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Senior College Football Columnist

The latest chapter in the Penn State saga: Is it recruiting or is it poaching?

The Penn State players are stuck in the middle. The NCAA, in the wake of the devastating sanctions Mark Emmert dumped on the Nittany Lion program Monday, attempted to find a way to be fair to them as much as it could, offering the flexibility to transfer to another school without having to sit out a season.

The upshot: Coaches from all over the country have begun the recruiting process, and some—reportedly such as the Illinois staff—have even come to the Penn State campus, trying to convince Nittany Lion players (not just PSU commitments) that there would be a better place to continue their college careers than in State College. This all has prompted what must feel like the latest haymaker coming the way of the folks around Penn State.

Stay or go?

On Wednesday morning, around 25 Penn State players pledged their commitment to the program.

“This program was not built by one man and this program is sure as hell not going to get torn down by one man,” said Michael Mauti, a fifth-year senior linebacker. That group will no doubt hold a warm place in the hearts of Penn State fans forever.

Other Nittany Lions players apparently, though, are still uncertain. Rumors are swirling. A new coaching staff has had to re-recruit its own players.

You could say that those players who committed to attend Penn State did so for reasons beyond just having the chance to win the Big Ten title and go to bowl games. That's probably true, but for many, those other things are big deals too. It's also not a stretch to think that the media circus hovering around State College may take its toll on these guys too--if it already hasn't.

All but two of the dozen or so coaches I have spoken to since Monday have said they were going to pursue Penn State players. The two that didn't, say they wouldn't in part out of respect to Nittany Lion coach Bill O'Brien, who they had some kind of relationship with. Those ones on the hunt just would send Penn State's compliance office a list of the players they were intrigued by and make their pitches. On Wednesday, O'Brien told ESPN Radio that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, UCF coach George O'Leary and Syracuse coach Doug Marrone had called him to inform him of their intentions to recruit his players.

The Penn State player under the biggest spotlight since Monday's news is Silas Redd, a junior running back who gained over 1,200 yards in 2011. Initially, it was pointed out Wednesday that Redd wasn't one of those 25 players affirming their commitment to Penn State. But maybe that was because Redd, along with two other teammates, was en route to Chicago to represent the program at Big Ten media days? Nope, that wasn't the case because the school later explained Redd and his two teammates wouldn't be making the trip.

The speculation around Redd has spurred a sad and somewhat creepy online recruitment by fans of Penn State and other schools aimed at the running back via Twitter, as chronicled by Awful Announcing.

Among the many schools pursuing Redd is USC, likely the preseason No. 1 pick. The Trojans know all about NCAA sanctions, and about other programs trying to recruit their players. For as loaded as they are on offense this fall, they still have depth concerns at running back, an issue that Lane Kiffin found numerous ways to reference in his 20-minute talk with reporters Tuesday at Pac-12 media day.

Kiffin, no doubt, would try and sell Redd on the chance to come in and be a key part of a national title team. He's also could mention that since USC has star QB Matt Barkley and the best tandem of receivers in the country, it's doubtful Redd will see many eight-man boxes. Or that last year Penn State was 96th in the country in passing. The Nittany Lions completed on just 48 percent of their passes and were 112th in passing efficiency. Redd also is childhood friends with Trojan QB Max Wittek, Barkley's back-up. Will all that be enough to lure Redd, a Connecticut native, to Southern California? We should know more in the next week as the start of training camps approach.

No doubt, that pitch wouldn't play well in State College, where folks already felt blindsided by the NCAA sanctions. They've been smarting from 10 months of angst, frustration and disappointment. Many of them were also quick to see the irony in Emmert flexing his unilateral power to crush their program. They also have to wonder about all that talk addressing how out of whack Penn State's football mindset was as they hear about Illinois coaches descending on State College this week.

You probably don't have to be a Penn State fan to feel like this seems pretty shady. It is legal though. To many, the fact that Kiffin or Arizona State head coach Todd Graham (who is reportedly targeting some Penn State linebackers), among others, are involved has only added a little more fuel to this fire.

You can call it recruiting or you can call it poaching. The reality is college sports has always been a cutthroat business. By now, I just shrug my shoulders at this stuff.

Truth be told, coaches don't get fired for not graduating players. They get fired for losing football games. These guys are salesmen. I've seen up close how the recruiting process works, and if you think your favorite coach or school hasn't even negative recruited at some point, you're kidding yourself.

They're trying to win football games and better their teams. They also tend to have sizable egos. They're convinced they can provide these players a better option than what those guys currently have.

That said, I suspect this is just the latest chapter in a story that has left a whole bunch of people with mixed feelings about the game they love so much.

 
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