Penn State recruiting surviving Sandusky trial

Posted: June 18, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - From a Lasch Building balcony Thursday evening, the sunset views were spectacular. Beyond Penn State's meticulously maintained, walled-in football compound, emerald hillsides and pastel skies framed the 5,500-acre campus.

On the broad, second-floor patio of the $15 million facility that serves as both headquarters and shrine for Nittany Lions football, new coach Bill O'Brien, his assistants, and a few dozen reporters were enjoying the vistas - as well as the burgers, beer, and Creamery ice cream - at an off-the-record gathering.

Though Lasch was a perfect venue for such a self-promotional event - in this case the annual Penn State football media barbecue - it was also a perplexing choice.

All week, less than 10 miles away in a Centre County courtroom, that same Lasch Building had been cast in a much different light. At Jerry Sandusky's child-molestation trial, testimony has pinpointed a locker-room shower there as a frequent locale for the former Penn State coach's alleged assaults. And a state investigator chronicled the chilling items - letters, photographs of alleged victims, camp rosters on which their names had been highlighted - that Sandusky once had stored in a Lasch office.

Removing such a malevolent stain from a structure so near the heart of Penn State football is just one of the challenges confronting the university as it struggles to maintain a profitable program in the face of what is perhaps college sports' most sordid scandal.

For now anyway, Penn State, back in the national headlines for all the wrong reasons, appears to be fending off the Sandusky trial's negative impacts. Experts say O'Brien has continued to recruit successfully, and university officials report little change in athletic giving or season-ticket purchases.

"We have not received many calls or e-mails regarding the Sandusky trial since it started," said John Nitardy, director of major gifts and annual giving for the Nittany Lions Club, the athletic department's fund-raising arm. "We really didn't see a falloff when the story broke [in November]. Obviously, our members were very upset and continue to be concerned for the victims, but they also have been very supportive of our athletes, coaches, and teams."

Football has occupied a central role in the trial since many of Sandusky's alleged victims contend he used his insider's access to entice them - taking them to games, allowing them to use the facilities, introducing them to players.

In the litany of evil being detailed day after day at the trial, which will resume Monday morning in Bellefonte, Penn State football touchstones have been mentioned and in the process tainted. The Lasch Building, Holuba Hall, the East Area Locker Building, the Blue-White Game, the 1998 Outback Bowl, the 1999 Alamo Bowl, and even the late Joe Paterno himself have surfaced during the frequently sordid testimony.

As a result, Penn State has had to re-confront the public-relations nightmare that began with Sandusky's November arrest. Its coaches, recruiters, and fund-raisers have had to work extra hard to find and nurture the program's lifeblood commodities - money and talent.

"The events of six months ago add a level of complexity to the processes here that are very large," Dave Joyner, Penn State's acting athletic director, said earlier. "A day doesn't go by that, because of the things that are going on, that there's not more complexity for everybody in intercollegiate athletics."

The media barbecue was just one example of the counteroffensive. The school has contributed $2.5 million to child-welfare groups. President Rodney Erickson has met with concerned alumni around the country. No bit of positive news about Penn State athletes has gone un-ballyhooed.

And last month, O'Brien embarked on what seems to have been a preemptive strike aimed at countering the anticipated effects of the Sandusky trial - an unprecedented 18-city goodwill bus tour to locales in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington.

"We're very aware of everything that has happened here," said O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator hired to replace the fired Paterno on Jan. 7, just 15 days before the legendary 85-year-old coach succumbed to lung cancer. "But people have been very supportive. People are really eager to meet me and hear what we have to say about the football program."

The respected recruiting website, Rivals.com, ranks O'Brien's first class as the nation's 13th best. At this time a year ago, before the scandal broke, the Nittany Lions were "probably just outside the top 25", said Mike Farrell, the website's national recruiting analyst. Afterward, they tumbled to 51st.

"There are a lot of Penn State haters out there, and they were all saying, 'Wait 'til the Sandusky trial starts and all that stuff is on the front page again. Then you'll see an impact,' " Farrell said. "But that just hasn't happened. I don't think the [trial] has affected anything. I've talked to quite a few of these recruits this year, and when it comes to Penn State, not a single one has mentioned anything about it. It just isn't on their radar.

"Most kids just wanted to see who the new coach was going to be. Joe Paterno at the end wasn't very active in recruiting," Farrell said. "But all these kids tell me how impressed they've been with O'Brien and his energy."

That could change, however, if investigations by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference result in football-related sanctions for O'Brien's team.

"If the NCAA gets involved, and you start to see bowl bans, TV bans, or the loss of scholarships, I think that then you'll see an impact," Farrell said. "But right now it's just not a big deal."

A continuing influx of talent is essential, since Penn State football in 2011 generated a $53 million profit - money that supports the rest of the athletic program.

So far this year, donations to the annual fund of the Nittany Lions Club are ahead of the 2011 pace.

"We actually surpassed last year's total of $17 million in May," said Nitardy. "We're currently at $17.5 million, with three weeks to go in the [fiscal] year."

Season-ticket renewals were due on May 14. Though final figures haven't yet been released, officials anticipated the total would be close to last year's 69,000. Sales dipped sharply after Sandusky's arrest and the subsequent firings of Paterno and university president Graham B. Spanier, but by April, before O'Brien's bus tour, 64,500 had been sold.

"I know that in Pennsylvania the Sandusky trial is big news," Farrell said from his Connecticut office. "But I just don't think that's the case everywhere else. That could change, of course. But right now, for Penn State football, it's not really that big a deal."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at philly.com/fitz

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