CHICAGO – Days after the announcement of sanctions against Penn State, at what seems like an epochal moment in Big Ten history, the most persistent topic of discussion at the conference's Media Days event was not the appalling crimes that led to the penalties, nor the institutional cover-up. Instead, the conversation shifted to "intraconference recruiting."
In other words, the poaching of Penn State players.
With the start of preseason practices only a week away, any Nittany Lion player is eligible to transfer to a new school and would be allowed to play immediately. Permission-to-contact rules have been suspended, as have off-campus and telephone recruiting rules. Calls are being made – many calls. Hundreds of calls.
Coaches from each Big Ten program fielded the same question from the assembled press, usually phrased in the same way: "Do you have a problem with schools being able to solicit players from Penn State?"
Their answers were measured and unpracticed, usually preceded by a guarded pause, often full of qualifiers.
"I have a problem with that," Ohio State's Urban Meyer said. "I just … I have a problem with that."
When pressed to expand on that answer, Meyer said, "As a player, a young man has a right to play wherever he wants. We have to keep that in mind. However, when he's part of a team, you're getting into a situation that we're not quite very familiar with. And we're not going to get very familiar with it."
From Wisconsin's Bret Bielema: "I'm not casting doubt on anybody or questioning anything. But we made a decision that we would not actively pursue any Penn State players."
Nebraska's Bo Pelini threaded the same thin needle as Bielema, drawing a distinction between active recruitment and … well, whatever the alternative might be. Something presumably less intrusive and generally less offensive.
"We're not actively pursuing any Penn State players," Pelini said. "We're concentrating on our football team, the guys in our program. Now that isn't to say that if there is a young man from Penn State who definitely wanted to transfer and was for sure going to leave and Nebraska was someplace he was considering, that we wouldn't take a look at him to see if it made sense for our program."
Not every coach took the same don't-make-the-first-move approach. New Illinois coach Tim Beckman, for example, dispatched as many as eight assistants to State College.
"But we did not go on campus," Beckman said. "We went to two establishments outside campus and called some individuals, and if they wanted to come by, it was their opportunity to come by."
Purdue coach Danny Hope didn't exactly sound like a wait-and-see recruiter, either: "As long as we're compliant, we're going to exercise every opportunity we can to enhance our own football team."
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, now the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, offered this: "Probably the best path for anyone is to make sure they are in compliance. And I'm still fuzzy with a lot of things there. Then the other thing I think is just handle it whatever way you feel is appropriate. I think a lot of people are taking a lot of different approaches to it. I'm really comfortable with the direction we're taking right now and we'll continue to do so."
Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti is not entirely comfortable with the direction that every school has taken.
"There's been coaches hounding our players, man – like 10-12 calls a day," Mauti told reporters Thursday. " 'Come out and visit, come out, come here.' On our campus, outside of our apartments, outside of our classrooms. To me, it just doesn't seem right. Even some coaches from this conference."
New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is at the center of this recruiting storm, attempting to retain his players and engage the alumni base despite facing a four-year bowl ban and massive scholarship reduction.
"The sanctions are what they are," O'Brien said. "It's time to get up and get going, which we started Monday at 10 a.m."
O'Brien opened his Media Days remarks with a calculated reminder of where he has been in his coaching career, most notably as an assistant with the New England Patriots.
"This is a little bit different media day than the last one I was at," he said. "At the Super Bowl."
The NFL connection clearly is going to be a major selling point for O'Brien with future recruits and current players who require re-recruitment.
At times, in fact, he seemed to be a Bill Belichick clone. Twice he responded to reporters with a flat one-word, "No." Another question received a simple, "Right now, no." A two-part question about intra-conference transfers drew this response: "Nothing surprises me, so the answer to the first question is 'no.' And the other, I have no thought on that."
But when asked about the challenge of holding his team together, O'Brien was detailed and expansive.
"The measure of a man is how you overcome adversity," he said. "I talked to [the players] about how, without a shadow of a doubt, they're going to be able to play six or seven bowl games per year in front of 108,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium – and I expect it to be 108,000 fans in Beaver Stadium. I talked to them about this staff and our ability to develop these guys for the National Football League. I told them this staff isn't going anywhere and we're committed to the 2012 football team."
That same day, perhaps at the same moment, junior running back Silas Redd was meeting with USC coach Lane Kiffin. And Beckman's assistants evidently were lurking, somewhere. And phones were ringing, always.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany met with conference coaches to offer guidance, if not complete clarity.
"Our presidents were clear and unanimous that they want these [Penn State] students to have the opportunity to go where they want to go and with no exceptions, including Big Ten exceptions," Delany said. "What I said to our coaches this morning … you know, I get it. This is what the rules are. And I expect you to operate in a way that makes sense not just under the rules, but sense to you as adults and grownups."
But many of the grownups still apparently need an assist from compliance officers.
"It's like NFL free agency," O'Brien said. "Without the rules."
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