College football: League coaches weigh in on Penn State
By Michael Osipoff 648-3137 or firstname.lastname@example.org July 26, 2012 11:22PM
Purdue head football coach Danny Hope speaks during the 2012 Big Ten Football Media Day, Thursday, July 26, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: August 28, 2012 6:23AM
CHICAGO — With Penn State, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the ensuing Freeh Report that detailed a cover-up by school leaders, joining Ohio State as ineligible for postseason play, only four of the six teams in the Leaders Division are in line for an opportunity to participate in the Big Ten championship game.
But don’t tell the conference’s coaches that the path to Lucas Oil Stadium has widened.
“Obviously, it increases those that are eligible, increases your odds some, but it’s still going to boil down to who wins the most, who plays the best,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said as the Big Ten media days kicked off on Thursday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. “So rather than complicate it and assume that it may be an easier road, I think that we certainly have to grasp the idea that you have to win. We have to beat the teams that are eligible for the division championship, and also the teams that aren’t eligible in order to be the team that goes. So I don’t think it changes the big picture all that much.”
Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana also reside in the Leaders Division.
The Badgers won the inaugural conference title game last season with a dramatic victory against Michigan State.
“I’m not blind or oblivious to the fact that now we’re in a division that has six teams and only four of them are eligible for the Big Ten championship game. But it really won’t change our approach,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Sandusky was convicted of 45 criminal counts, and an investigation spearheaded by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that the late Joe Paterno and former Penn State administrators president Graham Spanier, athletics director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.” The NCAA on Monday announced heavy sanctions, including a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, vacating all wins from 1998 through last season, and a reduction in annual scholarships from 85 to 65.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids back in State College right now that are sticking together, that have been through a lot of tough times over the last six months, but have turned the page and are ready to move forward,” said coach Bill O’Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator whose Penn State contract was extended from 2016 to 2020 in the aftermath of the sanctions.
“I’ve heard the talk that this is so bad, and what are we going to do. I don’t see it that way, I don’t see it that way. I see it as an opportunity. I see it as a little bit of adversity that we need to overcome. I came from a league where there were 53 players on the roster, eight practice squad players, and 45 players on the active roster — 21 on offense, 21 on defense, three specialists — on game day. So I’m pretty well aware of how to handle a roster of 65 scholarship players. So we have plans in place. I’m not going to get into the details of those; they’re already in the works. But I don’t think that’s as bad as everybody says it is.”
In light of the circumstances, Penn State players can transfer without restriction, including not having to sit out a year.
Approaches to recruiting Lions players varied among coaches on Thursday. Hope took a relatively aggressive position on the process.
“The NCAA has established the rules and the guidelines, obviously because they’re strong from an ethics standpoint, and as long as we’re compliant, we’re going to exercise every opportunity we can to enhance our own football team,” he said. “We’re going to follow the rules, and the rules allow you to go recruit. ... For us not to compete would be a disadvantage to our football team. Whether or not anything materializes out of it, I don’t know. But to me, like any other recruit, if they’re available and they can help us win, I’m interested.”
Hope himself hadn’t contacted any Penn State players, but admitted, “There’s been some communication between some of their players and our staff, absolutely.
“If it’s compliant and within the rules, I certainly would (send coaches to State College). It’s part of recruiting. When there’s players in Florida, we send our coaches there; when there’s players in Texas, we send our coaches there. We send our coaches when they’re allowed to go, anywhere there’s players, and that includes Penn State.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman and his staff did not go to Penn State’s campus, but set up in State College.
“We only talked to individuals that would be willing to meet with us,” he said. “We did not go after them. They had the opportunity to come to us if they would like to come to us and speak to us.
“We went to two establishments outside campus and called some individuals, and if they wanted to come by, it was their opportunity to come by.”
Indiana’s Kevin Wilson was among several coaches who said they weren’t necessarily recruiting Penn State players but would be open to listening if someone initiated the conversation.
“If that kid wants to transfer, he’ll contact you,” said Wilson, who had not heard from any Lions players. “I don’t feel like contacting those guys. We’re working on our program, our team. We have not studied tape or talked about guys to this date. We’ve talked only about getting ready for preseason next week. If someone’s interested, and by rule, then I think that’s a kid wanting to transfer and I’ve been taking that stance more than, ‘Let’s go recruit those guys.’”
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio has attempted to find a balance.
“What we’ve tried to do is first acknowledge the situation,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any winners when you speak to that entire situation. But at the same time, acknowledge that we have a program that we have to run, and try and get better. And so what we have done is if people have contacted us — a coach, a parent — we’ve followed through.
“I’m here to create opportunities, but we’re not going to invest in going beyond that. I would want to do this with respect to Penn State in any way that I can, with integrity. But at the same time, we have a job to do, and we do have relationships with some players that have gone there because we recruited them at an earlier time.”
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Bielema were among those coaches who appeared to land on the conservative end of the spectrum.
“I’m not casting doubt on anybody or questioning anything, but we made a decision that we would not actively pursue any Penn State players,” Bielema said. “And it wasn’t anything more than I have a group of 105 players that are reporting on Aug. 5 that I want them to understand and believe that I think they can help us win another championship. And to bring someone in at this point so close to the season, I just wasn’t comfortable with it.
“I’m going to be their (the Nittany Lions) biggest fan for every week of the year for the guys that stay there and stick it through.”
On Monday morning, O’Brien gathered his players for a team meeting, talking about receiving a Penn State education, their commitment to each other, their bond with the coaching staff, the staff’s ability to develop NFL players, and overcoming adversity.
About 30 Penn State players on Wednesday reaffirmed their intentions to remain with the program. O’Brien said no players had yet informed him of plans to transfer, though standout running back Silas Redd, for one, reportedly has been considering leaving, possibly for USC.
“I have no idea what schools were on campus, nor do I care,” O’Brien said. “The rules are what they are, it’s like NFL free agency without the rules. So they can do what they want as long as they tell our compliance office that they’re contacting these kids.”