Sanctions eased, Penn State can now concentrate on keeping its most important recruit

Dan Wetzel

Few are going to be completely pleased with the NCAA's decision on Tuesday to ease sanctions and restore some scholarships to Penn State.

Critics see it as backtracking against a football program caught up in a ghastly child sexual abuse scandal. Fans who believe the NCAA never should have hit the program in the first place wonder why not have all the penalties lifted.

And just about everyone can agree that despite its mammoth rulebook and endless subcommittees, the NCAA continues to just make things up as it goes along.

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For the future of Penn State football, however, there is really just one opinion that matters: that of current head coach Bill O'Brien.

[Related: Penn State's reduced sentence is an admission that the NCAA went too far]

The NCAA, heeding a positive official progress report on the school from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and under lobbying by the Big Ten, decided to allow Penn State to sign 20 players this coming February rather than the previously determined 15. The numbers will increase in the coming years until its back to the normal 25 in 2016, a year ahead of time. Also, the Association hinted that a postseason ban could be gone as soon as next year – two years ahead of schedule.

In the grand scheme of things, it isn't that much, but is it enough to convince the second-year coach that his best future is a future in State College?

O'Brien has shown himself to be an excellent and potentially elite coach since arriving after the 2011 season that ended in a cloud of controversy, indictments and the January 2012 death of Joe Paterno. He was previously the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

Since then O'Brien has navigated the Jerry Sandusky rape trial, the release of the condemning Freeh Commission Report, unprecedented sanctions, the ability of players to freely transfer, division among the fan base and a shell-shocked roster trying to find its way.

He's 11-5 in his one-plus seasons at Penn State and has carried himself and the program with the dignity and consistency it desperately needed. It's difficult to imagine anyone could've done a better job under these circumstances.

[Related: Recruiting impact of Penn State's reduced sanctions]

Which has left Penn State fans wondering just how good O'Brien could be when this cloud lifts. The problem is NFL franchises and other schools have noticed also. O'Brien wound up sticking around after going 8-4 last season, signing a lucrative extension. But can it last?

Sure he continues to publicly say he wants to stay, but what else would you expect?

Competitively speaking, Penn State was staring down trouble in the seasons ahead and everyone, especially O'Brien, knew it. The obstacles aren't completely gone, but this is an improvement.

Scholarship reductions are devastating to a program. They sap depth, scare away elite talent and have lingering effects for years as small classes finally cycle through a program.

Penn State was facing four consecutive years (2013-2016) with just 15 signees per year. That means even after full 25-man classes returned in 2017, it would be 2019 or 2020 before the weaker classes were no longer factors. It was a virtual decade-long penalty.

Couple that with the fact O'Brien signed a small and not particularly strong recruiting class after getting hired. Penn State's 2012 national signing day yielded just 19 players, and just one ranked as a four-star recruit. A couple of Penn State's most promising recruits bailed before signing day, either running from the scandal or poached by aggressive coaches at other programs.

O'Brien was behind in the recruiting battle before he even arrived on campus. His first signing day occurred while he was at the Super Bowl, where he was preparing the Patriots to take on the New York Giants. Rather than try to drum up publicity, he was barely willing to talk about anything non-NFL related.

"I believe Penn State hired a coach for the next 10 years, 15 years,” O'Brien said back then. "I don't think they hired a coach for the next three months."

Penn State sure hopes that is the case. No program could survive what was essentially going to be five consecutive average years at best and decidedly small recruiting classes. Penn State was still going to be able to attract a few great talents – such as freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. This is still a great university with top-line facilities.

“The place sells itself," O'Brien said Tuesday.

But it wasn't going to get enough, though. Depth was going to remain a massive and prolonged issue, especially in the trenches of the Big Ten. The current PSU class features 12 verbal commitments, yet according to listings, just two are defensive linemen and none are offensive linemen.

[Related: Responses to NCAA reducing Penn State penalties]

Alabama's currently top-ranked class features six offensive line recruits. That's how you build a program. You need an army.

"Recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here," O'Brien said Tuesday. "The difficulty was in the numbers part. … We definitely can get to more of an even playing field, numbers-wise."

Now, perhaps, Penn State can breathe a little by finding some extra bodies. It may even be enough to convince O'Brien he can weather this storm that isn't going to last as long as once believed.

This is a talented and competitive coach. Expecting a 43-year-old to spend the next half dozen or more years of his coaching prime trying to win with one hand tied behind his back was unlikely.

Why not go elsewhere to win championships? Why not jump back to the NFL before roster-depleted 7-5 and 6-6 seasons cool your reputation?

That's still a question. There are no guarantees. This isn't perfect. It's just now, perhaps, Penn State is close enough to perfect to keep its most important recruit of all.

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