Clutching a drink and bracing for calm, Bill O’Brien eased into a Cape Cod vacation, his first extended reprieve from a demanding new job.
Early into his trip, O’Brien fielded a work-related call. The message was succinct.
Get back to State College.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh had completed his report about Penn State’s missteps in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Nothing in the report pertained to O’Brien’s first six months as Penn State’s football coach, although the 267-page document included undertones that would alter his summer operations.
The report led to harsh NCAA sanctions, creating, perhaps, the most challenging two weeks of O’Brien’s coaching career.
On Monday, O’Brien receives a second crack at a summer respite. This one starts with an early-morning practice, lasts 25 days, features plenty of company and occurs on lush central Pennsylvania practice fields.
There’s still a football season looming.
“I can’t wait, to be honest with you,” O’Brien said. “I can’t wait to start coaching football. I’m looking forward to talking football and going out on the field and coaching football.”
For the first time since 1966, Penn State begins preseason camp with a new coach. A program once known for its stability has endured a summer filled with upheaval.
The Nittany Lions are down 13 scholarship players since April’s Blue-White Game, the Nittany Lions’ 15th and final spring practice. Eight scholarship players, including star running back Silas Redd, have fled in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions.
Penn State loses $60 million from its coffers, 20 scholarships from its football reserves and 112 successful outings from its football history. Those are long-term and revisionist worries.
In the short term, the NCAA’s transfer waiver represents the biggest obstacle. The waiver, which allows players to begin competing immediately at new schools, created an intense market for Penn State players, with some programs, including Big Ten rival Illinois, dispatching coaches to State College. The schools are offering something the NCAA swiped from Penn State: postseason opportunities. A four-year bowl and Big Ten title game ban represents another part of Penn State’s penalty.
Players have until the start of 2013 preseason practices to utilize the waiver. Few safeguards protect O’Brien and his assistants. Players are free to transfer during the season unless they participate in a game.
“I would expect the kids that are with us when we start the season Aug. 6 are going to stick with us the whole year,” O’Brien said.
The fall semester begins Aug. 27. The NCAA tightens contact and visitation rules for Penn State players when the semester begins. They are eligible to be recruited again when the season ends.
Instead of using late July and early August to finalize camp agendas and arrangements, O’Brien and his assistants scrambled to keep their roster together.
The waiver dismantled Penn State’s highly-regarded 2010 recruiting class, with juniors Redd (USC), Khairi Fortt (California), Kevin Haplea (Florida State) and Rob Bolden (LSU) leaving State College. Penn State signed 20 players on Feb. 3, 2010. Eleven remain with the program.
“It’s very tough,” said wide receiver Alex Kenney, a member of the recruiting class. “You establish great relationships with kids, spend a few years with them, and unfortunately, they are gone a little sooner than you would like. But we’ll cross paths again.”
The defections create opportunities for young players such as Kenney, a third-year sophomore who attended State College Area High School. Kenney entered the summer as a second-team slot receiver. Devon Smith, the player in front of Kenney on the depth chart, left the team for personal reasons in June.
As of Saturday night, the roster included just one returning full-time offensive starter: center Matt Stankiewitch. Justin Brown, the team’s leading returning wide receiver, left the team Saturday and will transfer to Oklahoma. Penn State’s offensive skill players are among the nation’s youngest.
Kenney, sophomore running back Bill Belton, sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson, and freshmen tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James might be toting or catching the ball when the season begins Sept. 1 against Ohio University.
“It’s a pretty special position to be in right now,” Kenney said. “Young guys have a great opportunity if they go out and perform at camp. Some of us could be playing on Saturdays.”
Belton, Robinson and Carter are part of the 2011 recruiting class. Carter, who redshirted last year, will never appear in a bowl game if he stays at Penn State. Donovan Smith, one of the gems of the ’11 class, said personal bonds and loyalty kept the core of his recruiting class together.
“We have built something over the past year,” said Smith, a massive redshirt freshman projected to start at left tackle. “For it to disappear so quick. ... It wouldn’t be right.”
Coaches are developing similar bonds. The staff, which includes eight new on-field coaches, has maintained its vigor despite the sanctions. The group has kept the nucleus of a promising 2013 recruiting class together and established relationships with Pennsylvania high school coaches.
O’Brien said the staff used May and June wisely, which helped soften the initial flurry created by the sanctions. NCAA rules prohibited O’Brien from making on-campus visits in May, but his assistants spent the month visiting high schools. The staff reserved June for hosting camps and finalizing preseason practice plans.
“I have had training camp ready for months,” O’Brien said. “I said June was going to be a big month for us, and we took advantage of June.”
August, though, is a bigger month. The NCAA allows Penn State to practice 29 times between Monday and Aug. 31. The first five days of camp coincides with the final week of summer classes.
Two-a-days begin Saturday. By next weekend, players should be too busy — or exhausted — to ponder the sanctions.
“I can’t wait,” said senior linebacker Michael Mauti, one of the program’s ardent advocates. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. A lot of guys are tired of talking about this, and we can’t wait to go out and play football. That’s what we came here for. We didn’t come here for this. We want to go play football. That’s all we want to do.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy