- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Bill O'Brien called from the road Thursday. The Penn State coach may have just won the two major coach of the year awards from the Big Ten and been hailed as the national coach of the year by ESPN.com's Rick Reilly, but there was no time to rest on that accomplishment. He is out recruiting for next year.
"I think every day is a challenge as a program," he told ESPN.com. "You're always trying to improve and work as hard as we can. Those [awards] are great rewards for this season, but next year's team will be a totally different team, and we have to start looking forward to that right now.
"It was a great beginning, but there's a lot of work to do. And that starts with me. I'm always looking at ways to improve my performance."
His performance included an 8-4 record and wins in eight of the Nittany Lions' last 10 games. That success came despite several offseason transfers and harsh NCAA sanctions leveled late in the summer, including a bowl ban. And remember, O'Brien had never been a head coach before this season.
"It's a humbling award for me, personally," he said. "But it's very much a program award. I believe when you get an award like that, it's about a lot of different people. It starts with the coaching staff, and when we first came here we tried to put together the best coaching staff around. The players went out and played hard and did everything we asked them to do from Day One. There are a lot of people behind the scenes, whether it's strength coaches or trainers or others. So it's very much a program award, a team award."
A major benefit from having such a good first year is that now O'Brien has a lot to sell to recruits, even though the team will be ineligible for the postseason for three more years. Heavy scholarship cuts are still on the way, so O'Brien and his staff can't afford to make many mistakes in recruiting.
"One of the things I've been most impressed about through the year is probably the reception of the kids on the road in recruiting," O'Brien said. "There's so much interest in Penn State football, and that's really a good thing. I think people enjoyed watching the 2012 team play because they played so hard. It wasn't always pretty, but they played hard.
"We have to be really precise in [evaluating], which is why it's good to have a veteran staff. We've got a bunch of guys who've been around the block a few times, though this is an unprecedented situation. I think we have a good system of evaluation and I think we're on the right track. Are we going to be 100 percent perfect? No, but we're going to try to be."
O'Brien hopes he doesn't have to answer recruits' questions about his loyalty to Penn State. Though he didn't give a direct answer when asked flatly if he'd return to State College a couple of weeks ago, O'Brien's agent said the coach wasn't going anywhere on Tuesday night.
"I don't understand when there's no story there why we're making it a story," O'Brien said. "I felt like it would be awfully presumptuous of me to sit up there and pound my fists and say ... obviously, I'm the Penn State head coach.
"I never really thought about it, to be honest with you. I just think about the next step. And the next step right now is recruiting, making sure our kids finish up strong academically."
Penn State fans sure hope O'Brien is their head coach for the long haul. But there may never be a year quite like 2012 again.
"It was a challenging year, but it was a very rewarding year, personally," he said. "When the sanctions came out and some guys chose to leave but the majority stayed, that was a rewarding couple of weeks there. I knew then we had a bunch of kids who were committed to the 2012 team. It was a fun year to coach."
Some other thoughts from O'Brien:
On how convinced he is that current star players will stay and not transfer before next season: "I'm not a mind reader, but I think our players believe in what we're doing. They see the can accomplish big-time goals here, both as an individual and as a team."
On the departing senior class and the "2012" plaque at Beaver Stadium: "It's hard to put into words what they meant. The No. 1 thing about putting the '2012' on that wall is, I want people to know how much respect I have for the championship and undefeated teams on that wall. The reason why it went up is because this team took the field under some special circumstances and fought through a lot of adversity. It would be hard for any senior class to match what they did. These were a bunch of kids who were wise beyond their years."
On defensive end Deion Barnes winning Big Ten freshman of the year: "Deion still has a huge, huge future in front of him. He's only going to get better. He's a hard working kid, a fantastic kid. He still knows how much he can improve."