Linebacker Zach Bradshaw woke up every morning for two weeks and weighed Penn State's sanctions.
The 2013 recruit out of Damascus, Md., spoke with his father, reflected on his commitment and wondered just how competitive his Nittany Lions would remain -- before finishing breakfast on a Tuesday morning and calling Bill O'Brien to decommit. On Aug. 7, Bradshaw hopped into a car with his mother, drove to Charlottesville, Va., and pledged to the Cavaliers.
"The deciding factor was the magnitude of the sanctions," Bradshaw's father, Mike, said at the time.
Bradshaw certainly wasn't alone. Some sportswriters opined about how 80 fewer scholarships and four years without a postseason were worse than the death penalty. Five pledges defected after the sanctions, and Penn State seemed destined to become one of the Big Ten's punching bags, a team forced to settle for MAC-quality prospects. Who would want to play on a losing team mired in controversy?
But O'Brien stood firm, telling recruits that each contest inside Beaver Stadium -- which seats more than 100,000 -- was its own bowl game. He stressed academics and an experienced staff. He invited NFL scouts to Wednesday practices.
But, perhaps more valuable than anything, he won. And, more than any other team in the country, a winning record so far has helped ease high-schoolers' concerns. PSU's 7-4 record and cries for O'Brien as coach of the year have continued to attract quality prospects.
More than 100 recruits lined up to see the Penn State-Ohio State game, and one three-star prospect decommitted from Maryland shortly after attending. Those scenes would be difficult to envision were PSU to carry a losing record.
"The sanctions don't matter to me," former Terrapins commit Richy Anderson (Frederick, Md./Gov. Thomas Johnson) said. "Being in that environment, it just proves it. No you can't play in a bowl game. And no, they lost a lot of scholarships -- but the tradition and everything is still there."
Winning this season has breathed new life into PSU's recruiting. The nation's top high school quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, and tight end, Adam Breneman, have remained steady in their commitments. Two Maryland commits, Anderson and Tanner Hartman, switched loyalty to the Blue and White.
Three-star athlete Zayd Issah, who decommitted because he wondered how PSU would respond, just shook his head last month and said that was no longer a factor in his recruitment.
"They settled my nerves with that part," said Issah, who's now considering a commitment again.
Penn State's recruiting future was tied to its performance this season. A 2-8 record to this point could have seen more decommitments and fewer interested players.
Instead, the term "sanctions" no longer seems to be the first thing recruits reflect on when thinking about Penn State. O'Brien's been able to control the message -- that Happy Valley remains a top destination -- by winning on the field.
Winning cures everything, O'Brien's fond of saying, and it has certainly solved any early recruiting woes.