Bill O'Brien not bitter at Illinois

Updated: September 25, 2012, 8:43 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien insists he is not bitter about the way Illinois coaches recruited the Nittany Lions in the wake of NCAA sanctions this past summer.

The Nittany Lions (2-2) assert they want to beat Illinois (2-2) on Saturday simply because they want to build on their solid performance last week in a 24-13 win over Temple and extend their two-game winning streak into Big Ten play.

Reporters peppered O'Brien with three straight questions about Illinois poaching players during Tuesday's news conference, and he deflected the question each time.

On the third straight question, O'Brien pondered for a moment before deciding on a non-answer.

"It takes a lot to bother me," he said. "So I would tell you that -- again -- our players, myself, our staff, we're very focused on the task at hand, which is practice today."

Several Illinois coaches were reportedly on campus over the summer to speak with Penn State players, who were permitted to transfer without sitting out a year as a result of the sanctions. O'Brien spoke with Illinois coach Tim Beckman during the Big Ten's media day in Chicago, but neither would address what was exchanged or whether the two found common ground.

O'Brien insisted Big Ten competition was enough for motivation for his team. They didn't need to dangle this supposed sign of disrespect like a carrot on a stick.

"That's something I'm going to keep to myself, my thoughts on that," O'Brien said.

As scheduling quirks go, the first Big Ten game in Penn State's new era of football pits the school against the only program in the Big Ten that took in a transfer from the Nittany Lions.

"I think we were really mad about it when it happened," Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill said about Illinois recruiting. "We've gotten over it. It wasn't like (the Illini) were the only people who contacted us."

In the end, Illinois got one transfer from the Nittany Lions, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki.

Illinois wasn't alone in pursuing Penn State players. The most notable transfer was tailback Silas Redd, who went to USC. The Illini didn't break any rules, but linebacker and senior leader Michael Mauti was the most vocal player in questioning Illinois' approach.

"If you're from our conference and you're going to try and steal our players and then wish us well, then I got a serious problem with that," he said days later at Big Ten media days in Chicago in July.

Mauti wasn't made available this week by Penn State. His roommate, running back Michael Zordich, said the senior linebacker known for his on-field intensity wasn't more fired up than usual this week at practice.

Days after the sanctions were announced, Mauti and Zordich led a group of about two dozen players who re-affirmed their commitments to Penn State. In the end, more than 90 percent of the team stayed.

"If some people want to use it as motivation, they can use it as motivation," Zordich said about Illinois' recruiting. "As a team, we're, overall, just looking at (Saturday's game) as the Big Ten opener. This is what we've been working for."

Both O'Brien and Beckman will be making their conference debuts this weekend. Beckman said Monday he didn't regret the team's recruiting actions, and called football a "game of opportunity."

However, he said, "I regret that it ended up being this much and it is still talked about, but it gave a young man an opportunity."

O'Brien said he understood the questions about whether the issue might motivate his players.

"I do," he said. "But at the same time, the biggest thing is that this is our first Big Ten game."

NittanyNation's Josh Moyer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.