Nobody asked me, but ...

9:20 AM, Jan 22, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - From strictly a football sense, did anybody think Penn State would be where it is a year after the death of Joe Paterno? The answer has to be a resounding no.

Many, including myself, expected the Nittany Lions to quickly become irrelevant.

The recruits would go away.

The new coach, Bill O'Brien, would flounder.

And interest would wane.

None of that has happened.

Yes, Penn State's recruiting class isn't a top 10 according to those who rank such things. But there is quality and the fact that stud quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still committed to coming to Happy Valley is enormous.

And that enormity is made even bigger by the fact that O'Brien isn't going. The NFL came calling and whether O'Brien was truly interested is up for discussion. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't. Regardless, he got a pay raise, but he's also still in Happy Valley.

Give him a quarterback with the rep of Hackenberg and he'll do wonders. Heck, he took Matt McGloin, who struggled at Penn State his whole career, and made him an effective quarterback in his senior season.

So effective that he also might make McGloin some money if an NFL team takes a chance on him, something that was unthinkable six months ago.

As for interest, O'Brien needed to make his first team last fall respectable and he did that despite a dreadful start.

Penn State lost its first two games, one at home against a pretty good Ohio team and the other on the road against a bad Virginia team.

At that point, it sure looked like what everyone expected to happen was going to happen. Penn State football was going to go away. The Nits were 0-2 and fading.

But, and there is always a but, the cure-all for nearly anything in sport is winning. And Penn State started winning and folks started to take notice.

The region needed something positive after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It needed something after Paterno's iconic statue was taken down and stashed in a closet somewhere six weeks before the season started

But then the Nits won five in a row and then gave unbeaten Ohio State all it wanted before the streak ended.

The season of despair would wrap up with three more wins and a loss, ultimately finishing up with a wild overtime win at home against Wisconsin.

Considering where they were, no bowl game, no extra month of practice that a bowl game allows, after beating the Badgers, it was still not a bad place to be.

The first year with the sanctions and a new coach for first time since forever had to be the toughest. But the Nits made it through and the biggie is that O'Brien stayed. Penn State football fans can't put a price on that.

The spotlight now will dim a bit and, most importantly, from (and I can't stress this enough) a strictly football sense, the recruiting sales pitch gets easier.

Today, when O'Brien walks into the house of a 17-year future All-America, now a junior in high school, his spiel can be different.

"Come to Penn State, young man, and help make us stronger."

O'Brien carries eight wins with him and momentum. Plus, he can tell a recruit coming to Happy Valley in the fall of 2014 that he is only looking at a two- year bowl ban. Redshirt a couple of them (something I detest but won't get into here) and by the time they take the field in 2015, their wait will be just one season.

By then, O'Brien will have turned Hackenberg into a Heisman candidate and the Big Ten or Big 12 or Big 17, whatever it might be by then, is going to have to deal with a very good Penn State team.

Quite frankly, the conference, which isn't exactly the SEC, already is good. Penn State will start off 5-0 in the fall with Michigan coming to town in mid- October and the climb back won't seem as steep.

Think folks, and recruits, won't notice that? Think again.

Drew Markol has been a sportswriter and columnist for several Philadelphia- area newspapers for over 25 years.

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