By Joseph Santoliquito
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (CBS) — It was close to cocktail hour and they filed by Bill O’Brien one-by-one, each receiving an acknowledging nod from the Penn State coach. O’Brien leaned back taking a quick inventory at dinner for his seniors, who were going to be presented the following night by the prestigious Maxwell Football Club with the Thomas Brookshier Spirit Award, in recognition of their commitment, leadership and outstanding effort in 2012.
O’Brien, who was going to receive the Maxwell’s 2012 Collegiate Coach of the Year, beamed, “I wouldn’t be here without them, that commitment they showed and how they stuck through everything that happened. They’re what Penn State football is all about. Now it’s up to me to keep that going, looking for kids just like them, committed, devoted, willing to do anything you ask them to do. What a great class. I’ll never forget them. I just hope we can bring in more classes like them.”
And so the process begins.
What O’Brien and Penn State face is greatly hampered by the NCAA sanctions levied against the program in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which had nothing do with O’Brien or any of the Penn State players.
The problem O’Brien faces is that it’s spilled over into limited scholarships, which are down to 15 for 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, a bowl ban during that same span, a 65-scholarship roster limit from 2014-17, a $60-million fine and a bunch of quality high school kids that O’Brien could have signed — but now can’t.
“We’re really limited in what we can do, scholarship wise, so we’re going to have to be selective and smart,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to go for the same type of high-quality, high-character kid. The problem we’re going to have is how limited our range can be.
“As a coach, you want to make sure you have the right kind of kid who can do it all, because we don’t cut corners at Penn State. They’re expected to go to class, expected to maintain good grades and expected to be good football players — in that order. Our message is simple, we don’t expect anything less.”
There used to be a time when Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno would walk into any high-level player in Pennsylvania’s house and there was no doubt that kid was headed to Happy Valley to play for the Nittany Lions.
O’Brien will need to be far more selective over the next three to four years. Complicating that is the fact that the Big 10 now includes Maryland and Rutgers, which plays its first game in the Big 10 by hosting Penn State on Sept. 13, 2014.
It makes what used to be traditional Penn State recruiting hotbeds in Eastern Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland even more difficult for O’Brien. But he’s already made a great foothold in a number of areas.
“I’d send a kid there in a heartbeat. Penn State is still a major Division I program and kids want to play at Penn State, and especially for O’Brien,” said Haverford High School coach Joe Gallagher, one of the deans of high school coaches in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “I played for Tennessee, but I was recruited by Coach Paterno for Penn State, and it seems O’Brien is bringing some of those same qualities as Paterno had. They graduate their kids, it’s a good academic school, and they’re still going to be on TV.”
O’Brien certainly has substantial credibility in coaching circles. The fact that he stayed at Penn State, considering numerous NFL teams inquired about him, also scores major points with possible recruits.
Freshman standout Christian Hackberg remained committed to Penn State out of Fork Union Military Academy (Va.), and now O’Brien will be getting IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) quarterback Michael O’Connor. He’ll join 10 others that O’Brien has secured for the 2014 class.
“It’s not hard to sell the school or the program,” O’Brien said. “Penn State provides a great education, you play in the Big 10, on TV, and you’re going up against some of the best teams in the country every year. Our thing here is to continue the tradition Coach Paterno built. We’re going to continue keeping our standards high. With the limited number, we’re going after special kids — committed, devoted, team players.”
Then O’Brien looked up at his graduating seniors, all leaving Penn State with degrees, which the coach made sure to stress.
“Guys like them,” he said.