STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — As fans gather around Beaver Stadium in anticipation of Saturday's long-awaited season opener, the overall mood around Penn State football is that of pride, perseverance and support — for both the current and former coach.
Hours before the official beginning of the Bill O'Brien era, tailgaters are tossing footballs through the parking lots, setting up their cooking stations and readying themselves for the new Nittany Lions' debut against Ohio at noon. Many are wearing "We Bill-ieve" shirts, endorsing Penn State's new leader, O'Brien, who is the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, and who has the been a steadying force within the program for nine months.
When the team arrived at the stadium, O'Brien was the first person to deboard off bus No. 1, followed by his game captains Derek Day, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Matt McGloin.
Boisterous fans waited for hours by the tunnel entrance waiting for the team busses. They chanted "Joe Pa-ter-no!" before turning their cheers toward O'Brien. There were thunderous cheers for the players as they exited the bus. The fans showed they stood by the players that stuck with the program.
Though the statue of Hall of Famer Joe Paterno — O'Brien's predecessor — was removed July 22, the day before the NCAA announced the sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, many fans still hold Paterno in high regard and are unafraid to show it. One tailgater, in fact, has a 16-foot, homemade banner that reads "409 wins with honor," referring to Paterno's victory total. Other fans are wearing shirts that read "We Are ... Still Proud."
Where the statue used to stand, a fan placed a Paterno bobblehead between the trees. Others are stopping to snap pictures with cellphones and cameras.
Dressed in Penn State jerseys, Cindy and Mark Wascavage of Washington, N.J., paused to remember the man they say will always be the face of Penn State football.
"It makes you wanna cry," Cindy, 54, said as she saw the bobblehead.
The couple has held season tickets for the past nine years and has always admired the former coach, even through these difficult times.
"He was the whole football program," Cindy said, while Mark believes on this proud day, all of Penn State will stand united.
Chris Bartnik, of Chantilly, Va., created a life-size cutout of the former coach to honor him, and carried it with him through the lots. He stopped by the former statue holding place, but did not keep the cutout there out of fear it would be removed by university personnel.
"I don't think it's fair," he said, "to pretend Joe Paterno never existed."
At Paterno's gravesite, fresh flowers were added to the fading collection of notes and memorabilia by Rob Elchynski, 44, who stopped by with his wife and friends before the game.
"I think it's critical to the moving-on that they talk about, that they start playing football again," Elchynski said, walking back to his car after saying a short prayer at the graveside.
The students, alumni and fans outside the stadium were nearly unanimous in their stance that Paterno got a raw deal and the university should have dug in and fought back against the NCAA sanctions. They've united behind the program following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban.
"We're maybe more determined than ever to be supportive," said Mike Bealla, of Harrisburg. "If you're a fan, you're a fan. The spirit will be there."
They threw their creative energy into homemade signs, T-shirts, and tailgate feasts. And Penn State stores sold T-shirts touting "Tradition" and "We Are."
Sue Wilson, a Penn State graduate, set up camp in the same tailgate lot she's celebrated for more than 20 years. Wearing a "House that Joe Built," T-shirt, Wilson said the NCAA or former FBI Director Louis Freeh's university-commissioned report did not diminish Paterno's accomplishments.
"He was a man of honor and superior high-moral integrity," he said. "I knew him and I was honored to know him. I miss him."
About 90 minutes before kickoff, a plane flew over Beaver Stadium with a banner reading "Oust Erickson/trustees," referring to Penn State president Rodney Erickson.
But while much of the famed gameday atmosphere remained the same, there are still plenty of changes in the first home opener without Paterno since 1949.
Hours before kickoff, the Penn State football Twitter account posted a picture of the team uniforms hanging in the locker room — jerseys with names on the back. More than 90 percent of the roster stayed after the NCAA handed down its punishment July 23. A blue ribbon also will be placed on the back of helmets to show support for child abuse victims.
Some 15,000 fans gave a preview of what to expect on gameday at Penn State's pep rally Friday night at the stadium. As the team sat on bleachers atop the field, and O'Brien gave a brief, but inspirational, speech, a familiar refrain echoed through the Beaver Stadium crowd.
"We Are ... Penn State!"
"I can't tell you how much we need to hear you all tomorrow," O'Brien said at the time. "We need to hear you loud and proud to cheer these guys on."
The Nittany Lions were the stars of a 45-minute show that built up to the team's entrance about two-thirds of the way into the event. They were barely there for 10 minutes, watching the debut of the 2012 season video to get the crowd pumped for kickoff before listening to O'Brien's brief talk.
It was an emotional outlet for students and fans who have united behind the players following strict NCAA sanctions.
"This is a very, very special group of players, led by a very special senior class that has made a huge commitment," O'Brien said. "Our guys have worked extremely hard ... They're tired of hitting each other and they can't wait to get going. Thank you very much and we'll see you tomorrow."
The rest of the athletic department had the chance to show its support, as well, on Friday. New signs at Beaver Stadium include the slogan "One Team" — a motto for the entire department, not just the football team. Coaches from other Penn State teams also addressed the crowd.
"We're all one voice, and that one voice needs to be heard with great passion, great pride and great enthusiasm. Not just tonight, not just tomorrow, but from here on moving forward," said men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers in an impassioned speech.