Bill O'Brien recalls difficult summer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien was pounded with dozens of questions from doubting recruits last July after the NCAA released unprecedented sanctions against Penn State's football program.
Eight big-name prospects filled up their gas tanks and drove to a not-so-Happy Valley. Christian Hackenberg, Adam Breneman and others sat at desks at an auditorium in the Lasch Football Building to see what Penn State's first-year head coach had to say -- to see if they would remain committed.
O'Brien's 2013 recruiting class tip-toed on a high-wire of collapse, but all but one of those eight -- cornerback Will Fuller, who signed with Notre Dame -- stuck with the Nittany Lions.
During Wednesday afternoon's news conference, after 17 commits had completed their letters of intent, O'Brien reflected on that summer day -- the last time he had fielded so many questions inside that auditorium.
"It was a very private meeting, a very emotional meeting," O'Brien said Wednesday. "I probably stood here and answered 50-75 questions. If I didn't know the answer, I told them I'd try to find out as fast as I could.
"I feel that was a very important day for us at Penn State in the football program because it was just a very honest, somewhat emotional -- tough -- but a very productive meeting."
O'Brien defied the odds by keeping the team largely intact despite transfer rules that allowed players to leave without sitting out a season. Then he shocked the nation by leading the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record.
O'Brien reeled in the No. 24 recruiting class in the nation Wednesday, above Oregon and Stanford. He persuaded the top quarterback in the country, Hackenberg, to ignore schools such as Alabama. He convinced Breneman, arguably the nation's most talented high school tight end, to stick it out.
Nearly every player could have chosen an easier path, an easier route paved with bowl games and without speed bumps (or, in this case, scholarship restrictions). They didn't.
Zayd Issah went with Penn State instead of Oregon while Parker Cothren chose the Nittany Lions over his beloved SEC region. Garrett Sickels wanted to play inside Beaver Stadium instead of The Horseshoe or Notre Dame Stadium.
O'Brien didn't smile often Wednesday, but then again, he never smiles much. The serious coach leaned forward in his chair, his hands mostly stuck below the table, and scanned the room every time a disembodied reporter's voice asked the same questions in different ways.
O'Brien, dressed in his trademark blue sweatsuit, answered in what has become his trademark fashion. It wasn't him, he'd say; it was the entire staff. It was the high-character recruits and the strong families they came from. It was the academics and the Penn State tradition.
"Within the walls of this football building, all these guys are extremely important to our football program and to our university, our athletic department," O'Brien said. "They committed to us during what a lot of people think is a tough time for Penn State. We don't see it that way.
"We can't wait to play the season next year. We can't wait to play in future years with 65 scholarships. Hey, life's about challenges."