DICKSON CITY — Bill O’Brien took a seat and gave a quick exhale as he rubbed his eyes. The Penn State coach was churning along on about two hours of sleep, and the night wasn’t close to being over.
In the last 24 hours, he had been in Williamsport, Allentown, New York and finally just outside Scranton as his second annual Coaches Caravan tour winds down.
What keeps him going, he said, is seeing the crowds like the one assembled at Genetti Manor in Dickson City on Wednesday night that come out to support Penn State football.
“It energizes me,” O’Brien said. “Because I need some sleep if you can tell. But this energizes me.”
For the second straight year, the Scranton-area stop was expected to be the most heavily attended event on the tour. Roughly 850 people were in attendance on Wednesday for dinner and a speech by O’Brien at the event hosted by the Greater Scranton chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association.
“When I came here last year, to be honest with you, I was very overwhelmed by this atmosphere,” O’Brien said of walking into the main ballroom at Genetti’s. “This, to me, is the heart of Nittany nation right here.
“It’s been enthusiastic crowds. Crowds that bleed blue and white. People are really supportive and they want to see us do well.”
Northeastern Pennsylvania was represented well on the night with freshman wideout Eugene Lewis and senior lineman Eric Shrive in attendance from Luzerne and Lackawanna County, respectively.
And of course it wouldn’t be a Penn State event in NEPA without an appearance by Matt McGloin.
“Anything in Scranton, I’m there to support,” joked McGloin, who will be in rookie camp with the Carolina Panthers this weekend. “I’m here mostly to support Coach O’Brien and the team, so I’m happy to back.
“It’ll get bigger and bigger each year here. He keeps coming back and they’re going to have to have this somewhere else (to fit everybody). The support’s phenomenal and the turnout’s great.”
Lewis and Shrive joined McGloin in getting attention from the crowd before the event, getting requests for photos and autographs in a side room.
“It’s great to be a part of this,” Lewis said. “I was standing in line (to get in) and it just kept going back to the parking lot. I can just imagine how many people are here.”
Last season was a learning experience for Lewis, who redshirted, but he has a chance in 2013 to be a main complement to starters Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder.
Through it all, Lewis said he’s happy he decided to stick it out at Penn State through the NCAA sanctions.
“After everything that happened, we just figured we had to be one family, one team,” Lewis said. “We all just have to come together. And if we have each other, that’s all we need.”
“He’s a very, very positive and happy guy,” O’Brien said of Lewis. “He’s got good football instincts. Became a better route-runner this spring. We didn’t move him around a lot. We kept him in one spot, which I think helped him.
“He works really hard. I think he’s a guy who’s going to have a great summer and is going to come into training camp as a better player than he is even now. To me, he’s got a good future.”
While Lewis will be entering his second year with the Lions, it will be the fifth and final season for Shrive.
The West Scranton grad has bounced back and forth between tackle and guard in his college career but will enter preseason camp pushing Donovan Smith for the starting job at left tackle.
“Right now we’re pretty even going into the summer,” Shrive said. “We split all the reps in the spring and throughout the Blue-White Game. So I’m just going to keep working harder all summer and see what happens.”
That Shrive is in that position is a testament to how much he has progressed in the past year under new position coach Mac McWhorter and new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.
“Shrive is definitely a guy that will play tackle for us. He can play guard for us,” O’Brien said. “The bottom line is, Shrive’s gonna play for us. That statement right there says that he’s a much improved football player than he was last spring, last season. He really had a good offseason.
“Eric and I had a conversation right after the season about basically whether he wanted to come back or not (for a fifth year). We had a very long conversation, and I wanted him to come back. I said, ‘Look, if you can concentrate on the things we want you to improve on, you can play for us and have a productive season and go off on a great note for your senior year.’
“He decided to do that, and we’re happy he did.”