exited the stadium, many of them said it was a good game and a good start for the team and pledged to be there for them as they seek to get stronger, become more cohesive and move toward even more important games.

Shortly before the game Susan Lamey stood outside the stadium in glasses with the paws of the Nittany Lion on her face.

She’s put them on for 18 seasons’ worth of home games, most of them victories that were vacated as part of NCAA sanctions against the school. None of that – and nothing that follows – will change that, she says.

“We’ve been here for 50 years and it’s been a lot of changes, and we have been hurt by many, many things. But no matter what, we will always be here for this football team. And we will be here for Bill O’Brien – win, lose or draw. We’re here for the long haul.”

That’s exactly the kind of support O’Brien hopes he can count on and may need as the team looks forward to a tougher schedule. And while there’s many uncertainties that lie ahead for him and the team, the fans in Happy Valley seem determined to help deliver all the support they can give.