Commentary: O’Brien pushing the right buttons in stabilizing Lions
UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State signed all 17 of its verbal commitments, including decorated quarterback prospect Christian Hackenberg, during national letter-of-intent day on Wednesday.
The recruiting success is a mere extension of the Midas touch Bill O’Brien has shown since taking over the Nittany Lions’ program 13 months ago.
n Despite being ravaged by the NCAA sanctions, O’Brien regrouped from an 0-2 start and directed the Lions to eight wins in their last 10 games and was named national coach of the year.
n Although sanctions continue to allow all of the PSU players to transfer through August, since last summer’s exodus, no projected starter or top reserve has left – another victory in itself.
n Most of the verbals had been secured before the NCAA belched into its microphone in July, denying bowl bids and Big Ten title contention, and yet 17 new recruits and their families are all in.
It’s difficult to say what’s been more impressive – what O’Brien has done on the field or off it.
“Obviously, he sets the tone for what we’re trying to do,” recruiting coordinator Charles London said of O’Brien during a media session at the Lasch Building. “He’s a great leader.”
O’Brien playfully chided a reporter – OK, it was me – for bringing up the status of the returning players who, by rule, can still transfer.
But truth be told, he was nervous entering December, figuring the players would be going home and the likely legal targets of rival recruiters. He thought once the players were back on campus, a hurdle would be cleared.
And it has been.
But had there been a December exit of the returning nucleus, such as Allen Robinson or other parts of the self-proclaimed “Supa Six,” (Robinson, Kyle Carter, Adrian Amos, Donovan Smith, Deion Barnes, Bill Belton), it’s likely Hackenberg, Adam Breneman and the other studs in the class of 2013 would have gotten cold feet.
Instead, keeping the returnees and luring the newcomers will build on the legacy left by Michael Mauti, Matt McGloin, Gerald Hodges, Mike Zordich & Co.
“We feel really good about our football team right now,” O’Brien said. “The guys here, having gone through last year, they know us better. They know what we expect. They understand the systems. They love the weight room.”
And while he says the transfer rule lurks – “we’re very mindful of the situation that we’re still in” – O’Brien isn’t dwelling on it.
“We understand the rules, and we’re playing by the rules as far as the sanctions the NCAA laid down on us,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t spend every waking minute talking to these guys about staying. We say, ‘you guys are Penn State football players, and we can’t wait to coach you in the spring.'”
Anyone who has been around O’Brien has witnessed his bluntness, and while there’s no question he uses most public forums to sell the program, his door is open, and lets players know where they stand.
“Nothing’s changed as far as the honesty we have with them – and the relationships we have with them,” O’Brien said.
While last year’s accomplishment was achieved with a full roster, Penn State can only have 65 scholarship players beginning with the 2014 season.
The challenge will be compounded, but the goals will remain high.
“He was placed in a tough situation this year, unprecedented in college football, and I think he did a great job in managing not only the players but the staff and not letting expectations lower,” London said. “A lot of people may have, but he never wavered on the standard of excellence that he set here at Penn State, and we never will waver on that.”
Seeing last year’s product, which featured wide-open offense, didn’t hurt, either.
“Winning breeds success,” London said. “A lot of people may have doubted we could get it done, but we proved we can, and I think that’s a lot of the reason these kids stuck with us.”
The success in college sports is tied to recruiting. As the saying goes, “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s,” but, despite being outmanned, the staff and by extension the team are not deterred.
“We can’t wait to play the season next year, and we can’t wait to play the  season with 65 scholarships,” O’Brien said. “Life’s about challenges.”
And led by Bill O’Brien, at least through one football season and one recruiting season, Penn State is exceeding them.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoona
mirror.com. You can follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.