Penn State has had a run of the neighborhood for as long as anyone can remember, from its years as the most successful independent Division I-A football program on the East Coast and a national power, to a little more than the past two decades in the Big Ten.
As the Nittany Lions continue to rebuild and rebrand in the aftermath of the off-field child abuse scandal that ended the legendary career of Joe Paterno in 2011 and brought unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA last year, the neighborhood is in the process of changing, too.
With Maryland and Rutgers set to join the Big Ten beginning in 2014, second-year coach Bill O'Brien said Wednesday that he is looking forward to having new, closer neighbors to battle with for recruits and ultimately in the league's recently aligned East Division.
O'Brien said it was "a lot different" this year coming to Baltimore for the three-city coaches' caravan that also included stops in Harrisburg, Pa., and Washington than it was when the concept started last year a few months after Paterno's death.
"I think the addition of Maryland and Rutgers is great for the Big Ten for a lot of reasons," O'Brien said before a lunch with Penn State fans at the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel. "I think it helps in recruiting. I think it helps our TV market because now we basically have most of the East Coast in the Big Ten."
Asked if Maryland's future status as a conference rival will change the dynamics of recruiting in the state, O'Brien said, "I don't see how it would necessarily change. Maybe you go head-to-head with them a little bit more than you did in the past."
What it won't be is a revival of a rivalry, considering how one-sided the matchup had been. The Nittany Lions held a 35-1-1 advantage, with Maryland's lone victory coming in 1961 and its last defeat being the most lopsided, a 70-7 demolition in 1993. At Byrd Stadium, no less.
But Penn State fans are looking forward to the revival of the series that dates back to 1917, if mostly for convenience and access to tickets for road games.
Merrill Sumey of Sykesville has been going to a few games every year since he graduated Penn State in 1950, including at least one road game a season.
"Now we'll be able to get a little closer," Sumey said. "We won't have to go to Iowa or Minnesota, because Maryland and Rutgers are right here."
Tony Detato, a 1975 graduate who lives in Severna Park, said, "There are a lot of Penn State fans here [and] there are lot of Maryland folks in Pennsylvania. It's close. For Penn State fans, the closest game has been Ohio State, so it's been impossible to go to the road games."
O'Brien, who served under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland for two seasons (2003-04), said that he currently has 11 players among the 67 remaining on scholarship who grew up in the state. Longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson has dominated recruiting this state for years.
"All 11 of those guys have roles on our team. I'm thinking about [defensive back] Adrian Amos right now," O'Brien said of the former Calvert Hall star. "He's one of the best guys on our team."
Though it is still a year away, the new alignment — which will also include Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the East — "is a tough division," O'Brien said. "You've got some tough schools. … I understand why it was divided that way. I think it was the right way to do it. I think it's going to be a challenging division for us to be in."
When Maryland enters the Big Ten, Penn State will be in the third year of four-year NCAA probation that included a bowl ban and capping scholarships at 65 per season — only two more allowed for Football Championship Subdivision teams such as Towson.
Despite a promisiting start to his career at Penn State — the Nittany Lions finished 8-4 after losing their first two games last fall — O'Brien is realistic about the immediate future.
"It would be hard for me to say we're in a better place [than before the sanctions]," O'Brien said. "But I do think we're in a better place in the fact that we have a great group of guys — core guys — committed to this program, 99 percent of them.
"I do think we're in a better place conceptually if that makes sense. It's a very, very difficult challenge. It's one that we embrace — what other choice do we have? But recruiting is an inexact science. You're going to make mistakes. We've already made mistakes and we try to own up those. But you try to bat 100 percent and that's hard to do."
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