What the NCAA did to Bill O'Brien and Penn State this week, at least in terms of recruiting, was the rough equivalent of a restaurant telling its head chef that his ingredients would be cut by one fourth for the next few years -- but that he still would be asked to prepare dishes that would satisfy the appetites of millions of people.
Bill O'Brien will need to be careful with his offers during the next few recruiting cycles.
Even for someone who is used to cooking without a lot of ingredients -- O'Brien, as he pointed out several times this week, is coming from the NFL, the land of 53-man rosters and 45-man game-day squads -- this will be a tremendous challenge, the effects of which won't be seen for a couple of years but will eventually be impossible to ignore.
But what the NCAA might not have realized is that O'Brien, for a couple of different reasons, might not have as tough of a time acquiring some of the nation's freshest and most delicious ingredients as initially thought.
When the NCAA gave permission to Penn State players to transfer freely to other schools, it also indirectly gave the coaching staffs of those other schools permission to contact those players. And in doing so, many of those other schools showed their true colors. They descended upon Penn State's campus -- er, sorry, Tim Beckman, to the areas directly SURROUNDING Penn State's campus -- like flies at a picnic.
That didn't sit well with a lot of the Nittany Lions, as Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill pointed out Thursday at Big Ten Media Days, and it likely didn't sit well with a lot of top prospects and their families. By merely saying the things you might expect him to say -- "I'd just hope that the coaches would contact us first as a professional courtesy" -- and sitting back and letting his rivals cast themselves as poachers, O'Brien might have gotten a leg up in a couple of future races.
O'Brien's best recruiting tool -- the current Nittany Lions -- was also hard at work this week. By delivering a strong public message of unity and resolve, the team's leaders not only helped keep the current squad together but showed prospective recruits that one of the main reasons they came to play for Penn State -- a sense of loyalty and brotherhood -- still exists.
There will be a number of recruits over the next few years who will be impressed by O'Brien and the current Penn State team for these reasons, but they might justifiably hesitate to sign with the Nittany Lions because of the postseason ban and the knowledge that they'll be going into battle with fewer ingredients -- er, scholarship players -- than their opponents. Again, that's the crux of the challenge O'Brien and his staff face. But if Penn State's coaches are sharp -- and the job they've done on the recruiting trail since January indicates that they are indeed -- there's a few ways they can turn that challenge on its head.
Yes, O'Brien can say, We only have 15 scholarships for this class. So we have to be very careful with our offers. That we're offering you one is proof that we really believe in you as a football player and a student and are confident you'll play a major role on our team -- and probably sooner than later.
When the depth chart shrinks, the possibilities for early playing time multiply. O'Brien can tell recruits they have the option of going to USC or Ohio State and sitting behind upperclassmen for two years or come play for Penn State and, out of necessity in some cases, be plugged into the starting lineup by their second year in the program.
Coaches like Nick Saban and Bob Stoops can talk about coaching stability and have more of a leg to stand on than most of their peers, but no one can offer the promise they'll be in it for the long haul and back it up quite like O'Brien, who is under contract for the next nine years and, given the nature of the sanctions, will likely enjoy somewhat of a grace period for the majority of that time. In less than a year, Penn State has gone from having one of the cloudiest coaching futures to one of the clearest. That plays a big part in recruiting, too.
Even if O'Brien's next few recruiting classes have the same proportion of four- or five-star prospects as the classes of the top teams in the country, the number crunch brought on by the scholarship reductions will mean he'll have to be inspired and creative in the kitchen when it comes to turning those ingredients into meals, or Penn State fans could drive home on Saturday evenings with their stomachs still growling.
There's more reason to expect that he will at least be able to shop at the same places as he has been, though, than there was when the week started. He'll just have to do so on a budget.