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 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.”
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. “We get to get better as football players, and we get to do that for Penn State.”
State Farm announced Tuesday that it was pulling its ads from Penn State home broadcasts, while General Motors is reconsidering its sponsorship deal and Moody’s Investors Service said it may cut the school’s Aa1 rating, suggesting the price of the sexual abuse scandal could go beyond the $60 million fine imposed by the NCAA.
While the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator 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.
As for concerns about not playing in the postseason for the next four years, O’Brien countered 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 pledge to commit to Penn State in 2013 and committed to Michigan. Another 2013 recruit, tight end Adam Breneman, has said he’s sticking with Penn State.
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”