Penn State's football phase begins

Posted: August 06, 2012

TIME MOVES ON, regardless of the circumstances. Lives, too. Even football teams.

On Monday, for the first time since 1949, a Penn State squad will open training camp without Joe Paterno being some part of it. He was the face of the program for so long, it's almost impossible to remember what things were like in State College before he got there. Now, sadly, the place and the legendary figure that built it are going to be remembered for something else. And that will never go away.

Welcome to a brave new world in central Pennsylvania. The one that, through no fault of theirs, has been dropped squarely on the backs of new coach Bill O'Brien and his players. Or at least the ones who still remain.

There are some people, NBC's Bob Costas among them, who can't fathom why the Nittany Lions should even be allowed to take the field on Sept. 1 against visiting Ohio. Or any other weekend this fall, for that matter. For others, it'll just be good to get back to playing football once again. It obviously can't make all the stuff that's gone down in the last 10 months disappear. Yet, for better or whatever, it's at least something.

Two weeks ago, this group found out that it wouldn't be eligible to play for the conference title, or go to a bowl game. Not just this season, but the following three as well. O'Brien, the first new coach in 46 years, found out that he has to address a substantial scholarship loss over that same time frame. He also learned that the guys he did inherit, not to mention the ones in his first recruiting class, now had the green light to reconsider those commitments and take their talents elsewhere without restrictions. So it turned into an on-campus circus, as everyone became fair game for other schools, sometimes even within the Big Ten. So far, nine players have left, most notably kicker-punter Anthony Fera and running back Silas Redd, who not shockingly landed at Southern Cal. Over the weekend, senior receiver Justin Brown said he would transfer to Oklahoma.

Even if they had stayed, it wasn't as if the Nittany Lions were considered favorites in the ever-popular Leaders Division.

It's a steep price to pay, and the reality is it only figures to get worse. But O'Brien, who spent the last five seasons with the New England Patriots, understands that nobody's going to make it any easier on them.

He's paid to coach football. Mostly, he's had to handle way too much damage control. Now, at last, he can try to focus on what he's supposed to do best, even if he's no longer working on a level playing field.

"I'm not into being a genie," O'Brien said at the recent Big Ten media days in Chicago. "I'm not going to stand here and tell you where we'll be in November. What I expect is to put forth the effort to make sure we field a very competitive team on Sept. 1."

At the moment, who could really ask for much more?

The players who did stick around sure sound united. And determined to show everyone on the outside exactly who they are and what they represent. The way they've conducted themselves throughout this ordeal, and especially in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions, has been nothing short of inspirational. But usually conviction only gets you so far. At some point the Nits have to line up across from the Ohio States, Nebraskas and Wisconsins of the food chain, to list just some of the more obvious obstacles.

But first they have to find out exactly what they have. That's what the next 3 weeks are about. Because you have to start somewhere.

"It's time to get up and get going," O'Brien stressed, repeatedly. "[People] can't keep [dwelling] on how bad it is. They're like, ‘What are you going to do?' I don't see it that way."

Neither do his seniors, who will be scrutinized unlike any other class, at Penn State or maybe anywhere. They want to go out holding their heads high, realizing the measurements might not solely be about wins and losses.

"We're going to lean on one another," said defensive tackle Jordan Hill, one of the leaders. "We can't run away from this situation. We've been through so much. I think it's really going to show on the field, just how tight we are. We have guys who really care. I've said it over and over, unless you're inside that [football] building, you can't understand what type of people we have. If they did, they wouldn't be saying we're dead. On Sept. 1, we'll be alive and kicking."

Where it goes from there is debatable. It's a long season. But compared to this offseason, it'll seem a lot shorter.

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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