CHICAGO -- Bill O'Brien doesn't know where Penn State's football program will be in three or four years.
After all, it was only a year ago this week that the NCAA hammered the Nittany Lions with some of the most severe sanctions in college sports history, fining them $60 million, banning them from a bowl game for four straight seasons and stripping them of 40 scholarships over a four-year probationary period.
"We have to think about that as a staff," O'Brien said of the future. "We can't stick our head in the sand and think everything is going to be glorious every single day. We understand that this is unprecedented, uncharted waters. … We don't see it as daunting. We just see it as a challenge that nobody has ever had to go through in coaching. Maybe we can write the road map for it."
O'Brien and his coaching staff have navigated uncharted territory remarkably well so far. When O'Brien spoke at Big Ten media days a year ago, he was still reeling from the NCAA's stunning announcement that it was delivering what was essentially a death penalty to Penn State's football program for the school's alleged cover-up of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of boys. In June 2012, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
O'Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator who was hired in January 2012 to replace legendary Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, believed the Sandusky case would result in criminal charges but not NCAA penalties, at least not ones so severe.
"A year ago, we'd just found out about the sanctions," O'Brien said. "That was a tough time. It was a time when we'd just received, in many ways, some unexpected news. We knew there was something coming down the pipe."
When O'Brien spoke to the media in Chicago last year, he didn't even know whether Penn State would have enough players to field a team in 2012. The NCAA ruled that PSU's players could transfer to another school immediately without penalty, and there were rumors of a mass exodus in Happy Valley. In the end, the Nittany Lions stayed together, for the most part. Tailback Silas Redd transferred to USC and receiver Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma, but the core of the team remained at Penn State.
Now, there are no questions about who is committed to the Nittany Lions.
"It's just really nice that all the outside noise is gone, and we're able to focus on what we came here to do to -- to get a great education and play Penn State football," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "It's nice to not have to worry about pulling the team together and making sure we'd have enough players to field a team."
O'Brien couldn't have asked for the 2012 season to go much better. The Nittany Lions finished 8-4, upsetting then-No. 24 Northwestern and Wisconsin along the way. Penn State never gave up, even when few people would have blamed the Nittany Lions if they had.
"It was important that we showed how resilient we were as a football team and university," guard John Urschel said. "Coach O'Brien was the most critical piece. He was the rock and glue that held us together. I'd say it was his strength, determination and perseverance that got us through last year. I don't expect it to be any different this year."
Or any easier. This coming season, the Nittany Lions will begin to feel the effects of the NCAA probation, which limits them to offering only 15 initial scholarships (10 fewer than other FBS schools) and having only 65 scholarship players (20 fewer) on their roster. O'Brien said PSU will be forced to practice in pads less and scrimmage less than other teams because of its lack of depth.
"What we need to do is make sure our best players are healthy on Saturday," O'Brien said. "That's the goal. Practice is practice. You have to make sure you're putting your best team out there on Saturdays. Injuries are going to happen; it's a violent sport, and it's going to happen. What are you going to do to prevent them? You have to gauge the health of your team on a daily basis. If your team is banged-up, you might need to have a walk-through instead of a bloodbath. If the guys are fresh and things are going good in training camp, we might have a 50-play scrimmage, but not a 100-play scrimmage like the other schools. Maybe the starters will only go 15 plays."
O'Brien's best work might have come on the recruiting trail. Even after the NCAA sanctions were announced, O'Brien and his staff signed a top-25 recruiting class, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. The 17-man class included quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the No. 1-rated pocket passer in the country, and Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end. The Nittany Lions also signed two top-20 offensive line prospects and added much-needed depth in the secondary.
"A lot of those kids were being recruited by a lot of different schools," O'Brien said. "I felt like if we just did a good job of being up front and how we were dealing with it, hopefully they would stick with us. That's why I really knew this was a pretty special place to coach and play. I think those kids thought to themselves, 'Wow, I can still get a great education. I can still play in front of 100,000 people. I'm still playing a great Big Ten schedule. I'm playing on TV, and there are going to be a lot of pro scouts at practice.' I think they thought about all of those things."
O'Brien, who had never been a head coach until last year, believes he'll be better in Year 2. He's learning to manage his time better and to organize more efficiently. He thinks he'll improve in clock management and substitutions in games.
"I think we've learned a lot in a year, and I think we've improved," O'Brien said. "The years ahead aren't going to be easy, but we have a better handle on things. We're more comfortable with each other as players and coaches and administrators and coaches. I think I'm just more comfortable this year. Whether that leads to victories and those types of things, who knows? I know I made a lot of mistakes [last year], and I learned from those mistakes."
Urschel said the Nittany Lions are just back to playing football again.
"We have the same problems as other teams," Urschel said. "We have the same goals as other programs. We aren't much different than other programs across the country. What would be ideal is for [the media] to view us as we view ourselves. I think we have the same mindset going into this season: We want to play good football and win. I think the difference is the outside world and how the media is reporting things. You don't turn on the TV or read the newspaper and see distractions everywhere."
O'Brien doesn't know where Penn State will be in two or three years, but he's preparing for anything.
"Certainly, a lot of things have happened in our program since I took the job, and obviously before I took the job," O'Brien said. "The No. 1 goal for me is to keep our players and staff focused on the things that we can control. What can we control? Well, we can control how we play. We can control how we work out [and] how we scheme things. We can control what we do in the community and how we go to class and how we do in school. All those other things we really can't control."