STATE COLLEGE - For all Bill O'Brien can sell recruits his New England Patriots connections, his tight end focus on offense, an aggressive fourth-down mentality, unification in the face of unprecedented adversity, and even publicly supporting a kicker whose misses cost the team a win last week he really needs to start showing them results.
Togetherness and opportunity only go so far. They're means to an end, and that end for competitive college football players is on-field success. So Penn State's 34-7 victory over Navy Saturday afternoon not only ended an 0-2 start and became the school's first official victory since 1997, it goes down as important a victory as any in the 14 seasons worth of vacated wins since.
"As soon as we stepped off the field in Virginia, we said this is getting stupid and we needed a win," said fullback Michael Zordich. "We have to go out and play. Thank God we got out and did that. We just have to keep this thing going."
Zordich, a fifth-year senior, isn't one of those recruits. But the Nittany Lion underclassmen are recruits in a way since they can transfer after the season and be immediately eligible. Those were the rules set forth by the NCAA to protect the innocent players after the Jerry Sandusky scandal also brought penalties of a $60 million fine, four-year bowl ban, and four-year scholarship reductions to 65.
Thirteen players have left the team since July, and six verbal recruits from the Class of 2013 have decommitted. Recruiting has always been tricky both the coaches and players are only as good as their word until the letter-of-intent is signed.
But the Nittany Lions' situation is trickier, since current players may leave at any time through the current academic year, meaning O'Brien must not only build a recruiting class for February's signing day, he must hold the roster together through spring practice.
And the best way to do that is the same best way to keep the fans interested just win. Win yesterday, win today, win tomorrow. Try to make people forget about how bad the past year has been by showing them how good the team can be this year and beyond.
Right now, in the third weekend of September, O'Brien has a 1-2 record, 103 scholarship and walk-ons listed on the roster, and nine verbal commitments for 2013.
"One thing winning does is it cures a lot of things, and it breeds confidence," said O'Brien. "We can win, we know how to win, and the staff knows how to win. It's like I've said from day one there's nothing we can do about the NCAA, all we can do is play under the rules we play under and that's what we're doing.
"These players in that locker room now are high-character kids," said O'Brien. "It's one win and hopefully one to build on."
This may be O'Brien's first year as head coach, but he's been around the game enough to know winning is fleeting lose next week at home to Temple and instead of a team with momentum he's got a 1-3 team reeling into the Big Ten schedule. That will only tug at existing locker room cohesion and write the sales pitch for opposing coaches doing their own recruiting against Penn State in the next few months.
A good test case on the roster to see how this is playing out might be Paul Jones, who in two years has gone from one of four scholarship quarterback prospects to becoming academically ineligible to forming a bond with O'Brien in the spring to falling to third string quarterback to playing in receiver sets.
Jones caught his first career pass Saturday a 7-yard sideline toss, and said he felt as happy on the field as he'd ever been once he unfroze from seeing Matt McGloin's pass fly his way.
"Especially after everything, we finally have something to feel good about," said Jones. "As coach said, we've got to enjoy it."
So far, it's a win.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.