Penn State University and new football coach Bill O’Brien have three weeks to score some victories in competition against an old foe with its own new leader.
Ohio State University and two-time national champion coach Urban Meyer have taken the Nittany Lions’ two top recruiting targets, including Noah Spence, Pennsylvania’s highest-rated player, amid a child-sex abuse scandal that led to the firing of Joe Paterno after 46 years in charge and a record 409 wins at State College.
Since the case against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky broke in November, players like Spence, of Harrisburg, 85 miles southeast of Penn State, have taken a cautious approach to the school, which like Ohio State is a member of the Big Ten Conference. Recruits can commit to schools in writing on Feb. 1, and O’Brien, 42, and his staff must be as aggressive as possible, said Brandon Huffman of Scout.com, a recruiting website.
“Now you go from panic to expediting,” Huffman said in a telephone interview. “You only have three weekends for official visits and you now have to sell a new coach and a new style to recruits.”
O’Brien is the offensive coordinator of the National Football League’s New England Patriots and hasn’t been on a college coaching staff since 2006. A Brown University graduate like Paterno, O’Brien must surround himself with assistants who know recruiting, Huffman said.
“He doesn’t bring the name value that an Urban Meyer or a Nick Saban would have brought,” Huffman said, the latter a reference to Alabama’s coach. “To a high school recruit, they don’t know who the coordinators are in the NFL.”
The Patriots are in the NFL playoffs and O’Brien has said he’s committed to New England until it’s eliminated.
Prospects generally are classified by stars, with five stars the best. Penn State’s 2012 commitments include three four-star and no five-star recruits, its fewest from the two highest levels in 10 seasons, according to Scout.com.
Alabama, which won the national championship on Jan. 9, and Texas each have 16 recruits from those levels, the most in the nation. Ohio State has 10 four- and five-star players lined up. Four are from the highest level, one below Texas’s national best, and include Spence and Tommy Schutt, defensive players who had been leaning toward Penn State before the scandal.
“Those are two elite guys that any program in the country would love to have, and Penn State either had them or had a really good shot at them because of their location,” said Huffman.
Jerry Emig, an Ohio State athletic department spokesman, said Meyer, 47, would have no comment on recruiting until the signing deadline.
Penn State’s current class ranks No. 40 in the country and fifth in the Big Ten behind Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin, according to Scout.com. For the first time in four years it’s also behind the University of Pittsburgh, about 125 miles away in western Pennsylvania.
Those still intending to join the Nittany Lions make up a class that doesn’t address the team’s needs, most notably at running back and defensive back, according to Jeff Junstrom, a Penn State graduate and editor of BlackShoeDiaries.com, a blog on the athletic program. Junstrom said in an e-mail that the school targeted 21-24 open spots before the season, and currently has 14 verbal commitments.
“Two months ago to the day, I’d say we were on pace for one of the best classes in some time,” he said. “One scandal, two months and three (so far) decommitments later, we’re on the verge of total collapse.”
Paterno, 85, was fired by the school’s trustees on Nov. 9, four days after Sandusky, 67, was charged with sexually assaulting eight boys from 1994 to 2009. Sandusky has denied the charges. Graham B. Spanier, 63, also was removed as the university’s president. While they weren’t charged, the grand jury report against Sandusky said Paterno and Spanier knew about the alleged molestation in 2002.
The Nittany Lions’ football program, which won two national titles under Paterno, generated $63.3 million in fiscal 2010, roughly 60 percent of the athletic department’s revenue, according to documents obtained through open-records requests.
In a Jan. 7 press conference a day after his hiring, O’Brien, a career assistant coach, said his priorities were to secure the prospects already committed and hire a staff that would increase recruiting in Penn State’s traditional regions.
“We’ve got to get out in the Mid-Atlantic states, our bloodlines, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Ohio,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that our coaches are out there in those high schools getting to know those coaches and talking to them about the direction of the Penn State football program right now.”
Prospects who were interested in Penn State had to wait out a two-month coaching search, not knowing the style or on-field personnel preferences of the eventual choice.
Joey O’Connor of Windsor, Colorado, walked away. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman, a four-star recruit, rescinded his verbal commitment to Penn State the day after Paterno was fired.
“I had a little bit of doubt, just in not knowing what was going on with the coaching staff,” O’Connor said last month in a telephone interview.
J.P. Holtz, a four-star tight end from Pittsburgh, also dropped his verbal commitment to Penn State.
Moving Into Pennsylvania
The vacancy also emboldened schools such as Ohio State, Michigan and Pittsburgh to recruit more heavily in the same regions that O’Brien targeted, said Mike Farrell, a national analyst for Rivals.com, another recruiting website.
“They’re going to see weakness and they’re going to pounce on it, and it’s going to take a really strong effort by the new staff to keep everybody at bay,” Farrell said in a telephone interview before O’Brien’s hiring.
Ohio State in November hired Meyer, who has won two national championships at Florida and coached at the college level in six different states, for $4 million a year. In the fiscal year 2010, the Buckeyes’ football program made $56.1 million, 45 percent of the athletic program’s revenue.
“Meyer is a recruiting machine,” said Huffman. “Now you’ve put him at a school that’s consistently been a strong recruiting program. It’s an absolute match made in heaven for Ohio State.”
Chad Hetlet, Schutt’s coach at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, said Meyer was one of the main reasons his player chose the Buckeyes, who play in Columbus, Ohio.
“He went to Ohio State and was blown away by coach Meyer,” Hetlet said in a telephone interview. “He felt comfortable with the vision that coach had and where he sees Tommy fitting into the program.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced last month that the Buckeyes were banned from 2012 postseason play following violations surrounding improper benefits players received from a tattoo parlor owner. That case led to the departure of coach Jim Tressel. The governing body for college athletics also is looking into the Sandusky case to see if Penn State should be penalized.
O’Brien said he would make sure his new team “represents the highest level of character, respect and integrity.”
The backlash of the Sandusky scandal, success of rivals such as Ohio State in recruiting in their backyard and the gap of uncertainty before O’Brien’s hiring may force Penn State fans to write off the 2012 class, Huffman said.
“You had this black eye for the last six to eight weeks, and getting a head coach that is going to be in place for a while is a bigger issue than one recruiting class,” he said.