O'Brien wouldn't name names, but the reference appeared to be to the mass arrival Wednesday in State College, Pa., of Illinois coaches, many of whom passed O'Brien at the airport, to try to coax Penn State players to transfer. Coincidentally, Fighting Illini head coach Tim Beckman was seated no more than 20 feet away from O'Brien during coaches' interviews Friday.
Everyone knew the NCAA sanctions imposed against Penn State for the failure of its leaders in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal would be unprecedented. And they were - a four-year ban on bowls and Big Ten championship games, a reduction in scholarships.
But clearly the NCAA was not prepared for the conduct of some of the dozens of coaches to recruit players or, in the eyes of Penn Staters, poach them.
Many thought those coaches crossed a line waiting outside the Lasch Football Building, campus classroom structures, or apartment complexes waiting to speak with Penn State players.
It wasn't until the day after Monday's announcement that the NCAA issued guidelines for coaches in Penn State recruitment. It already had relaxed the rules governing transfers, which meant players would not have to sit out a year and could transfer at any time before the Sept. 1 season opener.
While virtually all schools observed the requirement that they notify Penn State's compliance staff of their interest in talking to a Nittany Lions player, the fact that some were hounding players who already had turned them down bordered on objectionable to many PSU players.
"It's something I honestly can't even imagine," said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy candidate. "I cannot fathom how they are dealing with that situation right now."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spoke with the coaches Wednesday, the day after the Illini landing at State College, which, according to Beckman, did not include anyone stepping on the Penn State campus.
Delany said he wanted "collegial relationships between our schools to be done in the right way."
"The rules here allow athletes and coaches to interface if that's what they want to do," he said. "But I think it should be focused. And if there's an opportunity there for a school and a player, that's great. If not, they should move on."
Usually, the Big Ten does not allow players to transfer to a school within the conference, but Delany and the league presidents made an exception to give Penn State players another opportunity somewhere else if they wanted it. However, while the NCAA required calls be made to the university's compliance office, the commissioner preferred that Big Ten athletic directors directly contact Dave Joyner, Penn State's acting athletic director.
Joyner said Friday he had heard from "four or five" athletic directors within the Big Ten who sent "courteous e-mails that say we may do this [recruit], and that's the right way to do it."
While he said there is "nothing really you can do" if coaches stay within the rules, he said he would notify "the appropriate authority" if he saw anyone violating them.
"Our hope is by reaching out to whatever coaches and programs might be doing some things, just ask them to be gentlemanly about it," he said. "It's OK to follow the rules. If it's not going the way they want it, just be gentlemen about it."
Opinions of the transfer rules were a mixed bag. Beckman and Purdue's Danny Hope said they would take steps within the rules to enhance their rosters. Michigan State's Marc Dantonio said he would go after players who contacted him.
Michigan's Brady Hoke admitted that he looked at the Penn State roster "to some degree," but added, "We've kind of made a decision that we're going to stay and recruit our guys and keep our business our business."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had said that his staff would not recruit Penn State players, but he added that other coaches were just "playing by the rules that the NCAA gives us."
"If there's a coach that feels differently, that's his prerogative and his ability to do it," Bielema said Friday. "But I don't think you can throw stones, because it's really such an unusual situation."
O'Brien has said repeatedly that his goal is to keep the Nittany Lions intact for the 2012 season. Beginning with the 2013 recruiting class, Penn State may not give more than 15 scholarships - 10 lower than the NCAA limit. By 2014, total scholarship players on their roster are capped at 65 for the next four years.
Two highly touted members of the Class of 2013 - quarterback Christian Hackenberg of Fork Union (Va.) Academy and tight end Adam Breneman of Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill, Pa. - were scheduled to visit Saturday with O'Brien on the Penn State campus.
Overall, it's a big weekend for O'Brien, who said he would be speaking with families of recruits and current players all weekend. He will also be waiting out visits to other schools by running back Silas Redd (USC), linebackers Khairi Fortt (California) and Mike Hull (Pitt), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State), and possibly Philadelphia-born punter/kicker Anthony Fera (Texas).
O'Brien hopes the whirlwind ends soon so the players who stay can prepare for the start of preseason practice Aug. 6. Until then, he keeps talking to his players, and waiting, and earning the empathy of his colleagues.
"This would have been tough for anybody," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Penn State is really fortunate to have someone of Bill's caliber lead the program. I know he is up for it, he'll handle it, and it's going to be tough to knock him off his feet."
Contact Joe Juliano
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