Senior College Football Columnist

Questionable ethics makes for even more uncomfortable media day for Penn State


O'Brien says Illinois' Tim Beckman is 'playing by the rules.' But does he really believe that? (US Presswire)  
O'Brien says Illinois' Tim Beckman is 'playing by the rules.' But does he really believe that? (US Presswire)  

CHICAGO -- There are only a handful of innocents left in this Penn State saga. The victims, obviously, and unforgettably. But beginning this week, the players and coaches have found a new normal.

"This is really the first year of Penn State," linebacker Michael Matui said Thursday at Big Ten media days.

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So, then, what do we really think of Tim Beckman in a new micro-drama surrounding this story? Illinois' coach has been cast as either some sort of unethical monster or just a guy -- as even Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said -- who is "playing by the rules." In the latest round of unintended consequences in this American tragedy, Penn State football has become a free-fire zone, a recruiting feeding frenzy.

It's open season on players. Beckman isn't the only one circling the Penn State carcass, but he was the only one who admitted it here. This week he flew eight coaches to State College to talk Penn State players about transferring. Eight? Wow. But what is the line, if one has been crossed in the first place.

There are no ground rules here other than the ones made up by the Illini's first-year head coach and his peers who have shown up in State College locked and loaded. They were ready to grab them some Nittany Lions when the NCAA announced those players could transfer without restriction. Beckman said two Penn State players even called him before Monday’s announcement of the NCAA penalties.

"There were certain individuals that reached out to us," Beckman said. "It wasn't that we were calling them blind."

Some might call it poaching, unethical, picking over the remains. The NCAA calls it legal and that's really all that matters. When the association burned Penn State to the ground on Monday, it did the right thing by releasing those players. But it didn't provide a handbook of best practices. The result: A program that has barely begun healing, now knows a new level of aggravation.

"For them [NCAA] to say they're doing us a service by transferring [no holds barred] is -- I'm going to choose my words carefully -- it's a joke," Penn State linebacker Michael Matui told a group of the team’s beat writers. "It's an absolute joke. There's been coaches hounding our players, 10-12 calls a day, 'Come out and visit.'

"[They're] outside of our apartment, outside of our classrooms."

Sounds like a scene from War of the Worlds -- coaches as attacking aliens, tentacles and all. It has been disturbing to watch, in this small situation, the profession has become deregulated. It's hard to assign blame here, except that someone must own it. How crazy is it that the three Penn State players who attended the media days could have openly and legally been recruited by conference rivals in the hallways of the Hyatt McCormick Place?

USC and Ohio State have had players turned loose by the NCAA after penalties were handed down in recent years, but never the entire roster and never two weeks before camp opens when the affected players must decide right now if their credits, talent and loyalty should go to another city, campus and culture.

The NCAA did the right thing in the moment. But in attempting to turn down the volume on King Football, Mark Emmert underestimated its breadth and strength.

The penalties for a culture of silence in Happy Valley haven't eliminated the culture of winning at all costs -- for coaches, nationwide.

Beckman's only real sin is that he has been identified. A bit of a spit storm has come down on him for nothing else than doing his job. The 24-year veteran has his first BCS-level head coaching job after stops at seven other schools. His job is to pull Illinois out of a malaise that saw them lose their last six regular-season games. Fast. Beckman repeatedly said Thursday that he and his staff didn't go on campus, instead meeting players at a Starbucks and a breakfast restaurant.

"It wasn't a sneak attack," he said. "It was all-out front."

One Big Ten coach told that he would feel like "a bag of [expletive]" if he solicited Penn State players. In the same breath, the coach admitted to telling his staff to monitor the Penn State roster, just in case.

"To me it just doesn't seem right," said Matui, a Penn State legacy from Mandeville, La. "Even some coaches from this conference -- I've got a problem with that -- at this point in time that there's no rules. That door has been opened. You don't have to have ethics in this game."

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien made that clear when he singled out three coaching friends who have at least called to notify him of their interest in his players -- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Syracuse's Doug Marrone and Central Florida's George O'Leary.

"Those," O'Brien said, "are good coaches."

As for everyone else?

"It's like NFL free agency without the rules ...," he added. "I know there may be some kids that will leave. But right now we've got over 50 players that have said they are staying."

But 50 scholarship players won't win the Sun Belt. It will be hard enough when Penn State is limited to 65 for four years. O'Brien is trying to hold together a program that may be irrelevant for a decade or more because of the penalties. Earlier this week he could have watched USC's Lane Kiffin recruit his top running back, Silas Redd, without picking up the phone.

"Our No. 1 concern," Kiffin said Tuesday at Pac-12 media day, "is running back."

Who do you think that was aimed at? That question was answered Thursday when Redd missed the Big Ten proceedings here reportedly to meet Kiffin in Connecticut.

Left to its own ethics, the coaching profession has shown itself to have a spotty record in these types of matters. Watch the ESPN documentary Pony Excess . Out-of-town coaches shopping for talent made the SMU campus look like a flea market as they cornered players after the program was shut down. That was 26 years ago.

Urban Meyer wouldn't poach Penn State now.

"I have a problem with that," he said.

But he certainly did in February, flipping four Penn State commits for his first Ohio State recruiting class. What's the difference?

"It blows my mind that it's still a story, recruiting committed players," he said. "When a committed player says he's interested in your school you recruit him ... The bottom line is a student-athlete has a [right] to play where he wants to play."

You should not have to be reminded, also, that Penn State's 2013 recruiting class is being picked apart by anyone who wants a piece as you read this.

That had to be what was going through O’Brien’s mind when he allowed his players to attend the media days. On Wednesday word went out that Reed, John Urschel and Jordan Hill weren't coming. It was O'Brien's choice. He explained that the players were tired from a tough week and wanted to go home for a few days.

Then he changed his mind. Matui replaced Redd for what are becoming obvious reasons. At that moment, Nittany Nation went on the offensive speaking of loyalty and pride and, yes, commitment. For a few hours in a couple of conference rooms, it was like the old days. Four guys bowed up and moved the ball.

"I didn't say anything about us being dead," O'Brien told reporters. "We're alive."

It may be the best series we see out of Penn State for the next few years.

They weren't just speaking to media. They were speaking to their teammates, to the Beckmans everywhere, to the recruiting class of 2015, the first one that can be promised a shot at four Rose Bowls (if that class redshirts). Seems like light years away.

At that moment, Beckman was only 50 feet away, facing O'Brien, taking his own questions on the other side of the room.

Their eyes did not meet.

"We're back in the news a little bit more, that's OK," Matui said. "The phone doesn't stop ringing, that's OK too. At the end of the day what matters is we're all teammates."

Yeah, but for how long?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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