CHICAGO — As of Wednesday night, Penn State wasn't going to bring players to Big Ten media days.
Many of them were still in shock, trying to process the unprecedented NCAA sanctions handed down Monday from the Jerry Sandusky child-sexual abuse scandal and its cover-up. Some asked coach Bill O'Brien if they could go home for a few days.
“Spending time with their families,” O'Brien said, “is way more important than Big Ten media days.”
So he granted time off.
Overnight, however, O'Brien changed his mind on having his players' voices heard in Chicago.
He called senior linebacker Michael Mauti, senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill and junior guard John Urschel early Thursday and asked them to climb on a plane.
All said yes. All dressed sharply in suits. All sat through five stages of formal interviews and several informal ones. All slowly refilled their water glasses, took long sips and deep breaths and patiently responded to the repeated questions about the fate of their program.
That's tough duty just days after the jolt of their young lives. But Mauti said it was worth it.
“You better believe I'm glad I came,” he told The World-Herald at day's end. “Somebody's got to stand up for this program.”
And stand up the Penn Staters did, to every notebook, microphone and camera stuck in their faces.
“People who haven't been inside our building think we're dead,” O'Brien said. “Hey, we're alive. We're alive and kicking.”
Despite Penn State escaping the death penalty, the penalties assessed — four years no postseason, four years of scholarship cuts and $73 million in fines — led many analysts to suggest Nittany Lion football will be on life support for the next decade.
The news has been difficult to digest.
“It's been a long four days,” Mauti said. “I've not gotten much sleep.”
O'Brien said the raw emotion he saw from players the first couple of days hit his heart — as a coach and a parent.
“Since then, I've seen a team that has really picked itself up,” he said. “There are a bunch of tough kids on our football team. And we had a conference call with our parents, and I think that went as well as it could go.
“I'm a parent. I wouldn't want my sons to go through what these guys are going through.”
But life, he said, is about dealing with adversity.
“And how do you do that?” O'Brien asked. “You punch back. That's how I was brought up, and that's what we will do.”
With his piercing eyes, short-cropped hair and gravelly voice, O'Brien fits the image of someone tough enough to get through this.
As he was at the podium in the main press conference room, ESPN reported that Penn State running back Silas Redd was meeting with USC coaches to work out a transfer.
When asked if he had an update on Redd, O'Brien barked: “No!”
Illinois sent six coaches to Penn State to eyeball players who might want to change schools, which Nittany Lion players can do immediately without penalty.
When asked if he had discussed that with Illinois coach Tim Beckman, O'Brien barked: “No!”
A later question about players bailing out brought a stern look and this slowly cadenced response: “I don't anticipate ... losing any ... core ... good players.”
And if they do?
“Our team is a family,” Urschel said. “If they want to leave, I'm going to respect them. But we've hung together and we know the core of our team is going to be together. We'll go forward with what we have.”
Going forward, turning the page and sticking together were recurring themes.
“I've heard the talk that this is so bad,” O'Brien said. “I don't see it that way. I see it as an opportunity. I see it as a little bit of adversity we have to overcome.”
When Penn State fully transitions to a limited 65 scholarship players instead of 85 starting in 2014, the Nittany Lions essentially will have a roster the size of an FCS, or Division I-AA team, for four seasons.
But O'Brien, who came from the New England Patriots, preferred to compare it to his time in the NFL.
“I came from a league where there were 53 players on the roster — eight on the practice squad and 45 active,” he said. “So I'm pretty well aware of how to handle a roster of 65.”
Can Penn State survive?
O'Brien's contract was just extended from five years to nine years because of a clause that protects him from NCAA violations committed by the previous staff. He was asked what the program might look like by the end of his deal.
“I don't want to get into that,” he said. “But we have plans in place. They are already in the works. Like I said before, I don't think this is as bad as everybody says it is.”