COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two prized Penn State recruits have already backed away from their verbal commitments and will go elsewhere, due to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal hanging over the football program and the uncertainty over the Nittany Lions' next head coach.
More decommits may be on the way.
Until the focus shifts to the future instead of the ugly recent past, national recruiting analysts believe it will be difficult for the Nittany Lions to turn things around.
"They're going to need someone to come in and re-invigorate the fans," said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for Scout.com. "In today's society, I don't think this is as program-killing as people have talked about. Not to minimize what's been going on there, but I just don't think this is akin to a death penalty.
"However, I do think in the short term it's going to get worse before it gets better."
What was at one time considered a solid class of prospects — possibly among the 10 best in the nation — has no choice but to pin its future on the reassurance of what is expected to be a lame-duck coaching staff. Meanwhile other programs are taking advantage of the lingering questions surrounding Penn State to spirit away players.
Five-star defensive tackle prospect Tommy Schutt from Glen Ellyn, Ill., announced on Monday he was taking back his commitment to Penn State and now says he's headed to Ohio State. Offensive lineman Joey O'Connor, of Windsor, Colo., also has reversed his thinking and now says he will not go to Penn State. He's still considering his options.
One major reason for the defections is the stigma of the charges that Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach who retired in 1999 but still had an office at the school long after, allegedly abused young boys.
The Sandusky allegations led to the firing of coach Joe Paterno on Nov. 9, along with the departure of other top athletic department officials. Longtime defensive assistant Tom Bradley took over on an interim basis as the Nittany Lions went 9-3 and earned a spot in the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 2 in Dallas against Houston.
Those who watch recruiting closely say not hiring someone sooner has cost Penn State.
"I thought they would hire a head coach by now," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "The fact that they're dragging their feet here is really giving all of these recruits the time to say, 'Well, geez, signing day is coming up pretty soon. I'd better start checking out my second options.' That's why they're starting to lose kids. I know this is an important decision but the longer they go in deciding who the next person to take over at Penn State is, the worse this is going to get — and it's gotten pretty bad."
With no new head coach yet — it's unlikely that Bradley or other current staffers associated with the Paterno regime will be retained — there has been very little hope or optimism surrounding the program. Penn State's once glittering brand name has been mentioned prominently in a persistent drumbeat of court dates, appearances, interviews and further allegations.
"The greatest enemy to Penn State right now is the lack of certainty, the unknown that is looming over this program," ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "That's hurting recruiting for them far more than the sex scandal is. At the end of the day, prospects want to know who's going to be in charge and who's going to be coaching them, and the parents want to know who's going to be caring for their child. There's a lot more about the uncertainty of the situation that is creating problems than anything else."
On the recruiting trail, Penn State coaches are sticking with the themes they offered to recruits before Paterno was fired — to look at the entire school and to take into account the program's history of academic success along with its tradition-rich history. But the act is growing tired.
Earlier this year, Ohio State was wracked by a tattoo scandal that led to the forced resignation of longtime coach Jim Tressel and multiple suspensions and NCAA investigations. Now Ohio State has helped to shift the focus from a year of NCAA problems by hiring new coach Urban Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida.
That gaudy hiring has helped the Buckeyes put a fresh coat of paint on their battered image and they are now considered a recruiting destination instead of one that was down and out.
"Before Penn State, Ohio State and Miami were the ones taking the brunt of all the things and now no one talks about them because this scandal is fresh and it's different," recruiting expert Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network said. "I think a new staff comes in next year (at Penn State), with a fresh slate, and they could overcome it.
"But not this year. They're dead in the water this year."