The questions keep coming and he doesn’t flinch: How will he handle what has become one of the most difficult jobs in college football? How about other schools trying to lure his players away? How can he make do with reduced scholarships and no bowl appearances the next four years?
“The measure of a man is how you overcome adversity,” O’Brien said Thursday at the Big Ten media day where the majority of questions centered on the plight of the Nittany Lions in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The NCAA delivered crushing sanctions to the program earlier this week and now the Nittany Lions have to get ready for a season where victories will be secondary to the heart they show on the field.
“I talked to them about — without a shadow of a doubt — they’re going to be able to play six to seven bowl games per year in front of 108,000 screaming fans in Beaver Stadium and I expect it to be 108,000 fans in Beaver Stadium,” O’Brien said.
It’s time, he said, to move on.
“The sanctions are what they are. It’s time to get up and get going,” O’Brien said. He added he didn’t know of any player who is planning to transfer from Penn State at the current time but doesn’t anticipate losing any core players. Only time will tell there.
He also said didn’t know which schools had visited State College to see if any of his players would be interested in leaving, although representatives from Illinois were in town earlier in the week.
“I have no idea which schools were on campus, nor do I care,” O’Brien said.
Buzz has centered on the possible departure of Silas Redd, an incoming junior tailback who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season while rushing for 1,241 yards.
Senior Nittany Lions linebacker Michael Mauti said the university community has rallied around the team.
“I know people are behind us, I know the whole school’s behind us, the Penn State family,” he said.
“I’ve had at least 50 emails, 100 text messages, phone calls from everybody, alumni, players who played here in the ‘60s, 70s, 90s and active guys on rosters in the NFL. The heads of departments — psychology, education. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a huge, huge, support base for us and when I get messages like that I put them up in my locker room for everyone to see and together to know that we do have that kind of support.”
Penn State players were expected to skip the media session but a reverse was called and they were represented at the hotel near Soldier Field.
“We’ve got a very strong senior class this year and they’ve done a great job with leadership,” junior guard John Urschell said. “After all these sanctions came out, they’ve done a great job setting a precedent for the rest of the team, sticking together and showing that we’re going to keep our core football team.”
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he has no plans to recruit the players at Penn State, suggesting it would violate what he calls a Big Ten coaching brotherhood.
Other members of the brotherhood weren’t so sure about that.
“We’re going to follow the rules and the rules allow you to recruit,” said Purdue coach Danny Hope, who acknowledged contact between his staff and some PSU players. “For us not to compete would be a disadvantage for our football program. Whether anything materializes out of it, I don’t know. If they’re available, we’re interested.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he had a “problem” with recruiting at Penn State.
“I don’t know enough about the rules,” he said. “If a player reaches out, says, ‘I want to leave here, I’m out of here, I’m gone,’ and reaches out to someone, the player has a right to choose, especially by the rules, to go where he wants. To actively go get a player on a team, I’m not sure. ... I don’t really understand the rule, I’m going to look into it.”
Bielema has already decided.
“I made the decision as a head coach we would not reach out to any Penn State players,” he said. “I think one of the things that I’ve loved and appreciated about being in this conference is there is a genuine respect for everybody in our league that you are a Big Ten brother and ... we’re a group of coaches that have a network that’s beyond anybody’s expectations and helping us in recruiting.”
Illinois coaches were in State College, Pa., on Wednesday and other coaches have said they’ve been in contact with players. Preseason practice starts at Penn State on Aug. 6. At least 13 top players and as many as 30 affirmed their commitment to Penn State on Wednesday, including Mauti and senior quarterback Matt McGloin.
New Illinois coach Tim Beckman said coaches seeking Penn State players have nothing to apologize for. He said the Illini sent a list of names to Penn State before doing anything else.
“We’re just following the rules of the NCAA,” he said. “We were in State College but we did not go on campus. We went to establishments outside campus and called some individuals. If they wanted to come by, it was their opportunity to come by.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he glanced at the Nittany Lions’ roster but was not going after Nittany Lions players. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said there was no way the Wildcats would pursue Penn State players.
And Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said the Spartans would respond only if they were contacted. He did not give names.
“What we have done is if people have contacted us — a coach, a parent — we have followed through. That is the extent of it. If there are people who are receptive to that and come back with us, understand that I’m just here just to create opportunities,” he said. “We’re not going to invest in going beyond that.”
It’s a touchy subject. Commissioner Jim Delany spoke with league coaches.
“We’re trying to put an override on this that allows an athlete as much opportunity as the rules allow, that allows for collegial relationships between our schools to be done in the right way,” Delany said.
“It also puts the athletes and the coaches to interface if that’s what they want to do. But I think it should be focused that there’s an opportunity there for a school and a player, that’s great, if not, they should move on. That’s my view.”