Inspired O'Brien, Penn State look toward future
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- Back from the recruiting trail, Bill O'Brien returned to his Penn State office this week for one-on-one meetings with players and a sit-down with his staff about the roster.
Nearly a year after taking on the challenge of guiding the Nittany Lions, O'Brien has settled in quite nicely into the coach's corner suite at the football building.
"It was a very good start to a new era of Penn State football. Just like any season, you wish you had a few plays back,'' O'Brien said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "At the end of the day, it seems like a successful season.''
Given unprecedented circumstances this season, an 8-4 record in 2012 can be considered a resounding success. Of course, every coach and player wants to win as many games as possible, so in that respect, the Nittany Lions are hardly satisfied.
But after a year in which the NCAA slammed the program with landmark sanctions, the team's blue-collar, never-say-die approach inspired a massive fan base looking to rally around players that had nothing to do with the child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The 24-21 win over Wisconsin in the season finale might have been the microcosm of the challenging year, a season that O'Brien sees as a blueprint for the future.
"It definitely would be a model from the standpoint of guys playing very physical, playing hard, practicing with great effort and for the most part playing good situational football,'' O'Brien said. "It was a good start for us.''
O'Brien said he had a "positive vibe'' after finishing up with the last of the individual meetings with about 85 players Monday. The initial focus, he said, was on making sure the Nittany Lions were getting ready for finals this week.
Graduation remains a priority at Penn State through the regime change from the late coach Joe Paterno. The American Football Coaches Association this week honored Penn State for its 91-percent graduation success rate, a program record. It was the 22nd time Penn State had received such an honor.
"I've said from Day 1, when you talk about the culture of football as it relates to the players, we've got a very good culture in terms of the balance of athletics and academics,'' O'Brien said. "Do we have a bunch of valedictorians? No. But we have a bunch of kids who understand the meaning of hard work and the value of getting an education.''
O'Brien also isn't shy about laying out the challenges ahead.
Scholarship reductions are the most pressing issue. The NCAA sanctions in July limit Penn State's recruiting classes to no more than 15 a year for the next four years, starting with the 2013 class to be signed in early February. Most teams can sign 25.
The caveat is that a certain number of players who sign early and enroll in January will count against 2012 - for which there are no such scholarship limits. That means the 2013 class could have more than 15 signees.
Starting with the 2014 season, the Nittany Lions can only have 65 players on scholarship until after the 2017 season. The usual scholarship limit for major college teams is 85.
"As the years go, it's going to be difficult,'' O'Brien said. "Look we don't have as many scholarship players as the teams we're playing.
"Those are the cards we've been dealt. We need a little bit of luck. But at the same time, we're going to continue to recruit high-character, high-quality guys.''
Still, recruiting appears to be going well. O'Brien is also optimistic about attracting high-quality walk-ons from Pennsylvania who will need to fill the depth chart. They're now called "run-ons'' at Penn State because of the need to show hustle on the practice field.
"You never know until guys sign on the dotted line,'' O'Brien said. "But we feel good with where we're at.''
Getting a strong corps of run-ons will require strong networking with Pennsylvania high school coaches, a collective relationship that O'Brien thinks is off to a good start. As an example, Penn State assistants were very visible at last weekend's state high school football finals in Hershey.
O'Brien himself even took in a game from the sideline - when he wasn't bombarded by high school assistants or other onlookers wanting to shake his hand.
"When you go out on the road and you see how much (the season) meant to people around the state, especially to win the last game, I think it was a good start,'' O'Brien said.
There's one more part of the job that no other coach has.
O'Brien also has to hang on to his own players, since the NCAA gave current Nittany Lions an opportunity to transfer and play right away because of the sanctions, instead of being forced to sit out the season.
The waiver period lasts until the start of the 2013 preseason in August. O'Brien said Tuesday that no one had left the team since the end of the 2012 campaign, and that he expected the roster to stay intact headed into spring practice in March.
Asked to assess the state of the program, O'Brien said his outlook has improved since the summer.
"When the sanctions came out, I was very concerned. But we went out and played hard, practiced hard and we won some games,'' he said. "Every year is different.
"The 2013 team has to establish its own identity.''
It has a tough act to follow, too.