Despite a private meeting two weeks ago in which Bill O’Brien presented the Penn State board of trustees with a potential appeal to the NCAA to reduce sanctions imposed on the program, the football program is proceeding as if those sanctions will remain in place.
O’Brien deferred questions about petitioning the NCAA to reduce the sanctions — a four-year bowl ban, severe scholarship reductions and a $60 million fine — to his superiors, university President Rodney Erickson and Director of Athletics Dave Joyner, during Big Ten Media Days activities on Wednesday.
“I said my piece last week,” said O’Brien, who was referring to a conference call with reporters on Friday in which he stated he hoped the NCAA could meet Penn State “halfway.”
“I’m focused on the team now,” O’Brien said. “I really think those are questions that are more for President Erickson and Dr. Joyner. I know that we’re being very compliant. Over the 19 months that I’ve been here, I think we’ve had four meetings with our compliance department, each three hours long, to make sure we understand the rules.”
Joyner spoke in generalities when asked about a possible plea to college football’s governing body to reduce the sanctions.
“Sure, everybody would like them to change,” Joyner said. “I’m not making any plans on that happening. I’m not going to wake up every morning thinking about, ‘How do we do that?’ I’m going to wake up every morning thinking about how to do with what we’ve been given and making all of our programs the best we can do.”
The sanctions were leveled against the football program in the wake of the university-ordered Freeh report, which did not have authority to subpoena key witnesses yet concluded that Penn State officials knowingly concealed information relating to the crimes of Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was convicted last summer on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
One portion of the NCAA’s penalties will soon be eliminated, however.
The transfer waiver that allows Penn State players to move on to another school and play immediately without having to sit out a year is set to expire on Aug. 1. Last year, the Nittany Lions lost a handful of players who decided to take advantage of the transfer waiver, namely star running back Silas Redd, wideout Justin Brown and kicker Anthony Fera.
But the core of the team remained largely intact, and Penn State went 8-4. Early season losses included one to Ohio when a lackluster second half doomed them. Multiple missed field goals at Virginia led to another close loss. Penn State then lost a controversial game in Nebraska when what would have been the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter was ruled a fumble.
Joyner described the Penn State athletic department’s disposition following the NCAA sanctions as “deer in the headlights” and called the upcoming expiration of the transfer waiver an emotional milestone.
“That’s a huge piece of it that’s behind us,” Joyner said.
Meanwhile, when asked what Aug. 1 means to them, Penn State players in attendance were stumped at first.
Linebacker Glenn Carson thought for a few seconds but couldn’t come up with an answer. Offensive lineman John Urschel wasn’t sure of the date’s significance either.
Urschel said flatly: “I was actually not aware of what the date even meant until someone just mentioned it to me.”
Urschel implied that he and his teammates’ ignorance of the date’s significance signifies this group has moved on.
O’Brien said he believes that has been the case for a long time. Quarterback Steven Bench was the last player to take advantage of the transfer waiver but did so only after O’Brien told him following spring practice he would not be competing for the starting quarterback spot in the fall. Combined, Penn State lost 10 players to the transfer waiver with most of them being reserves at the time they transferred.
“I haven’t really thought about that transfer (waiver) since the season started last year,” O’Brien said. “I felt like those were the guys that were committed to us.”
Losing the opportunity to play in bowl games hasn’t deterred recruits either and a destination game in Dublin is scheduled for next season against UCF.
Penn State’s recruiting efforts haven’t been hindered much if at all by the scholarship reductions. Although Penn State can only bring in 15 scholarship players over the next three seasons, they’ve been able to retain and attract top talent so far.
O’Brien was able to keep the 2013 recruiting class — including vaunted prospects Adam Breneman and Christian Hackenberg — largely intact and has already earned commitments from 13 players toward the 2014 class. The 2014 bunch is ranked 21st overall by recruiting service 247sports.com and is third in the Big Ten to only Ohio State (No. 7) and Michigan (No. 11).
Among those who have verbally committed to Penn State this year, five are four-star recruits.
“It’s very satisfying,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said of Penn State’s 2012 result in the wake of the sanctions. “We still have a lot of goals that we need to accomplish. We still have goals that we have set that we need to reach. It’s good to somewhat get past that but we still have a long way to go.”