"I believe we've done as good a job as we thought we could do," O'Brien said last week. "At this point, who knows what the 2013 season holds? I think this is a great group of kids. Last semester, we had 50 kids that had a 3.0 GPA. We graduated 17 guys this past May, one of them, [guard] John Urschel, with a master's.
"So I think we're headed in the right direction. It won't be easy, but I believe that this is a place that can be successful, whether it's with sanctions or without sanctions."
Spurred by the Freeh Report, which said the university's senior leaders "showed total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims," the NCAA handed down harsh penalties that included a $60 million fine and the loss of 112 wins covering the final 14 years of Joe Paterno's coaching tenure.
Paterno's family, backed by scores of former players, has filed suit against the NCAA to have the sanctions overturned. Some members of the university board of trustees want to fight the penalties, others want the association to reconsider.
O'Brien met privately with the trustees earlier this month to give them his thoughts, which were not made public.
Athletic director Dave Joyner said he felt that, one year after the sanctions, his department "is on very solid ground, not only in dealing with the things that have been given to us to do, but also maintaining our normal business."
Joyner said O'Brien and the football team had "a heavy weight to carry" but mounted a performance that was "right in line with the rest of intercollegiate athletics." He noted that Penn State athletic teams won 11 conference titles.
"So I think if you lump it all in," he said, "we've done about as well as anyone could have expected us to do."
The Nittany Lions overcame a 0-2 start last season and finished 8-4, including a season-ending overtime win over Wisconsin. O'Brien was named coach of the year in the Big Ten and several outlets honored him nationally.
The football team did its part to unite the community and O'Brien hopes people will continue working toward that end.
"I think we're pulling in the same direction," he said. "I respect everybody's opinion. I try to make sure people know what I believe is best for the football program. The main reason we're here is for the student athletes. What I believe is best for the football program is for everybody to pull in the same direction. So hopefully we can continue to try to do that."
One sanction saw the NCAA waive its transfer rule, meaning that players could leave Penn State for another Football Bowl Subdivision program without having to sit out a year. This touched off an invasion of Happy Valley by coaches from other schools and an angry response from the team's united senior class.
Nine players transferred immediately afterward. However, barring an unexpected development, the Nittany Lions will start preseason camp on Aug. 5 with only one player - quarterback Steven Bench - having transferred since the end of last season, and only after O'Brien told him that he wouldn't be in the mix for the team's starting quarterback job.
O'Brien credited "tough-minded" players for maintaining stability, as well as his assistant coaches and the Lions' strength coaches and academic staff.
"It's a one-team type of deal," he said. "We try to be consistent in our dealings with the players. I believe the players respect that, and that's why we've been able to do a good job of basically holding this thing together."
Regarding recruiting, the sanctions have produced mixed results. The 2013 class, unaffected by the scholarship reduction and featuring 16 newcomers, ranged in rankings from 24th by ESPN.com to 46th by Scout.
The Class of 2014, the first to be limited to 15 signings, has 13 oral commitments to date and is ranked anywhere from 17th (Scout) to 23d (Rivals).
"I found that recruiting here hasn't suffered at all," O'Brien said. "The numbers have suffered obviously because of the sanctions and we can't sign as many kids as everybody else. When we get a young man on campus and they see all the things that Penn State has to offer . . . I think recruiting has been going very well."
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