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A steady climb back for Penn State football

No one can say that 2012 was an easy year for the Penn State football program.

No one can say that 2012 was an easy year for head coach Bill O'Brien and the Penn State football program. (Gene J. Puskar/AP file photo)
No one can say that 2012 was an easy year for head coach Bill O'Brien and the Penn State football program. (Gene J. Puskar/AP file photo)Read more

No one can say that 2012 was an easy year for the Penn State football program.

The fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal continued. Within a one-month period, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts; Penn State officials such as coach Joe Paterno and president Graham B. Spanier were implicated in the damning report of the commission chaired by former FBI director Louis Freeh; and the NCAA issued crushing sanctions that included a four-year bowl ban, scholarship limitations, a $60 million fine, and the elimination of 112 wins.

But once the initial shock abated, the football program, aided by first-year head coach Bill O'Brien and a determined senior class, concentrated on restoring its name and overcoming the loss of respect and of players, and did so with positive results.

After losing their first two games, the Nittany Lions went 8-2 - 6-2 in the Big Ten Conference - and earned accolades for O'Brien, who was named national coach of the year by the Maxwell Club and ESPN. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti earned all-American honors, and quarterback Matt McGloin and wide receiver Allen Robinson enjoyed record-breaking seasons.

The Lions headed into an offseason without the uncertainty of 12 months ago, when they ended a season engulfed in shame and embarrassment in a minor bowl game.

The search to replace the iconic Paterno, who died on Jan. 22, was passing its 50th day with no end in sight, and the selection committee was assailed by critics, particularly a large chunk of Penn State football alumni who didn't want an "outsider" leading the team. The delay affected recruiting, with many committed players looking at other options.

However, the "outsider" turned out to be the right man for the job.

Without any head coaching experience, and with the only tape of him before his Jan. 7 introduction to the public showing him in a shouting match with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, O'Brien, then 42, proved to be almost pitch-perfect.

O'Brien embraced the football alumni at his first news conference. He brought in a veteran staff while retaining popular assistant coaches Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. He hit the road to meet Penn State fans throughout Pennsylvania and other states. He spoke of getting himself and his players involved in the community.

Perhaps most important, O'Brien sought to unite Nittany Nation days after the July 23 NCAA sanctions. He urged Penn State fans not to look back in bitterness and anger but to focus on the 2012 season and beyond in making the situation a positive one despite the penalties.

"We all have to come together and realize why we're in the position we're in," he said shortly after the sanctions. "We have to. We've got to stop arguing about it. We've got to move forward."

The seniors, led by Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich, publicly announced their commitment to the program and provided leadership, particularly in preseason camp after the transfer of 10 players from the Nittany Lions. They also kept things together and led the team on a five-game winning streak after the 0-2 start.

With no bowl game because of sanctions, O'Brien is all about recruiting. He received four commitments during a day of visits on Dec. 9. After striking out with junior college quarterback Jake Waters, he got a "yes" from another one, Tyler Ferguson, to improve depth at the position.

Ferguson and four others are expected to enroll next month, meaning they will not count against the 15-scholarship limit on national signing day in February. So far, the Lions expect 13 players to sign in February.

The only uncertainty involves the Penn State players, who can transfer to other teams from now until the start of preseason camp in August without penalty. All in all, however, life is more settled in Happy Valley than it was at this stage last year.