CHICAGO: When new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer walked off the field for the final time at Florida, it came after an embrace from Joe Paterno. The Gators beat Penn State in the 2011 Outback Bowl, and Meyer retired from coaching.

So much has changed since that day — for Meyer, Ohio State and Penn State. Meyer has often referred to Paterno as one of his closest friends and was once considered a strong candidate to eventually replace Paterno in Happy Valley.

So when Meyer was asked to respond to the Freeh Report that condemned Paterno’s role in Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal, Meyer wasn’t about to criticize his mentor now.

“I can’t get past the victims. Every time I try to get past it, that’s where my thoughts and my prayers are every night,” Meyer said. “I had an incredible relationship with Coach and his family. That was not the Joe Paterno I knew.”

The Big Ten’s coaches and players descended Thursday on Chicago for the conference’s annual media days. In any other year, Meyer’s arrival — and two national championship rings — would’ve created the type of buzz a weary conference desperately seeks.

But Meyer’s arrival was a mere footnote on Thursday, as all eyes again turned to Penn State and new coach Bill O’Brien.

The reaction from the rest of the coaches around the league to the NCAA’s decision to hammer Penn State with a four-year bowl ban and strip it of 20 scholarships for each of the next four years was often compassionate and at times even awkward.

As part of the unprecedented punishment, the NCAA is allowing current Penn State players to transfer without punishment and is even allowing opposing coaches to come on campus to recruit the players.

Minutes after Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema proclaimed the Badgers would not pursue any Penn State players, new Illinois coach Tim Beckman was forced to defend why eight Illini coaches were in State College, Pa., on Wednesday.

Beckman, a former assistant coach at Ohio State and coach at Toledo, said his coaches were compliant with the rules set forth by the NCAA. He said the coaching staff made it known to Penn State’s officials and players they would be in town at two establishments.

“We did not go onto their campus,” Beckman said. “We only talked to individuals that would be willing to meet with us. We did not go after them. They had the opportunity to come to us if they would like to come to us and speak to us.”

Meyer followed Bielema’s lead and said Ohio State is not actively pursuing Penn State players, adding he has a “problem” with the way coaches have been allowed on Penn State’s campus to recruit players.

“If someone reached out and said, ‘I want out of here, I’ve always wanted to come to Ohio State,’ then I would go visit [Athletic Director] Gene Smith and say, ‘What should we do?’ ” Meyer said. “But our coaches are not calling Penn State players.”

Any player who tries to transfer from one school to another within the Big Ten typically cannot go on scholarship at the new school, but that rule has also been removed for the Penn State players.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged he is uncomfortable with that and expressed his concern to the university presidents about damaged relationships between the conference schools and coaches. But Delany said the presidents were unanimous in wanting to leave open all possibilities for Penn State players who want to transfer.

“My advice to them was this is not a healthy place for us to be,” Delany said. “Their response was unanimous: This is not about competition between and among schools. It’s about the student-athlete having a full spectrum of opportunities.”

O’Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, has gone on the offensive this week to many media outlets defending his new university. He isn’t concerning himself with coaches who might be in his back yard trying to steal his players, offering only a flippant “I have no idea what schools were on campus, nor do I care.”

He gave a terse “no” when asked if he spoke to Beckman about Illinois’ presence in town, and he reiterated it’s time for Penn State to start moving on.

“It’s [time] for me to tell everybody in Penn State Nation to turn the page,” O’Brien said. “We took a lot of punches. Penn State has taken a lot of punches the last six months. It’s time to punch back.”

Jason Lloyd can be reached at jlloyd@thebeaconjournal.com.