O'Brien trying to keep team together
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
payers 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
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
''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.''
O'Brien Has Tall Task Ahead
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