CHICAGO — Penn State was supposed to be the dominant story at the Big Ten's annual kickoff. Earlier in the week, the school was handed a harsh string of penalties from the NCAA after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And the event did have a strong Penn State tone.
But Illinois became a significant story at McCormick Place, thanks to bad timing and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien's ability to spot the Illini logo.
On Wednesday, as he left State College, Pa., to visit ESPN in Bristol, Conn., O'Brien saw a group of coaches at the airport, carrying Illinois bags.
Turns out, there were eight members of Tim Beckman's staff in State College. They didn't spend any time on the Penn State campus, instead setting up shop at a nearby Starbucks and Waffle House.
"I did not want our coaching staff on their campus," Beckman said.
Penn State players who had expressed interest in talking to the Illinois coaches were invited to visit the two businesses.
On Friday, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti expressed disappointment about Illinois' attempt to "steal our players and then wish us well."
Mauti acknowledged Illinois wasn't breaking any rules. But the NCAA's decision to allow Penn State players the freedom to transfer has made it difficult for the team leaders.
One potential departee, star running back Silas Redd, is considering a move to Southern Cal. A decision is expected early next week.
Beckman said his coaches visited with an unspecified number of players.
"We went there to reach out to the guys who were contacting us previously," Beckman said.
While some Big Ten coaches were critical of the Illinois move, Beckman had the support of athletic director Mike Thomas.
During a national radio appearance in Chicago, Thomas said he told the coaches, " 'If these kids are initiating contact with you, if their families are initiating contact with you, I think that I certainly have a comfort level with that.' But with any of these kids this isn't a hard sell; this isn't even a soft sell. If these kids have an interest in staying at Penn State, we're not going there. But if there's kids who genuinely have an interest in looking elsewhere, then if we're an opportunity for them or if we're a place they would like to visit with, I am fine with that."
Illinois has 80 players on scholarship going into the 2012 season. With five openings, Beckman has a chance to improve his team.
Fox college football analyst Charles Davis said Beckman wouldn't be doing his job if he ignored Penn State players who contacted Illinois.
"The truth of the matter is there was a ruling by the NCAA," Davis said. "It is open for those kids to go; they have the opportunity to do it. If I'm Illinois, I understand. It may not feel right to a lot of people. With each day, it's going to diminish that feeling.
"It's like understanding we're free. It's like being at the zoo and you leave the lion's cage a little bit locked. He's so used to being in there, he doesn't approach the door for a while. Finally, it's 'I can do this. I'm free.' That's where we are with this."
Davis talked to another coach who said he wouldn't pursue Penn State players.
"I said, 'I get that. But what if the kid calls you?' He said, 'Well.' "
Coaches always have been able to make contact with potential transfers. The difference in this case is the openness.
"Somehow, word gets to that kid that you were interested," Davis said. "Even if it didn't come from you. It's a game we played when we were kids. I'm interested in that cute girl over there. So, I get my boy to talk to her lieutenant to find out if she's interested in me. Now, you don't need lieutenants. You go right to the girl."