A seemingly endless stream of negative headlines. Prolonged coaching limbo that left men on the verge of getting fired selling the school that was about to fire them. A new head coach who won't begin work full time until after National Signing Day.
Given these circumstances, it's a small miracle that Penn State has managed to cobble together a 2012 recruiting class. But on Feb. 1, as new coach Bill O'Brien prepares to coordinate the New England Patriots' offense in the Super Bowl, the Nittany Lions will ink their first signing class of the post-Joe Paterno era.
The class won't appear near the top of any recruiting service team rankings. Other programs have swiped some of the higher rated players who had committed to Penn State before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. The new coaching staff has worked the past few weeks to identify late bloomers and (coaches hope) hidden gems to fill open slots. Meanwhile, the old and new staffs worked in concert to hang on to a core group of players whose desire to play for Penn State superseded all the other factors.
Eugene Lewis is one of those players. The 6-foot-2 receiver from Plymouth, Pa., committed to Penn State in August. After the scandal broke, other schools made contact, but Lewis -- Penn State's highest rated current commitment,
While Lewis was relatively easy to keep in the boat, other players proved more difficult to land. After Paterno was fired on Nov. 9, other programs ramped up their pursuit of teammates Camren Williams and Armani Reeves of Catholic Memorial High in West Roxbury, Mass. Williams, a linebacker, and Reeves, a cornerback, committed to Penn State last summer, but the coaching shakeup at Penn State left them with questions.
Brent Williams, the father of Camren Williams and godfather of Reeves, said some schools reached out respectfully, through the boys' high school coach, to see if they might be interested in reopening their recruitment. That group includes Ohio State and Michigan. Others, Brent Williams said, weren't so respectful. "I don't include sending an inbox to a kid saying, 'Don't go to Penn State. It's going to be a mess,'" said the elder Williams, who declined to name the schools.
Brent Williams said the staff working under interim coach Tom Bradley did a wonderful job selling Penn State, especially considering most of the coaches knew they wouldn't be retained after Penn State hired a new head coach. "That staff and that group handled the recruiting part of this very professionally," Brent Williams said. "There was a good chance that they weren't coming back. They were hopeful that they were coming back. But right down to the end, they were all loyal to Penn State."
George Howanitz, the coach at Valley View High in Archbald, Pa., echoed that sentiment. Howanitz coaches linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who last week reconfirmed his commitment to Penn State. The efforts of the previous staff, combined with the fact that O'Brien retained linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, helped reassure Wartman. "They did a really nice job selling Penn State not really knowing what the future was going to hold," Howanitz said.
Parents and coaches of recruits said Penn State held conference calls for recruits to keep them informed during the coaching search, but some recruits didn't wait to learn the identity of the new coach before looking elsewhere. Tommy Schutt, a defensive tackle from Glen Ellyn, Ill., who committed to Penn State in August, took an official visit to Ohio State in December and revealed that he had committed to the Buckeyes a day after returning home.
Other players wanted to see who Penn State would hire. Williams and Reeves remained committed throughout the search. "Our focus was really just to kind of let the situation settle," Brent Williams said. "A lot of the reasons that they had chosen Penn State haven't changed. It's still a great academic situation. It still has what they want to study. We didn't want to make a knee-jerk reaction."
Neither did, but Williams and Reeves ultimately decided to decommit. Williams committed to Ohio State last week. "The thing that became quite evident with Camren," Brent Williams said, "was that he felt more comfortable with the staff there and the need at his position." Meanwhile, Reeves will decide between Ohio State and Michigan.
With spots to fill, O'Brien and his staff have had to work fast. Because of that, they have ventured outside Penn State's usual recruiting turf, which traditionally runs from New England to northern Virginia. How far outside? Wednesday, Penn State associate head coach Stan Hixon found himself in a tiny town just north of the Georgia-Florida border best known for two reasons: Jackie Robinson was born there in 1919, and the local high school's teams are called the Syrupmakers and the Syrupmaids.
There, Hixon met with Cairo (Ga.) High quarterback Steven Bench, whose journey to State College will become the stuff of legend if he someday wins the starting job. Bench grew up 40 miles from Florida State's campus, and he has missed one game at Doak Campbell Stadium in the past six years. He hit the camp circuit hard the past two years, and plenty of schools had Bench on their recruiting boards -- just below the guy they really wanted. Bench received weekly phone calls from Mississippi State coaches, who never offered because they weren't sure if they wanted to take a quarterback in this class. He had committed to Rice, but he hadn't given up on the idea of playing in a major conference.
Shortly after O'Brien was hired Jan. 5, Bench's quarterback coach, Greg Boyce, called Bench and asked if he should try to get a highlight video to O'Brien. Boyce knew a guy who knew a guy who might be able to put the video in front of O'Brien. "He told me it was the longest of shots," Bench said.
Bench isn't sure exactly how O'Brien wound up seeing the video, but he knew it had been delivered when he looked down at his iPhone on Jan. 16 and saw a number identified as PA, USA. The caller was Hixon, and he wanted to know if Bench would like to take an official visit to Penn State.
Bench immediately said yes, and on Saturday, he and his parents stood with a handful of other recruits at the gate that leads from the Penn State locker room onto the field at Beaver Stadium. Coaches opened the gate, and Bench walked into a dream. "It just hit me," he said. "You start looking around and realize how really big Beaver Stadium is. I'm not ashamed to say it. I started crying. I had made it."
Bench returned to Georgia with an offer and a dilemma. Though he knows some may not believe him, he struggled with the decision to turn his back on Rice. He also wanted to make sure he wasn't walking into an impossible situation. Bench's father, Steve, a longtime high school coach, used his Rolodex to pick the brains of current college assistants to determine whether the scandal would result in any NCAA sanctions for Penn State. (Though the Sandusky scandal has nothing to do with NCAA rules, NCAA president Mark Emmert felt the need to insert himself into a headline-generating story by issuing
After doing their homework, the Benches felt confident the scandal wouldn't result in sanctions that would hurt the program going forward. Steven committed Monday. O'Brien called Bench's father and apologized for the fact that his duties with the Patriots will keep him from making an in-home visit. "Don't worry," the elder Bench told O'Brien. "Your in-home visit will be that Sunday night when we watch you coach Tom Brady in the Super Bowl."
What do Lewis, Wartman and Bench have in common? They may have different reasons, but they all cherish the chance to play for Penn State. If they develop into Big Ten-level players, the Nittany Lions will have a core group whose love of the program will make them invaluable leaders. Will Penn State miss the four-star recruits it lost because of the turmoil? Probably.
But Penn State doesn't need recruiting stars in this class. It needs bricks. If some of the players the Nittany Lions sign in 2012 develop into stars, they will provide the foundation for a new era.