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October 2, 2012When Bill O'Brien sees an opportunity to change the tone of a conversation, he's going to take advantage.
The 42-year old's natural disposition isn't that of a salesman or politician, but under the circumstances he's been dealt in his first 10 months at Penn State, his ability to change minds has come to the forefront. Always passionately positive with his players, the final frontier of skepticism O'Brien is trying to overcome all rests outside the Nittany Lions' locker room.
"How difficult do you anticipate recruiting will be...," a student reporter started to say Tuesday afternoon at O'Brien's weekly press conference in the Beaver Stadium media room.
Eight words in, O'Brien had already formulated his answer, internally drowning out the rest of the question in favor of getting his message across.
"...in the next couple of years with the sanctions, and also, how nice is it that you have some guys that are still in that class to help out future classes?"
By the time the kid spit it all out, O'Brien had to double back and ask for a reprise of the second part of the question.
"So that's an interesting question," O'Brien started, sensing his chance to proclaim his message again.
Though he's stated the same before, Tuesday afternoon offered the most recent opportunity for O'Brien to alter the conversation the same way he'd done in July, two days after the NCAA leveled some of harshest penalties against a football program in its history.
Simply, playing football at Penn State isn't awful.
In fact, not only is Penn State not awful, but it's actually a pretty special place to be, with special people and a unique set of opportunities that accompany the honor of suiting up in the still-traditional uniforms that underwent a slight tweak this season.
The media might think it is awful. Chicken little fans might think it is. Opposing coaches are trying to prove it is. And, even some recruits who have changed their pledges away from the Nittany Lions might think it is.
But, it just isn't.
For 2 minutes, 10 seconds Tuesday afternoon, O'Brien did his best to let the world know as much.
"I will tell you that when the sanctions happen, I know that everybody said, uh‑oh, here we go, what's going to happen to Penn State," O'Brien prepped his listening audience before going on the offensive. "Let me give you a couple of examples. At every home game we've had between 40 and 50 prospects here, okay? So, you know, what are we talking about here?"
The challenge O'Brien has confronted, it seems, is at times an uninformed audience.
In tight end Adam Breneman, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, defensive end Garrett Sickels, and offensive lineman Brendan Mahon, O'Brien has secured the commitments of the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 prospects at their positions, respectively. The Nittany Lions' coaching staff continues to believe each of its four four-star prospects will remain committed to Penn State when Signing Day arrives in February.
"We are on national TV, we have got a heck of a football coaching staff," O'Brien said. "I'm just saying this place is a very special place.
"This is a place where you can play great football with great kids, as teammates, and get a fantastic degree. You can play in front of a 100,000 people. You can play on national TV. You can play where... every NFL team has been in here to scout our players already this year. You are going to play for a coaching staff that has NFL experience, National Championship experience."
Sanctions, bowl bans, and reduced scholarships all present a certain set of challenges that Penn State's closest competitors will not face, O'Brien acknowledged. He's lost top recruits like Zayd Issah, Dorian Johnson, and Ross Douglas through the course of the sanctions, but by and large, he continued, recruits have maintained a healthy interest in playing at Penn State.
"Okay, the numbers are not equal to the other teams out there. We understand that. As a staff we have to do a great job of understanding that," he said. "But at the end of the day, you know, I've been very, very impressed with the fact that (recruits) really, really enjoy being recruited by us, coming to the games here... watching us play. And being around (our players), when they come down the locker room after the game.
"So is it going to be hard? Yeah. Recruiting's hard. Recruiting's hard. But at the end of the day, I think there's a lot of good stuff."
According to linebacker Glenn Carson, O'Brien was honest with his players about the realities of the sanctions. Instead of selling a series of lies, however, the honesty led to a level of trust between players and coaches that now extends far beyond the football field.
"During the sanction time, he basically came right out and said this isn't easy," Carson said. "He was honest to all the players that were on the fence about leaving or not, and he was upfront about what's going to happen. He was just completely honest of everything that we were going to face.
"It was kind of a hard pill to swallow during that time, but he was honest with everybody and just left it in their hands whether they wanted to stay or they wanted to leave.
"But, in the end he also told us the benefits of staying. I mean, this is a great place. I know Coach O'Brien touched on it earlier of how great Penn State is and why so many kids stayed and why kids will continue to come here."
According to O'Brien, the product that has emerged this season has garnered attention from places across the country.
If the tone O'Brien has set from the moment he stepped on campus continues, that won't change.
"It's this whole group of guys, how hard they play. I'm not going to mention names, but after the last couple games, I've gotten a lot of phone calls from non‑Penn State people telling me how much they enjoy watching this team play," O'Brien said. "I don't know what's going to happen this year. I'm not a genie. But people enjoy watching this team play because of the effort with which they play. They play like their hair is on fire every play."
With nothing to play for but themselves, imagine what Penn State football will look like when the sanctions are eventually lifted.
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