UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State secondary coach John Butler received a text message from a former high school teammate at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Butler, who was preparing his son, Manny, for the day, opened the file and saw pictures of fans already gathered outside the Lasch Building for the “Rise and Rally” event.
Butler grew up in Philadelphia, where he played high school football alongside Keith Conlin, the man who sent the pictures. The pictures — and the scene that greeted Butler and his wife, Carmen, when they arrived to the football complex — offered further validation of why Butler left a desirable gig at South Carolina to coach at Penn State.
“I don’t want to say I’m surprised,” said Butler, who coached the Gamecocks special teams last season.“It encouraged me. When you go through challenging times, you want to make sure those who support you in the past continue to do so,” he said. “To see the support is probably stronger than ever is definitely very encouraging.”
The daunting task of leading Penn State through the NCAA sanction period falls on men such as the 39-year-old Butler, one of seven new assistant coaches on Bill O’Brien's staff.
Butler has already developed a reliable support structure in State College.
Conlin, who hosts the “The Goon Show” podcast, and director of strength and conditioning Craig Fitzgerald are close friends and former La Salle College High School teammates. Conlin played offensive tackle for Penn State’s 1994 Big Ten and Rose Bowl championship team.
Conlin developed the idea for rally after speaking with Butler and Fitzgerald. NCAA rules prohibit assistant coaches from working with players until preseason practices begin next Monday. Fitzgerald, a colleague of Butler’s at South Carolina, has guided the team through summer workouts.
“We have great, great young men,” Fitzgerald said. “They have come together. They know the center of the acorn is the strongest part of the acorn, and the center of this whole program is our players. They haven't just gotten through. They have come together really strong. They are doing great right now.”
The coaches are also coping with the sanctions, which include a four-year bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a transfer waiver that threatens to pester the program until next summer.
Keeping the 2012 roster together is the staff’s top priority. Recruiting and roster management challenges loom because the NCAA is limiting Penn State to 65 scholarship players beginning in 2014. The Division I maximum is 85. The maximum number of new scholarships the program can award decreases from 25 to 15 next year.
“We all understand it’s a challenge,” Butler said. “We’re not idiots, but we are putting together a plan. All of us came here in support of Coach O’Brien and Penn State. Now it’s just another set of obstacles we have to overcome. But I don’t think any of us have spent much time wallowing in self pity. That doesn’t help.”
O’Brien spent last Wednesday in Bristol, Conn., and Thursday and Friday in Chicago fulfilling media obligations. As O’Brien distributed Penn State’s sanction era message via the media, his assistants huddled in State College and started handling the logistical challenges created by the NCAA penalties.
Fitzgerald maintained an energetic weight room, and he said attitudes stayed upbeat throughout the week. This week includes final strength and conditioning preparations for preseason practices, which begin Monday.
He is confident that the players who report to camp are ready for what awaits. “The job of the strength and conditioning program is to put these guys in a position to be successful,” Fitzgerald said. “They have taken advantage of that. They are in excellent condition because of their hard work and consistency.”
Fitzgerald is currently the envy of the coaching staff. He, after all, gets to train and instruct players, something the on-field assistants haven’t done since the Blue-White Game on April 21.
The scrappy attitude O’Brien permeated last week — he told players and reporters it’s time for Penn State to “punch back” — has spread to his staff. And Butler said players are grasping the message.
“The attitude has been that it’s time to attack and fight, start focusing on the football season and take the focus off the things that are out of our control, and focus on the things that may be able to help you move forward,” Butler said. “That’s what we have been talking about, recruiting, moving forward and keeping our players moving forward.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy