Surprise, surprise: Guido D'Elia has a big idea.
He was standing in his office in the Lasch Football Building, wearing an olive-colored sweater over a collared shirt. He looked ready to lead a lecture. It was appropriate, because his office became an impromptu classroom. He was teaching Marketing 101 to a visitor on a March afternoon.
The timing didn't matter to D'Elia, who turned his office into a bandbox of vigor. Hired in 2004 as the director of communications and branding for Penn State football, he is one of the foremost people responsible for Beaver Stadium experiences like today: the loud, mechanically thumping music; the stadium full of white T-shirts; the white pompoms; and the white tickets.
All of it is part of branding the university. The goal, ideally, would be to "make every impression a positive impression," he said in a later interview. "That means how our players look, how we travel, what the field looks like, what the gate looks like that they come out of, how we e-mail, how we fax, how we send letters and what the envelopes look like, what the uniforms look like, what we look like on the sideline, what we look like on game day, how we appear on the network, what the stands look like, what the sidelines look like."
The danger, of course, is when the white shirts and white pompoms and that same repetitive music waver into the realm of gimmicky. That's always the fear. You need to remain fresh.
So there are people on Penn State's campus always thinking about the product. Creating an autumn Saturday is much more than opening the stadium gates and letting people rush in.
And creating the first complete-stadium White Out runs even deeper. There are 12-hour workdays, meetings and countless phone calls. This is Penn State's big stage.
Tonight is Penn State's chance to once again redefine its image with a stadium full of rabid fans and a prime time TV slot.
Branding the Nittany Lions is a 365-day-a-year job in this town.
That's why D'Elia, 60, was scheming on a lazy March afternoon. He is the freewheelin' face of the entire movement, the ringleader of a 10-person jigsaw of employees and interns who create the inside-the-stadium experience.
He was sweeping his arms to and fro, painting the picture of a fall afternoon on an invisible canvas.
You see, in the business of college football, presentation is key. It's a must. And currently, there's a problem with the Blue Band's presentation, D'Elia said.
D'Elia was unabashed in his giddiness, explaining exactly why Penn State's Blue Band needs to be relocated inside the stadium. It'll affect not only tonight, but the entire season.
First, you've got the sound. By moving the Blue Band into the student section, the sound projects better. The band used to sit behind the south end zone's goalpost. From there, the squealing brass projected onto the field. The sound was lost, and therefore, the effect was deadened.
Here's the trick: shift the band over a few sections toward the east sidelines and into the mess of students. That changes everything. Now the tubas' sound carries better. Now you're getting people excited.
Plus, D'Elia said with a widening smile, think about the TV effect. Take tonight's ESPN-broadcast game. The World Wide Leader usually brings a crane camera, which is placed near the student section. Any idea what tonight will look like with the band members blasting away inside that monochromatic frenzy? He tossed around his hands before making his point as if to illustrate just how intense the section would look.
He then plopped into his desk chair. He fixed his hair. The tumult was finished.
The First White Out
The concept of the White Out was born on Sept. 18, 2004, sprouted from D'Elia's head. Penn State was playing Central Florida in the third game of what became a 4-7 season. At that point, he said, Beaver Stadium housed the quietest collection of 100,000 people. He wanted a way to get everyone energized.
This is the move that came before the entire stadium White Out. This is the move that came before deciding to move the Blue Band. This is the move that came before Zombie Nation.
This was the student-section White Out.
On that afternoon, he was on the sidelines, looking up at the fans, when he wondered aloud: What if we got them to wear the same thing? What if we could get them to act as one?
So, for the next home game in that 2004 season, the marketing department pushed the White Out.
Note to all students: Wear white shirts to Purdue.
Penn State stationed marketing people in locations on campus, telling students on their way to class about the plan. They interrupted students eating in dining halls. Did you hear about the White Out? Others lined a path to Beaver Stadium that Saturday and sent back anyone not wearing white.
Penn State lost 20-13 to Purdue. But a seed was planted.
The White Out was born.
The Big One
Penn State's frenzied in-game atmosphere gained national consciousness against Ohio State in 2005.
Nearly 22,000 students became the broadcast darling in the nationally televised night game. They bounced and bobbed, shaking the stadium's foundation every time Zombie Nation's "Kernkraft 4000" played.
This was before the entire stadium White Out or the decision to move the band.
