The thoughts, musings, rants and observations of Barry Rubinstein, a longtime sports journalism pro now starring as a digital and print editor on the sports desk at the New York Post.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien fighting to keep his team together


Like the song says, you have to go through hell before you get to heaven. And Bill O'Brien, the new head football coach at Penn State, can surely relate.  To an extent, he knew -- sort of -- what he was getting into when he accepted the position in January to succeed the iconic Joe Paterno as the head of one of the nation's best known and most successful programs, in the wake of Jerry Sandusky being found guilty of child abuse and Paterno summarily being sacked for "not doing enough."

But that was before the Freeh Report, the removal of Paterno's statue outside Beaver Stadium and the subsequent unprecedented sanctions leveled at Penn State by the NCAA. Suddenly, there would be no bowl games in the Nittany Lions' immediate future, along with a significant loss of scholarships, and -- perhaps the most damaging punishment to O'Brien and his new staff -- the ability of current Penn State players to transfer to other schools and play immediately, without losing any eligibility.

Predictably, the vultures are already circling. USC coach Lane Kiffin, perhaps most out front among the scavengers, has reportedly met with Penn State running back Silas Redd, one of Penn State's best players. According to a report in USA Today, coaches and representatives of rival Big 10 schools have been camped out in parking lots at Penn State, openly and unabashedly recruiting.

Whether such practices are ethical would make for a rousing debate; college football is a huge money-maker, and programs routinely pit themselves against others to draw the country's best talent. On the other hand, is it morally wrong to be in the open about decimating another school's team, especially given the unspeakable events that got us to this point?

O'Brien was asked by USA Today if, upon taking the Penn State job, he had spoken to other coaches whose programs had faced discipline from the NCAA -- as Kiffin had at USC. And O'Brien's reply was telling:

"It is hard to consult with coaches who have dealt with significant sanctions if they are recruiting your players," O'Brien said. "I'm not going to consult (with them)."

O'Brien told USA Today if the situation were reversed, he would never think to be such a plunderer.

"They didn't choose my school in the first place," O'Brien said of putting himself in the cleats of others.

O'Brien will be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recruiting for the next four years, and likely beyond until the program can be relevant again, but his main focus is holding onto the players he has, and the newcomers who already have committed to the Nittany Lions.

"I want everybody to understand -- our fans, everybody involved with this program -- what is going on with these student-athletes right now," he told ESPN. "They're under tremendous pressure. I'm just concerned about taking care of my kids who play for me. I'm concerned about being there with them and doing the best to protect them. They don't want to go anywhere else."

For his part, O'Brien is saying all the right things; this week, several key recruits reiterated their commitment to the program, including Christian Hackenberg, a highly-regarded quarterback.

Hackenberg told Pennlive.com that he and five other recruits "went up to Coach O'Brien's office and told him we are going to stay committed. We believe in Coach O'Brien and his staff."

Employing circle-the-wagon, us-against-them mentalities is standard operating procedure in coaches' playbooks, and always has been. O'Brien is right to employ such strategy -- anything to rally the troops and keep them focused ... and keep them in Navy Blue and White.

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