- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On the day after the NCAA hammered Penn State with some of the most severe penalties in college sports history, Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien started to pick up the crumbling pieces of his program.
O'Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator who was hired in January to replace the once-iconic and now-shamed Joe Paterno, met with Penn State's returning players at the Lasch Football Building on Tuesday morning. It was the second such meeting for the Nittany Lions since NCAA president Mark Emmert announced Monday that they would be placed on five years' probation, fined $60 million and prohibited from playing in bowl games in each of the next four seasons because of the school's inaction during the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
"I planned for anything," O'Brien said Tuesday morning. "Just like any football coach in America, when you go into a game you're concerned about every single scenario. When you work for the Patriots, that's why you work from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m., because you're thinking about every different scenario that can possibly happen."
Even a coach as focused as O'Brien, who hasn't yet coached the Nittany Lions in a game, couldn't have been prepared for this scenario. Only a couple of weeks before Penn State will open preseason camp, O'Brien is scrambling to keep even his current roster intact. Under the NCAA sanctions, Penn State's players and incoming freshmen are permitted to transfer to any other FBS program without the usual penalty of sitting out one season.
And that's only the beginning of O'Brien's unenviable task. Under the penalties, Penn State will be allowed to offer only 15 initial scholarships in each of the next four seasons, instead of the usual 25 permitted for FBS. Starting in 2014, the Nittany Lions can have only 65 scholarship players on their roster -- 20 fewer than other FBS programs -- through the 2017 season.
Penn State, one of the most storied programs in college football history, will have the manpower of an FCS program for the near future.
"I'm never surprised," O'Brien said. "I'm not a guy that gets easily surprised. The guys that I've worked for, one thing that they taught me was to always expect the unexpected. I knew that something was coming. I believe in the chain of command, so when I talked to the athletics director and president, all I really wanted to do was make sure we were playing football and that we were playing on TV so our fans could watch us play."
O'Brien and his coaching staff have spent the past 48 hours trying to sell their players and recruits on what hasn't changed at Penn State. While the Nittany Lions won't be able to compete for a BCS national championship or Big Ten title or play in a bowl game until 2016, O'Brien believes his program still has a lot of good things to offer players and potential prospects.
"I told them yesterday why I came here," O'Brien said. "None of that's changed. I just tell them like it is. I understand that they have decisions to make, but there are a lot of things that haven't changed. I understand that they can't go to a bowl game. I understand that they can't compete for a national championship or a Big Ten championship. But at the end of the day, how many places can you go where you can receive this education and where you can play in front of 108,000 fans?
"The facilities haven't changed. Our coaching staff isn't going anywhere. Our strength coach hasn't changed, and our trainer isn't going anywhere. What's changed? OK, I understand some things have changed and guys want to compete for championships. But who's to say you can't go out there every single year and compete for the division in the Big Ten? Who's going to tell me we weren't the champions of the Big Ten [Leaders Division]? No one will."
Senior linebacker Michael Mauti told ESPN's GeauxTigerNation on Tuesday that "every school in the country" has contacted Penn State's players to gauge their interest in leaving.
"This is not our fault, not our burden," Mauti said. "I'm sure some guys are looking to go [elsewhere]. But I can tell you right now the core guys are sticking together. This is not our fault."
A Penn State assistant told ESPN.com that while he was meeting with one of the team's players Monday, the player received numerous emails and text messages from coaches at other schools. One SEC coach told ESPN.com that another SEC team offered scholarships to three Penn State players by 9:30 a.m. ET Monday, less than an hour after Emmert announced the Nittany Lions' unprecedented sanctions during a news conference in Indianapolis.
"With the rule the way it is, it's like NFL free agency," O'Brien said. "That's what it is."
The NCAA has severely relaxed its transfer rules to allow Penn State's players to look at other options. "Penn State cannot restrict in any way a student-athlete from pursuing a possible transfer. Student-athletes must simply inform Penn State of their interest in discussing transfer options with other schools. Before communicating with student-athletes, interested schools also must inform Penn State of their intention to open discussions with the student-athlete," the NCAA said in a statement Tuesday.
O'Brien said Penn State's compliance office has been inundated with faxes and emails from other schools that are now recruiting his players.
"It doesn't matter what anyone's opinion is on that," O'Brien said. "The coaches I know from the different schools are playing by the rules. It's a competitive atmosphere, and they've got to do what they've got to do and I've got to do what I've got to do."
Along with Mauti, a few of Penn State's players have declared their intentions to stay. Starting quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on who won the starting job during spring practice, tweeted Wednesday morning: "I am a Nittany Lion and will remain one. I believe in the core values I have learned in this program. It is not Nittany Lion Football. It is Nittany Lion family."
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill also said he hasn't talked with any other programs and plans to finish his career at Penn State.
"I haven't picked up the phone if I don't know the number," said Hill, an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection last season.
While O'Brien's top priority at the moment is keeping his roster and recruiting class intact, Penn State faces a very uncertain future. O'Brien believes his experience in the NFL, where teams are permitted to have only 53-man rosters, will help him adjust to the limitations his team will face while on NCAA probation.
After all, O'Brien said, you don't need 85 players to field a football team.
"I just came from a league where there are 53 guys on the roster," O'Brien said. "You have 45 guys on game day: 21 on offense, 21 on defense and three specialists. I just came from a team that went to the Super Bowl with a lot of undrafted free agents. You've got to be creative and figure out different ways to do it. I'm not going to tell you how we're going to do it, but we're going to do it. These are the rules we play under, and whether it's scholarship players, your walk-on program or the Marine Corps, there are a lot of different ways to do it. There are a lot of great high school players in Pennsylvania, and I think they'd love to play for Penn State."
Before the sanctions were announced, O'Brien and his staff seemed on their way to putting together a top-20 recruiting class. But ESPN 150 defensive tackle Greg Webb of Erial, N.J., flipped to North Carolina on Sunday, and then cornerback Ross Douglas of Avon, Ohio, switched to Michigan on Tuesday.
As Penn State moves forward, O'Brien says the No. 1 thing he and his assistants can sell recruits is their ability to help them get to the NFL. In his five seasons with the Patriots, O'Brien coached the likes of two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and Pro Bowl receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Just because a Penn State player can't play in a bowl game doesn't mean he can't play in the NFL, O'Brien said.
"The NFL doesn't care about bowl games," O'Brien said. "The NFL cares about what you do on the field. We talk to them constantly about our ability to coach them, to develop them, to get them ready for the National Football League."
Regardless, Penn State's road to recovery figures to be long and arduous, even for a coach who always expects the unexpected.
"I believe in these kids and I believe in this team," O'Brien said. "We'll just deal with it as it comes."
ESPN.com's Gary Laney and Jared Shanker contributed to this report.
In the days since the NCAA dealt Penn State football a devastating blow, Bill O'Brien has rolled up his sleeves and tried to keep his team together.