One year later: Lions moving on

First Posted: 7/24/2013

CHICAGO —What Bill O’Brien remembers is that glare.

Coming out to Chicago for Big Ten media days last July wasn’t particularly pleasant for the Penn State coach or the players who came with him. The NCAA had just hammered the Nittany Lions with sanctions and linebacker Michael Mauti still had a distinctive scowl carved onto his face when he made the trip to the Windy City.

“You remember him at this last year?” O’Brien said Wednesday. “Whoo. Would you want to mess with him?”

One year and one day removed from NCAA president Mark Emmert’s fateful press conference, O’Brien and the Lions were no longer being asked about impending doom.

Not that things are exactly back to normal for Penn State as the one-year anniversary of the sanctions passes by. But compared to last summer…

“Refreshing.” O’Brien said. “Very refreshing.”

Joined along by a trio of seniors — guard John Urschel, linebacker Glenn Carson and safety Malcolm Willis — O’Brien spent much of the first day of the media event discussing the quarterback battle (it will be decided by mid-August), the health of tailback Zach Zwinak (he’ll be ready for the season opener) and depth concerns on defense (safeties may get some work with the linebackers).

A year ago at this time, many of those same players weren’t sure if they were going to stay or take advantage of the NCAA’s declaration that Penn State players could transfer without penalty because of the sanctions.

As it so happens, that transfer period is still in effect and will expire on Aug. 1.

That would seem to be an important checkpoint to reach for the program. But the players, for their part, have moved past it.

“That’s not a relevant date for us,” Urschel said. “That’s not an issue we’ve had. Our team is very much together and very much working toward one goal — winning games this fall.”

O’Brien has said since the spring that he didn’t anticipate losing any more players to other schools.

In 2013, quarterback Steven Bench has been the only significant player to transfer, and that was because he was edged out by Tyler Ferguson during the spring.

“For a long time I’ve felt very confident of our players’ commitment to us and our commitment to our players,” O’Brien said. “I think our players … there’s a lot of respect between the coaches and the players. We’re not their friends, but there’s just a lot of respect. So I don’t really think about that that much.

“I understand the milestone because of that (Aug. 1) date. But I haven’t thought of that transfer deal really since the season started last year. I felt like those were the guys that were committed to us.”

Though the school has been tight-lipped on the topic, O’Brien recently met with Penn State’s board of trustees to start discussing a plan to work with the NCAA to see about reducing the sanctions in some fashion.

O’Brien said last week on a conference call with reporters that he hoped the NCAA might “meet us halfway” at some point in the future.

In the meantime, however, Penn State must prepare as though the sanctions will remain in effect with three more seasons left on a postseason ban, three more recruiting classes capped at 15 scholarships and an overall limit of 65 scholarship players that will run from the 2014-17 seasons.

“What the NCAA does is up to them,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said Wednesday. “What we have to do no matter what is plan on not having anything happen. Because that distracts you from what our real goal is, and our real goal is to be the best we can be within the structure that we’ve been given.

“Our job is not to worry about what outwardly may or may not occur. Our job is to pay attention to what we’ve been given and to go after it. … Would you like things to change? Sure everybody would like them to change, but I’m not making any plans on that happening. I’m not going to wake up every morning thinking about how we do that.

“Everything that happens is in the hands of the NCAA.”

In an interview Tuesday with ESPN, Emmert largely dodged a question about revisiting Penn State’s case, saying that it would be up to the entire NCAA executive committee, and not just him. But he also did not immediately shoot down the idea.

Regardless, Penn State’s perseverance in the first year under the sanctions has given the school and the program a blueprint with how to proceed.

“If the 2012 team taught us anything, it taught us, including me, about how to handle things that aren’t in your control,” O’Brien said. “You don’t have any control over certain things in your life. But how do you handle that? How do you pick yourself up and keep moving forward?

“Regardless of the record or whatever, that’s what that team and those group of leaders taught us. But we’ve got to continue to do it. We can’t just say, ‘OK, that was great. Now what do we do?’ Everyday we’ve got to lay another brick on top of the other one and continue to do things the right way, which hopefully we will do.”

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