BY GENARO C. ARMAS
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.
O’Brien 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 the 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.