CHICAGO†ó Penn State's football program, the subject of much-deserved scrutiny, now tries to prevent an adverse situation on campus from becoming catastrophic on the football field.
It won't be easy. Penn State was leveled this offseason with sanctions after the NCAA found school officials were complicit in covering up a sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The school was fined $60 million, stripped of every win from 1998 through last season and received a four-year bowl ban. Penn State also was hit with substantial scholarship reductions in the future.
For this season, the most painful sanction was unlimited free agency for Penn State's players. The NCAA allowed the players to bolt for any school -- including Big Ten rivals -- with immediate eligibility. The Nittany Lions lost their leading rusher (Silas Redd), a quarterback (Rob Bolden) who started eight games and their two top receivers (Devon Smith and Justin Brown), all of which had eligibility. Second-team all-Big Ten punter/kicker Anthony Fera also bolted.
"I knew that there would be some guys that left, and I respect those decisions," Penn State Coach Bill O'Brien said. "Those guys made those decisions individually and with their families. I'm confident the football team we have here today is going to stick together."
It was a tumultuous two-week period for Penn State football. Players were hounded by opposing coaches and some schools†ó specifically Illinois†ó sent legions of coaches to recruit Penn State's players. Standout defensive tackle Jordan Hill said he had received about 50 phone calls gauging his interest. Hill was so angered that he drove around State College trying to find coaches after concluding his shift at an intern at a golf course.
For those who are staying -- like Hill -- the team has bonded. The public has staged rallies in support of the players and the team has responded, Hill said.
"I wouldnít expect nothing less," Hill said. "Thatís Penn State. Thatís what Penn State people are all about. We always seem to get through adversity. Thatís why I really love Penn State. Weíre hearing at the games, 'We Are Penn State' chant, but people really donít know what it stands for. I feel the world will get a better understanding after all of this is done."
Keeping the team together was difficult for O'Brien. He staged several team meetings and met one-on-one with most players. He incorporates catch phrases and personal stories to motivate and unify them as a group. There's more work to be done, and O'Brien understands it's continual. He will have to keep the together in tough times and the off-season. But O'Brien also is guarding against a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality seeping in beyond the football field.
"Instead of saying it's us against them, let's go out and play good football and think about the fact that maybe this is a little bit about more than football," O'Brien said. "That this is about helping a community. This is about bringing more awareness, much more awareness to child abuse.† This is about making sure that we help lead this university. Not lead it, but be a part of leading this university through the next three or four years that will be a challenge, but that's what life is about."
Hill has tried to stay focused on the task of preparing the Nittany Lions for a grueling schedule. Penn State faces 10 bowl teams this year and five are on the road. He avoids the negative buzz about the program and keeps working toward improvement.
"I really donít pay too much attention to it. I canít," Hill said. "Iím one of the senior leaders. Iíve got to move forward see how my teammates are handling it more than I how I can handle.
"Weíve gotten a lot closer. Thatís just the nature of it. When you walk through adversity and you overcome that stuff, it makes you that much closer. Iíll have these friends for the rest of my life. It wonít just be a football thing and then Iím done and Iíll never see or talk to you guys. Iíll have relationships with these guys for the rest of my life."
Times have changes for Penn State. Names are on the uniforms for the first time. O'Brien is in his first year, replacing the beloved†ó but since disgraced†ó Joe Paterno, who held the all-time Division I wins record before it was stripped by the NCAA. Under normal circumstances, succeeding a legend like Paterno would loom large over a first-time head coach like O'Brien. But with the adversity and challenges, O'Brien has little regard for looking backward.
"I don't think about succeeding anyone," O'Brien said. "I just try to come to work every day with a great staff, great group of kids. Take it day-to-day, keep things in perspective. Understanding that this is about educating young men. This is about doing the best job you can to teach them how to play football your way.
"This is a special place. Now we all have to come together and realize we're in the position we're in. We have to. We have to stop arguing about it, and we've got to move forward."
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS