Penn State football goes into damage control

July 23, 2012

All the big prizes Penn State usually plays for - the conference championships, the marquee bowl games - are off the table.

For the next four seasons, new coach Bill O'Brien will be in survival mode after the Nittany Lions got walloped by NCAA sanctions Monday. Even before the hammer dropped in the morning, one recruit had decommitted.

''I think it's going to be a great case study in perseverance,'' former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said.

The NCAA weighed in on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and handed down penalties that will handcuff Penn State's mighty football program at least until the latter half of this decade.

The Nittany Lions won't be allowed to play in the postseason over the next four years or hand out a full allotment of scholarships for several seasons.

The current players on the Penn State roster are free to transfer immediately. And the door to leave the program will remain clear throughout their college careers.

Add it all up and the Nittany Lions will be literally be outnumbered by their opponents in the coming years, with just 65 scholarship compared to the normal 85 by 2014. As if it wasn't hard enough already to compete against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

O'Brien's initial public response to the sanctions was to show resolve.

''I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead,'' the former New England Patriots assistant and first-time head coach said in a statement. ''But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.''

Neuheisel said O'Brien's competitive nature undoubtedly kicked when he found out about the sanctions.

''All coaches are from that school that we can handle any adversity,'' Neuheisel said. ''It's the culture of coaching. No matter what happens you can find a way to overcome.

''That was probably the topic of the (team) meeting today.''

The Nittany Lions met on campus in State College, Pa., but players did not stop to speak to reporters after it was over. Many of them could be facing tough decisions in the upcoming weeks.

With Penn State's season set to start Sept. 1 against Ohio, anyone who wants to find a new place to play this year has to do it soon.

''There will be a lot of sharks circling,'' said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports. ''The top 30 guys, the starters, will be looking around. (O'Brien) has to recruit those 30 players back to Penn State.''

Even before the sanctions, Penn State wasn't expected to be a Big Ten title contender this season. But Lemming said if O'Brien and his staff can keep his top-tier players such as running back Silas Redd, linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive tackle Jordan Hill from leaving, Penn State should be respectable.

Nonetheless, before the penalties were even announced Monday, Ross Douglas, a defensive back from Avon, Ohio, backed off his commitment.

''The killer is the four-year bowl ban,'' Lemming said.

Penn State's top recruit, tight end Adam Breneman from Camp Hill, Pa., is hanging with the Nittany Lions for now.

''Although I am still processing and discussing the impact of today's announcements with my family and coaches, I did speak with Coach O'Brien and his staff today and I remain committed to Penn State,'' he wrote in a text message to The Associated Press.

NCAA rules prohibit coaches from other schools reaching out directly to players currently enrolled at Penn State. But they can go the indirect route, reaching out to someone current Nittany Lions trust.

''I bet the phones lines are buzzing with those high school coaches,'' said Neuheisel, who now works as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network.

Players such as incoming freshman offensive lineman Anthony Stanko from Warren, Ohio, can transfer out with no restrictions at any time during their careers.

Stanko's mother, Julie, said the family was shocked by the NCAA's decision to sanction the program.

''We feel that the players and current coaching staff had nothing to do with the situation,'' she said. ''We came to try to be in a healing era for Penn State and all its victims, and I feel as a parent that my son is being punished for the ignorance of others.''

Former Penn State and New York Giants offensive lineman Brad Benson agreed with Stanko that much of the punishment is misplaced, and the open-door transfer policy only helps some kids.

''Free to transfer? Free to transfer where? The rosters are already full. Who are they kidding? Who's that going to help, the blue chippers? What about the guy that's a marginal starters? Where's he going to transfer to?'' Benson said.

Neuheisel said he wouldn't be surprised if O'Brien had to go on a couple of recruiting trips to meet with the parents of some of his current players - to re-recruit them - as well as having to circle back around on the prospects who had already committed to be part of next year's signing class.

Lemming said he expects recruiting to be down for Penn State the next two years as O'Brien tries to convince players to spend most of their careers with a team that can't compete for a Big Ten title or play in a bowl game.

But Penn State might be able to bounce back faster than many think because the 42-year-old O'Brien has shown signs of being an effective recruiter.

''I say they'll be back on track in five years,'' he said.

The question that follows is: Will O'Brien be around long enough to pull Penn State from the wreckage?

His contract would make resigning costly. If he were to step down after one season of his five-year deal, he would have to pay the university about $4 million.

While O'Brien said he was prepared for bumps in the road when he took over, could he have seen this coming?

''You always assume it could go badly,'' Neuheisel said. ''I don't think you could assume this was down the road. This is almost worse than the death penalty.''


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