Big Ten coaches split on poaching Penn State
CHICAGO — Soon after Mark Emmert's jarring words seeped through television sets Monday morning, player cell phones buzzed and administrative fax machines hummed across Penn State's campus.
On the other end, college football coaches from across the country quickly were springing into action.
Emmert, the NCAA president, had levied unprecedented penalties against Penn State for its failure to act on former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse crimes. In the process, Emmert announced that Penn State's football players were free to transfer anywhere they wanted without penalty "in order to minimize the negative impact on student-athletes."
In other words, they were suddenly fair game for any team showing a speck of curiosity, setting off a free-for-all for Nittany Lions players. The bedlam included a deluge of text messages and calls to players and their parents, faxes to Penn State's compliance office with player interest lists and even coaches booking plane flights to State College, Pa.
At Big Ten football media days Thursday, first-year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien acknowledged the unusually chaotic situation.
"It's like NFL free agency without the rules," he said.
But not every Big Ten coach is comfortable poaching players and taking advantage of the uncommon circumstances in State College, even if it's now within the rules of the NCAA framework.
Count Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema among those who adamantly defended not pursuing players at Penn State.
"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 you're a guy that sits in our conference meeting rooms," Bielema said. "We're a group of coaches that have a network that's beyond anybody's expectations and helping us in recruiting."
Bielema added that coaches must strike a balance between affirming their commitment to current players and bettering the team by considering Penn State transfers just weeks before the beginning of fall practice.
"I have a group of 105 players that are reporting on Aug. 5 that I want them to understand and believe that I think they can help us win another championship," Bielema said. "And to bring someone in at this point so close to the season, I just wasn't comfortable with it."
First-year Ohio State coach Urban Meyer shared Bielema's sentiment, saying he had "a problem" with coaches attempting to solicit Penn State players rather than players reaching out to other teams.
Of course, other Big Ten coaches offered a different perspective, acknowledging that they're well within their rights to recruit Penn State's players immediately.
Illinois, for example, flew eight coaches to State College in an effort to recruit players. First-year Illini coach Tim Beckman denied reports that his staff members were soliciting players in the school parking lot, however.
"We were in State College, but we did not go on campus," Beckman said. "We went to two establishments outside campus and called some individuals, and if they wanted to come by, it was their opportunity to come by."
Beckman said he didn't feel any need to apologize for his decision.
"We're just following the rules of the NCAA," he said.
Purdue coach Danny Hope and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio both acknowledged the importance of maintaining a competitive advantage wherever possible, provided that it falls in line with NCAA rules.
"I want to do this with respect to Penn State in any way that I can with integrity," Dantonio said. "But at the same time, we do have a job to do."
Added Hope: "As long as we're compliant, we're going to exercise every opportunity we can to enhance our own football team."
Roughly 30 Penn State players have said they're staying with the team, but that hasn't stopped some schools from actively pursuing those still on the fence.
Running back Silas Redd, Penn State's leading rusher last season with 1,241 yards, reportedly met with USC coach Lane Kiffin on Thursday about the possibility of transferring to play for the Trojans.
Cornerback Ross Douglas, a high school senior-to-be and four-star recruit, de-committed from Penn State on Monday and pledged his services to Michigan by Tuesday.
Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said he wasn't pursuing any current players despite the temptation.
"I would be lying if I said we didn't look at the roster to some degree," Hoke said. "We've kind of made a decision that we're going to stay and recruit the guys and keep our business our business."
O'Brien said he had "no idea" what schools were on Penn State's campus to recruit players and added that he didn't care.
Nittany Lions linebacker Michael Mauti wasn't so dismissive. Without naming specifics, Mauti — one of the Penn State players who is staying — expressed annoyance with the hypocritical nature of the recruiting process during the few days since Emmert's announcement.
"If you're going to wish us well and then try to take our kids," Mauti said, "then I got a problem with that."
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