Of the long list of problems now facing Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, the top priority sounds simple: keeping the Nittany Lions intact.
So he’s stressing education and the opportunity to play in front of 108,000 fans every fall Saturday as part of his pitch to persuade players to stay in Happy Valley.
It seems to be working — so far.
O’Brien said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday that no current member of the team has indicated they will transfer following the NCAA sanctions imposed this week on Penn State. The penalties allow current players to transfer immediately without restrictions.
“Life is full of adversity. The way you travel through life is how you handle adversity,” O’Brien said in relaying what he told players during team meetings the last two days. “I told the guys to think about the guys they’re sitting next to in that room.
“We’ve got a bunch of good kids here who are good tough football players who care about education,” he added.
The NCAA imposed unprecedented penalties in response to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The university’s investigation found that coach Joe Paterno and three other school officials concealed allegations against Sandusky, the retired defensive coordinator — conclusions vehemently denied by Paterno’s family and the officials.
A reduction in scholarships and a four-year postseason ban are among the sanctions, so potentially crippling that some observers have suggested they are worse than the so-called “death penalty” of shutting down football entirely for at least a season.
Not so, said O’Brien, who added it was important for the fans and the program that games would remain on television.
“We are playing football. We are opening our season on Sept. 1 before 108,000 strong against Ohio University,” O’Brien said emphatically. “We get to get better as football players, and we get to do that for Penn State.”
It has been a trying year for the Nittany Lions even before the NCAA announced its sanctions. Players who had nothing to do with the scandal have been caught in the resulting media firestorm since Sandusky was arrested in November and Paterno was fired days later.
O’Brien was hired in January after serving as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
While he didn’t offer specific details, O’Brien said he has a plan to get the program through its latest crisis. His experience coaching in the NFL, where teams are limited to 53-man rosters, might help in leading and shaping Penn State’s scholarship-restricted roster.
“You’re talking about having experience in how to put that roster together, learning from the best in (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick. How to practice,” he said. “So there’s no question that my NFL experience … will certainly help.”
As for concerns about not playing in the postseason for the next four years, O’Brien counters that Penn State plays what equates to six or seven bowl games each year with home contests at massive Beaver Stadium, the second-largest stadium in the country.
Recruiting could also become an even bigger challenge, but O’Brien said he felt “very good” about recruiting. One high-profile high school prospect, cornerback Ross Douglas, has taken back his verbal pledge to commit to Penn State in 2013. Another 2013 recruit, tight end Adam Breneman, has said he’s sticking with Penn State.
The recruiting strategy might change given the scholarship decline, but the “philosophy I’ve brought here does not change … meaning that we’re looking for high-character guys that are good students. We’re going to find ways to do that.”
O’Brien is also optimistic about keeping his coaching staff together, which includes defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who coached at Auburn when the Tigers won the national championship two seasons ago; and former NFL assistants Stan Hixon and Charles London. Also on the staff are two holdovers from the Paterno era: defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden.
As for O’Brien himself, the head coach left no doubt about his loyalties.
“I made a commitment to Penn State. I believe in Penn State,” he said. “I feel very close to these kids … they’ve been dealt with honestly, openly and again we’ve got a bunch of guys here that want to succeed and do well on and off the field, and I feel close to them.”