Confident Bill O'Brien barnstorming for Penn State

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Confident Bill O'Brien barnstorming for Penn State

READING, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien got to the point.

There's no time to waste for a major college football program, even in the offseason -- and especially for a Penn State team facing roster restrictions because of NCAA sanctions.

Whether he was rallying the fan base Monday at a luncheon or explaining to reporters about the post-spring practice evaluations that led to the departure of starting quarterback candidate Steven Bench, O'Brien didn't mince words.

"There's no room for gray area. We don't have time for it," he said at a news conference at the student center of the Penn State-Berks campus in Reading. "We only have time for the truth."

Confident after a successful debut season, O'Brien is returning to the road this week for the Penn State coaches caravan. The second annual installment followed last year's three-week, 18-stop road trip organized in part to introduce O'Brien to Penn State's massive alumni base up and down the mid-Atlantic region.

This year's caravan isn't quite as ambitious, down to two weeks and 12 stops. It began with an appearance before a sold-out crowd of 250 in Reading.

But it's a different O'Brien, too. He enjoys strong support from alumni after guiding the Nittany Lions through the turbulent 2012 season, which included the sanctions on the program for the child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State ended 8-4, a smashing success given the unprecedented penalties on players who had nothing to do with the scandal. He thanked fans for sticking by the team.

"I'm more proud to be a Penn State graduate today than at any time since I graduated in 1986," gushed one fan into a microphone during a question-and-answer period while O'Brien awaited queries on a stage.

An appreciative O'Brien focused on looking ahead. Joined on stage by friend and Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers, O'Brien often flashed a dry sense of humor.

At other times, O'Brien sounded a defiant tone. He said other schools are questioning to potential recruits whether the team can succeed while under sanctions.

"Our commitment is to forge ahead together. It's no secret that others expect us to be down," O'Brien said. "Recruiting is a cutthroat business. That's just the way it is."

He told alumni Monday that students, including players, needed their support -- whether through donations, attendance at sporting events or otherwise. He spoke of the importance of unity for the sake of students during tough times.

Penn State attendance declined last year. The average attendance of roughly 96,000 left the stadium at about 91 percent capacity, down from the usual 97-98 percent.

He also promised a continued focus on academics.

"When I took the job here, I spoke to (Joe Paterno). I promised him that these guys would be students first and they would earn their degrees to the best of my abilities," O'Brien said to applause. "When it comes to athletics, that is our culture at Penn State, across all 31 teams."

The sanctions require Penn State to reduce its scholarship roster to 65 for a four-year period starting in 2014. Most major college teams have 85 scholarship players.

But the Nittany Lions were already down to nearly 70 by midseason last year after post-sanction player defections -- and still finished second in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

Bench announced last week he was transferring. O'Brien said Monday that freshman offensive lineman Anthony Stanko, who did not play last year, also plans to leave the team but has chosen to stay on scholarship.

The roster shuffling means the Nittany Lions will probably be at the 65-man limit anyway by the time 2013 season kicks off Aug. 31 against Syracuse.

"We have to prove ourselves -- again. And show what we're made of -- again," O'Brien said. "We have a culture of integrity. That is not new at Penn State, and that is not going to get old at Penn State."

The NCAA's transfer exception expires by the start of Penn State training camp in early August.

Bench left well before that deadline. O'Brien declined to get into specifics about his post-spring evaluation meeting last week with Bench, but said the quarterback improved during the spring. He said he would help Bench and wished his former player the best.

"I told him the truth, and what he needed to do to get better," O'Brien said. "No starter has been named, but going in (to preseason practice) maybe you won't get as many reps as the other guys, but you're still going to get reps."

For now, junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson has an offseason edge by default after splitting spring reps with Bench. Incoming freshman quarterback and touted prospect Christian Hackenberg will also get an audition in preseason camp.

Notes
Last year's starting quarterback, Matt McGloin, is scheduled to take part in Washington Redskins rookie training camp. McGloin set the school season record for passing yardage (3,266) last year ... O'Brien confirmed that running back Zach Zwinak hurt his left wrist at the spring game 10 days ago but will be ready for the season. Zwinak will likely be kept out of full contact during preseason practice.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."