CHICAGO — Maybe there will come a day when Bill O’Brien and Tim Beckman will kick back, share a beer and laugh about it all.
But there was no laughing Thursday at the Big Ten Conference media day gathering.
While Illini coach Beckman spent a good part of his day trying to change the perception that he is a heartless sniper lurking in the shadows while trying to pick off confused Penn State football players, Penn State coach O’Brien slapped on his all-business game face and made it clear he’ll fight to keep those players at home.
Beckman, the first-year University of Illinois head coach, became the poster boy for going after Penn State football players who have free license to transfer in the wake of harsh NCAA penalties handed out on Monday.
Beckman gained that role when on Wednesday it was reported that O’Brien passed a group of Illinois coaches at the airport, arriving in Pennsylvania wearing or carrying Illini gear, on a mission to meet with Penn State players.
But Beckman said he’s operating in a spot that is awkward for everyone — trying to respect the difficult situation O’Brien and Penn State are in while also trying to answer inquiries from current Penn State players who have contacted Illinois about possibly finding a new home.
Beckman said a total of eight Illinois coaches went to State College Wednesday morning but did not set foot on campus. Later in the day, O’Brien described a scene where he claimed coaches from opposing colleges had set up shop in the parking lot of Penn State football complex, waiting to speak with potential transfers.
If that happened, the Illini coaches were not present, Beckman said.
Beckman, who did not make the trip, said he sent position coaches to meet with interested players at two locations — at a Starbucks and a waffle restaurant.
Beckman said they had been contacted by two players prior to the release of NCAA sanctions on Monday, then apparently one or two others made contact as well. Players, parents of players or high school coaches apparently initiated the contacts.
Beckman said at least some of the players knew the Illini coaches because of relationships developed when they were being recruited in high school.
The Penn State players wanted to learn more about Illinois as a possible transfer destination, and Beckman thought the best way to do it was face-to-face. So he dispatched his coaches.
Illinois AD Mike Thomas followed the protocol set up by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, and Thomas contacted Penn State’s acting AD and personally specified which Penn State players Illinois was coming to meet with.
“We’re following the rules,” Beckman said. “Everything we’ve done has been NCAA-
“I talked to their AD, David Joyner, this morning,” Thomas said Thursday, “and we’re on the same page. They’re OK with that.”
Maybe, but the grumpy-faced O’Brien sounded anything but OK, and who can blame him?
He’s under unusual duress to maintain the foundation of a team that will be threatened by greatly reduced scholarship limits during the next four seasons. Every transfer only adds to the Penn State problems.
Some coaches at the Big Ten function Thursday said they were morally opposed to going after players from their staggering conference brother.
Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer said they would not pursue Penn State players. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald adopted that position, too.
But others, like Purdue coach Danny Hope, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and even Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, said they would be interested in transfers that fit within their program. Dantonio indicated his program has been contacted, too.
Thomas said he was comfortable with Beckman trying to accommodate Penn State players who plan to leave and are looking for a new school. But he made it clear this is not a raid on the Penn State roster.
“This is about kids expressing an interest in going to our school,” he said. “It’s not about us going in to do a hard sell or even a soft sell. Or trying to change a kid’s mind. Not at all. That’s not a place where we’re going to go.
“But with us it became public (when news of the airport contact with O’Brien leaked out). I can tell you there were a lot of schools in that geographic footprint yesterday. We weren’t the only one.”
Penn State running back Silas Redd met with Southern California coach Lane Kiffin on Thursday in Connecticut. Redd is considering a transfer to the Pac-12 power.
Beckman said Penn State players did follow through and met with the Illini coaches off campus. But when asked if any Penn State players are transferring to Illinois, Beckman said, “I cannot make a comment on that right now.”
“I told the staff before we went, we’re going to go so the players can come to us, not us go to them. I don’t know if that makes it right or not. We’ll go with our position coaches, and if they would like to come and speak to us, great. If not, we’re not going to go to them.”
Delany said he also found the matter unsettling. He was initially against Big Ten members accepting the transfers but was outvoted by university presidents.
“My advice was that this is not a healthy place for us to be,” Delany said. “But their response was unanimous. They said this is not about competition between schools. It’s about these student-athletes having a full spectrum of options.”
Slice it or dice it, it’s an awkward chapter the Big Ten needs to move beyond as quickly as possible.