Recruiting holds up through sanctions

Bill O'Brien, the coach with the near-permanent scowl, softens up when he greets recruits and talks about what Penn State has to offer.

He can't yet discuss bowls or conference titles because of the sanctions, so he takes a different tack. Look at Beaver Stadium, he tells them. Look at those 100,000 fans and that weekly exposure on national television. Look at the staff's experience and pay careful attention to the academics.

Through unprecedented sanctions, that pitch has held up well. It helped retain the nation's top quarterback in Christian Hackenberg and top tight end in Adam Breneman. It also prompted three other recruits -- Richy Anderson, Tanner Hartman and Parker Cothren -- to decommit from Maryland and Purdue after the sanctions and pledge there instead.

"Is [recruiting] going to be hard? Yeah, recruiting's hard," O'Brien said earlier this season. "But, at the end of the day, I think there's a lot of good stuff here."

But the most important pitches, the most convincing facts, might be those that O'Brien doesn't need to mention -- Penn State's defensive tradition, O'Brien's work with the New England Patriots and the Nittany Lions' success on the field. In short, Penn State's evolving reputation.

Forget the sanctions. Take away O'Brien, and Hackenberg never would have committed to Penn State. Take away the university's penchant for putting linebackers in the NFL, and 2014 prospect Greg Miclisse -- a recruit who's never set foot in Pennsylvania -- likely wouldn't be interested. Take away that impressive 8-4 record, and Zayd Issah admittedly wouldn't be considering PSU anymore.

But for recruits who live an hour's drive from campus or those who sweat during warm winters below the Mason-Dixon Line, they're aware of that reputation. Through scandals and sanctions, Penn State has held up because of those pitches, both spoken and unspoken.

"Academics isn't going to change, and who cares that you may not get into a bowl game?" PSU commit Jordan Smith said earlier this week. "I'll take learning and growing than going somewhere just to play in a bowl game."

Penn State has admittedly lost out on a few recruits because of those sanctions. But no one decommitted since the conference season began, when O'Brien's team began to shock much of the nation. David Williams ruled out the Nittany Lions when NCAA president Mark Emmert spouted off those penalties. Now? He's interested again.