CHICAGO — His week included frequent meetings and conference calls with players, parents, reporters, bosses, opponents and recruits.
When he wasn’t talking, Bill O’Brien started bracing for a numbers crunch that will shrink the volume of scholarship players on Penn State’s roster.
One prominent coach said it’s not an easy task.
Urban Meyer has started guiding Ohio State through an NCAA sanction period that has trimmed the program’s available scholarships from 85 to 82 for the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. The cuts appear mild compared to what Penn State will face, but Meyer, who was hired by Ohio State last November, said his program is already experiencing the impact.
“Just think about it,” Meyer said at Big Ten media days. “You are running a corporation. That takes some of your best personnel from you and that’s tough. Sometimes that gets lost, when you talk about a coach, conference realignment, the bowl system. ... What about the players? It’s going to be a hit. I know we are feeling the three already.”
Meyer said recruiting and depth are the areas most impacted by the reduction.
“Right on the board in the war room you have your slots,” Meyer said. “Three of our slots I have NCAA written. Just imagine taking an All-American and sliding it where the NCAA is and take another All-American and slide it where NCAA is. That’s a second-round draft pick right there. There’s three guys for three years we aren’t going to have.”
Penn State’s board will look bleaker. For a four-year period beginning in 2013-14, the NCAA has reduced the number of initial scholarships allotted by Penn State to 15.
The NCAA allows as many as 25 scholarships for an incoming class.
Instead of having 85 scholarship players on its roster, Penn State will be limited to 65 beginning in 2014. The reductions last through the 2017 season. It will likely take Penn State until 2020 to field a team with 85 scholarship players.
“Clearly, that’s a competitive disadvantage,” O’Brien said. “But you can sit there and just talk about what a disadvantage it is all day or grab it by the neck and figure it out what to do, so that’s what we are doing.”
O’Brien, who spent five years with the New England Patriots, has said he will bring NFL thinking to roster management. NFL rosters are capped at 53 players, with 45 dressing on game days. Teams also maintain eight-player practice squads.
Observing Patriots coach Bill Belichick has provided O’Brien with a practice template he plans to implement. The Patriots operate efficient practices that rarely last more than three hours. Two Penn State assistants — assistant head coach Stan Hixon and running backs coach Charles London — also have recent NFL experience.
“There’s no question my NFL experience and Stan Hixon’s NFL experience and Charles London’s NFL experience is certainly going to help us with our roster,” O’Brien said.
The NCAA permits Division I teams to carry 105 players, which means when the sanctions reach their peak Penn State could be carrying at least 40 walk-ons.
“There are issues,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Obviously, the more bodies you have, the better off you are. It will be a challenge. I can’t even imagine going out there with 65 guys. I think he will try to get strong walk-ons.”
O’Brien said before the NCAA levied the sanctions that he was working to develop a solid walk-on program. Those plans have entered acceleration mode.
Coaches bemoaned when the NCAA reduced Division I scholarships from 95 to 85 between 1992 and ’94, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said depth concerns sparked by greater injury risks materialized when schedules expanded to 12 games. He said O’Brien’s plight is difficult to fathom.
“At our place, we have never had enough good players,” Ferentz said. “That’s probably how it is at all places. It makes the challenge that much steeper. There are areas we have guys injured. That’s part of coaching.”
Penn State’s scholarship reductions evoke memories of an era when the NCAA allowed unlimited football scholarships. The policy permitted successful coaches such as Alabama’s Bear Bryant to stash talented players.
The hoarding not only helped Bryant’s program. It allowed Alabama to keep high school standouts away from rival schools.
When Penn State’s scholarships are reduced to 65, O’Brien might begin to understand what coaches encountered when facing a Bryant-coached team.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s there were unlimited scholarships, so a guy like Coach Bryant in Alabama could bring in 150 kids and give them scholarships,” O’Brien said. “He might take a kid from Alabama just to keep him from going away to Georgia Tech. As the years went on, they put in limits and started to decrease how many scholarships you can give. It seems like it leveled off at 85. How they came up with that number? I’m not sure.”
What does O’Brien think of the 85 scholarship limit?
“I think it’s too much right now,” he joked.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy