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Bill O'Brien relieved to talk football, not sanctions

CHICAGO -- One year later, and the media crush has lessened. The questions about other schools recruiting on Penn State's campus, doubts about which players would stay and what a four-year postseason ban would mean for the program have subsided.


One year later, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien at least knows what to expect.


"It's certainly different," O'Brien said Wednesday during the Big Ten Media Days. "I mean, last year I think we arrived here the day after obviously the penalties being announced, so I think we're in a better mood this year."


It was last July 23, a Monday, when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced unprecedented sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.


Penn State was handed a $60 million sanction, a four-year postseason ban and was forced to vacate all of its victories dating to the 1998 season. The school also had to reduce 10 initial and 20 total scholarships each year over a four-year period.


Three days later, O'Brien and his players had to answer questions they never saw coming -- many of which had little to do with the game of football. As O'Brien stood at the podium for his first Big Ten Media Days, his first four questions centered on how he would keep players at Penn State, which players were leaving and which schools were recruiting on campus. And that was before the questions about the sanctions themselves.


Wednesday, at O'Brien's second Media Days, the questions were noticeably different. His first question focused on who would start at quarterback: Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg? He was asked when he would like to decide on a starting quarterback and about the depth of his defensive line and linebackers.


Mostly, O'Brien got to do what he loves to do most -- talk football.


"Obviously you're a lot more comfortable with your position as a head football coach," O'Brien said. "It's only been a year, but you're more comfortable with the players, with the staff, knowing each other, the chemistry, all those different things that go into it.


"Does that lead to victories? Who knows? We're going to have to go out there and play extremely hard."


NCAA restructuring: Like some of his counterparts, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany agreed that a restructuring with the governing body of college athletics needed to take shape.


Delany outlined a four-point plan for reform that consisted of lifetime education coverage for college players, limits on hours spent on sports, proposing a year of residence for acclimation of at-risk student-athletes and increasing the value of athletic scholarships.


"My belief is that there's a lot of political momentum for change at the NCAA," Delany said. "I don't think there's a major conference that disagrees with that.  To be honest with you, I don't think there's a mid-major conference that disagrees with that. And from all of my conversations with all of my colleagues, they think change is at hand.  It's a matter of doing the detailed work on it.


"I don't think it's going to be very adversarial, and I don't really think that the need to threaten or walk is going to be there, because I think everybody really wants to take us to a place where we can do our business."


Northwestern's encore: One season after posting a 10-3 mark and the program's first bowl victory since 1949, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is hoping for a Big Ten title.


"We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore," Fitzgerald said. "That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. And to be a consistent winner, to be a consistent postseason team and playing in bowl games is the expectation. Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day, the expectation is to win championships."


Northwestern had lost four consecutive bowl games under Fitzgerald until securing a 34-20 victory against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.


Ohio State and Wisconsin replace Indiana and Penn State as Northwestern's cross-divisional opponents this season, so the road to a Big Ten championship appearance should be even tougher than last season. The Wildcats also must deal with Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State in the Legends Division -- each team was picked to finish ahead of them in a preseason media poll.


Fitzgerald used last season's fourth-quarter failures as motivation for his team during spring practices. He had "5:03" printed on the backs of players' workout shirts to remind them how close they came to an undefeated regular season. Northwestern lost close games to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan.


Despite the losses, Fitzgerald said the Wildcats have caught the attention of the college football world. And he believes a Big Ten championship is in sight.


"Now, maybe just a few more people are listening, saying, 'Well maybe they might be able to,'" Fitzgerald said.


Players honored: The Big Ten announced its third annual football Players to Watch list, with 10 players earning preseason recognition. The preseason list was selected by a media panel and consists of five student-athletes each from the Legends Division and Leaders Division.


The Leaders Division representatives are: Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark.


The Legends Division representatives are: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.


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