Not a week ago, Bill O’Brien made one of the bolder statements of his tenure.
“If we had 25 scholarships to give,” the Penn State coach said Thursday, “it would be unbelievable what we could do in recruiting.”
The Nittany Lions are going to get a chance to find out much sooner than expected.
O’Brien’s plan to pull Penn State out of the darkness of NCAA sanctions got an enormous shot in the arm Tuesday with the announcement that the program’s scholarships would be gradually restored.
It affects that plan immediately. Penn State had been planning for the past year to sign another recruiting class that was capped off at 15 because of the sanctions. Now they’ll be able to sign 20 in February for the 2014 class in addition to any early enrollees in January.
The 2015 class will be back to the maximum 25 allowed scholarships that O’Brien referenced.
O’Brien didn’t have his normal afternoon press conference on Tuesday because the Lions have a bye week. But he still had his normal spot on the Big Ten coaches teleconference.
“I found out this morning that there was an announcement going to be made,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got a long way to go here at Penn State. We’re happy right now for our players, our student-athletes that are here and our football program. They’re a resilient bunch of kids.”
Penn State still has practices this week through Thursday. But with no game to plan for on Saturday, the coaching staff will take some extra time to adjust its recruiting strategy.
Aside from the obvious advantage of getting to send out more offers, Penn State suddenly becomes a bit more attractive to top recruits who had written the school off because of the sanctions.
O’Brien said generally his staff didn’t have trouble landing top players once they got them on campus. Despite the massive penalties against the program, Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class started the week ranked 29th in the country out of 130 teams according to 247sports’ composite rankings, which average the rankings from several major recruiting services.
“The difficult part came with the numbers,” O’Brien said. “For instance, say that you could only take one at such-and-such position — say it was an offensive tackle. That was difficult that you were only going to be able to take one kid in the class for that position. That was tough.
“As far as recruiting, we always felt that from the day we walked in here that once we were able to get a young man and his parents here on campus, that the place sold itself. … As far as just recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here. It’s just the numbers that were the difficult part.”
Though the Lions remain under a postseason ban, the NCAA acknowledged that too could be ended early given continued strong compliance by the university.
It’s an angle the coaches will be sure to mention as they visit more schools and more homes.
“We’re obviously looking at it and studying it just like we did when the sanctions came out last July,” O’Brien said. “It takes a while to digest everything and then to apply it to where you’re headed.”
O’Brien wouldn’t get into specifics of his new recruiting plan and, given the circumstances, was very low-key about what he called “welcome news” during the call with media.
That was almost certainly by design. Having made progress with the NCAA where none appeared possible, Penn State wasn’t about to come across as overly celebratory, recognizing there’s still a chance for further leniency.
Instead, some of the most vocal trumpeting on Tuesday was done by O’Brien’s peers in the Big Ten who have been sympathetic to what has been an unprecedented and bizarre situation.
“I think that whole (sanctions) thing is a bad deal,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “So hopefully some steps are taken to make it a little more fair.”
Ferentz’s son, Brian, is currently on the Iowa staff and formerly worked as an assistant coach with O’Brien with the New England Patriots.
O’Brien nemesis Tim Beckman — the Illinois coach who sent most of his staff to State College to recruit players in the immediate aftermath of the sanctions — said he was glad to hear of the reductions because more scholarships meant more opportunities for top high school players.
That sentiment was echoed throughout the conference.
“We’re all in this business to help kids out,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. “Any time you can help some people out, I think that’s why we do this.
“I haven’t heard many of the details, but I’m happy for Penn State. They’re able to get into a situation where they can help people out and not punish people who had nothing to do with what tragically happened in the past.”