This was Zombie Nation.
Three and out for Ohio State. Bounce.
Sack Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. Bounce.
Recover a fumble. Bounce.
The night built upon itself and the culmination of recent frustration finally exploded, prompting the inception of an oft-YouTubed clip: "That's the best student section in the nation; they're crazy," said Kirk Herbstreit, an ESPN college football analyst.
Soon after, Sports Illustrated On Campus declared Penn State the "Greatest Show In College Football."
Of course, everything was carefully scripted. D'Elia, who sits up in the press box on game day, uses a massive, laminated cheat sheet to orchestrate the afternoon.
For every possible scenario there is a list of corresponding songs that will touch a nerve. A turnover might call for "7 Nation Army" by the White Stripes or "Song 2" by Blur ("WooHoo," to the layman). Pre-kickoff might be time for AC-DC's "Hells Bells."
By the end of the game, that sheet is splashed with highlighters of all color. Notes to self in blue ink. "Hey Baby" highlighted with green marker. Yellow arrows pointing this way and that.
D'Elia tracks everything. Against Michigan last season, for example, he played "WooHoo" six times.
Six times, he said, is pushing it for one song. Now, if six times were spread across the game, that is more understandable. But if he plays four of six in the third quarter, then he's got a problem. Then you start to become predictable.
You need to remain fresh.
And staying fresh means taking the White Out and making it better, making it bigger. Preparing for Notre Dame, Penn State took the White Out to a new level. It changed the complex of the Beaver Stadium experience at its core -- for the marketers and fans -- because it involved more than just the students.
After all, this would be the first complete-stadium White Out in Penn State history.
The football marketing staff helped compile a TV commercial promoting the "Whitehouse."
The problem D'Elia played around with was exactly when the commercial should air. He worried that running the spot about Notre Dame before the Florida International game would anger coach Joe Paterno, who wanted the focus solely on the Golden Panthers.
Boy, D'Elia thought at the time, it'd be nice to see that commercial on air as soon as possible.
But it's OK.
Little white placards will have been distributed to hotels and attractions around the mid-state this week, urging everyone to wear white.
In fact, after the FIU game, sandwich boards were planted all around the stadium reminding everyone leaving the stadium to wear white.
He planned on having a crew of rabble-rousers dispersed around campus this week to remind and pump up students:
Wear white to Notre Dame.
It's August, finally August, and fewer than 10 days from kickoff against Florida International. The months of preparation will be cresting in the coming weeks. But it's crunch time now. And D'Elia is again leading the discussion.
This time, it's in a marketing meeting of eight people representing the different pieces of game day. There's D'Elia and Loren Crispell, who coordinates everything from the press box. There's the cheerleading coach, the dance squad coach, the band conductor, interns and other university staffers.
In general terms, this meeting is about preseason preparation. One of the discussed items on the markerboard is "band location." Six months after he stood in his office with the germ of an idea, D'Elia has figured out the logistics of moving the band.
It took some structural changes and a few new stairs, but the band has been successfully relocated. Though, that's just a minor issue now. There is so much more than needs to be done for the 2007 season.
This meeting lays the framework for the presentation of the FIU game and Football Eve. Everything is planned to the second for the first two big events of the season.
D'Elia stands hunched over the conference table with his arms splayed out and bracing him like two slanted pillars.
Amid all the preparation needed for FIU and Football Eve, conversation eventually came around to the Notre Dame game. D'Elia wants to be sure they have people in place to canvass State College. Their mission: Make sure everyone knows that Saturday is an entire stadium White Out.
"On Friday," starts Sue Sherburne, the Lionettes' coach, "we're in front of the Student Book Store ... "
"We just want to completely blow it out of proportion," D'Elia interrupts. "So no living soul wouldn't know."
With the plan in place, it would be hard for any living soul within 100 miles of State College to dodge its presence.
Once the commercials are running and the signs are put up and the on-campus staff has notified everyone, there's little chance anyone will miss this.
This is the job of the Penn State marketers. From FIU to the placement of the Blue Band, nearly everything is scripted and framed in just the right manner.
Tonight's White Out just so happens to be Penn State's biggest arena.
Tonight is Penn State's chance to shine.
"We're taking off with the 'Greatest Show,' which Sports Illustrated called us," said D'Elia on this afternoon, standing in front of the group, "and we're going to hold them to it."