STATE COLLEGE – Amid all the bickering at Penn State over the delicate issues related to football, the program itself is often left stuck in the middle.
Coach Bill O’Brien would like all sides – no matter what their position – to keep that in mind before the next exchange of verbal volleys.
It’s not exactly the ideal backdrop for the Nittany Lions in the middle of spring practice, and with O’Brien and his coaching staff trying to woo recruits under the specter of NCAA sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Still, O’Brien said Wednesday that 61 prospects have taken unofficial visits to Penn State since the end of the feel-good 2012 season. The Nittany Lions finished a better-than-expected 8-4 behind a revamped offense, tough defense and strong senior leadership.
“Top-notch student-athletes ... We’re not saying we’re perfect. We’re working really hard,” O’Brien said in an interview with The Associated Press in his office before practice. “It would be great when they show up to feel that sense of community. Because I think they feel that here in the football program.
“We would love for them to feel it outside the football program too.”
Most recently, 11 former players including former running back Franco Harris and quarterback Todd Blackledge, wrote in a sharply-worded letter addressed to fellow former players that trustee Paul Suhey should be voted off the school’s Board of Trustees. The former players cited how trustees handled the fallout from the Sandusky scandal, including firing longtime coach Joe Paterno.
Suhey, a former linebacker and 1979 team captain, said in a statement that while he made a “stunningly unpopular decision,” his obligation as a trustee was to vote his conscience.
It was the most public showing yet of a fracture within the family of former Nittany Lions. On Wednesday night, Justin Kurpeikis, the president of the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club, stressed in a statement that his nearly 1,000-member group was an apolitical organization — though individual members were free to express opinions.
Similarly, O’Brien said Wednesday it wasn’t his position to take sides.
“Whatever side you’re on, we all have to remember that this is about the current student body. This is about the future student body. This is about ... the current guys on the team and future guys on the team,” O’Brien said. “What I’ve found is that even though we’re in a tough time as far as numbers are concerned, we’re still able to attract a high-quality student athlete.”
The Nittany Lions were considered to have signed a good recruiting class in 2013, especially given the severe sanctions including scholarship cuts and a four-year bowl ban.
“But the question always arises, because a lot of times in the media what you see is two sides, or these three or four sides, are fighting about who’s right and who’s wrong,” O’Brien said. “I think I would love everybody to understand it does affect our ability to recruit at times. It does affect our current team. They leave the football offices, they read the newspaper.”
Some former players have become more vocal in recent months in criticizing school leadership, especially since the Paterno family in early February — during the offseason — released its critique of the report conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh for the university. Freeh accused Paterno and three school administrators of concealing allegations against Sandusky — accusations which Paterno’s family and the former officials have vehemently denied.
Spring practice started two weeks ago. Recruiting is a year-round endeavor.
O’Brien said his concerns refer to the broader, seemingly never-ending cycle of disagreements, rather than any specific topic.
“We’re in a democracy. Everybody has the right to express their opinions. I get that, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the former players and what they did here, what they accomplished here; and the administration and the Board of Trustees,” he said. “I have respect for all these people.”
O’Brien said he hoped people would focus efforts as a community to helping the athletic department and players.
“And maybe you have to fight some battles behind closed doors. I understand that,” he said. “But to me, if we could just really understand that we’re headed into a time that will be a very unique time. We know it’s going to be tough. We know the (scholarship) numbers aren’t great. We understand that. But if we’re all on board, supportive of each other, moving forward, I think we can do some really neat things here.”
When asked, O’Brien said he would relay to Paterno’s ardent supporters his one and only brief phone conversation with the Hall of Fame coach, about two weeks before Paterno died in January 2012 at age 85.
“I told him I would do the best I could with our staff to make sure we fielded a very tough football team, and we did it the right way with kids that went to class and graduated,” O’Brien said. While the offense and conditioning program have been revamped since Paterno’s tenure, “I think he would agree with the foundation of what we’re trying to do here.”
Also Wednesday, O’Brien said Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah would not play football at Penn State this fall. Issah had been a key signee in the 2013 class, expected to help fill linebacker depth and play special teams upon his arrival.
Authorities in Dauphin County last week said Issah, 18, was facing charges stemming from an alleged scheme to pass fake money at Harrisburg-area fast food restaurants. Issah’s attorney, Jerry Russo, said Wednesday he remained in negotiations with prosecutors “to reach an amicable resolution,” but had no information on the teen’s football future.
O’Brien met with Issah and his family over the weekend. They remained in discussions about his next move.
“We want what’s best for Zayd. We don’t think Zayd is a bad kid at all. We think he’s a young guy that’s made a couple questionable decisions,” O’Brien said. “His next move will be determined by him ... He will not be here next year to play football at Penn State, but eventually he could end up at Penn State down the road.”
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