STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Fans tossed footballs, the marching band played the fight song and a familiar refrain echoed through the Beaver Stadium crowd.
"We Are ... Penn State!"
At least 15,000 people attended a rally at the stadium Friday night in a vocal show of support for the Nittany Lions on the eve of the team's historic season opener against Ohio.
"I can't tell you how much we need to hear you all tomorrow," rookie coach Bill O'Brien said as his team sat behind him on metal bleachers atop the field. "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 including a four-year bowl ban.
"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."
Then as fans roared, the team left back through the tunnel to get a good night's sleep for Saturday's game.
If anything, Friday night was just as much a pep rally for a State College community, too, following a trying 10 months. The region has been cast in a negative light nationally since the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky last November on child sex abuse charges.
The rally marked a formal debut of the area's "Together We Are One" campaign organized by community leaders. Signs with the slogan started appearing on major area streets last week.
The campaign "is a call to action and an invitation to the entire nation to hear our story, visit our community and campus," said David Nevins, a Penn State graduate and real estate management executive. "We are a community that fully understands the past and is dedicated to building a better future because of it."
Nevins then said, "We are and we will always be proud of our town and of our university."
The athletic department, too, is presenting a united message. New signs at Beaver Stadium include the slogan "One Team" — a motto for the entire athletic 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.
There are still signs of Hall of Famer Joe Paterno even after the university removed the bronzed statue of the fired coach on July 22, the day before the NCAA announced the sanctions for the Sandusky scandal.
Trees and grass are now planted on the site where the statue once stood, though for several hours Friday, a cardboard cutout of Paterno — trademark sunglasses on, hands in the pockets of his khaki pants — was left at the location. Some people took pictures, including one family who held up a "Proud to Support Penn State Football" sign.
Later, another sign was staked to the Paterno cutout that read "JoePa Made Penn State A Better Place."
The Paterno likeness, sign and other paraphernalia were later removed by university workers.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP