Joe Paterno is adamant that Penn State's football recruiting is not being hindered by his uncertain future.
But Tom Lemming, a well-respected national recruiting expert for CBS College Sports, strongly disagrees with the 81-year-old Hall of Fame coach.
"It's obvious Penn State is being hurt, but nobody there is going to admit it," Lemming said. "They've got verbal commitments from some good players already for 2009, but they're not doing as well as they did 15 or 20 years ago.
"They're not dominating Pennsylvania anymore. They've only got one of the top five kids [offensive lineman Eric Shrive] in the state so far [for 2009], whereas before they would always get four of the top five.
"On top of that, Penn State's not even winning Western Pennsylvania these days. [Pitt coach] Dave Wannstedt has dominated that area the last three years."
Another telltale sign that Penn State has lost its stranglehold in Western Pennsylvania is the fact that Ohio State has landed eight players from the WPIAL since 2004.
That list includes Jeannette High School quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the country's top-rated player this past season, and Gateway linebacker Dorian Bell, considered the WPIAL's best prospect this fall.
During that same four-year time frame, Penn State has signed a handful of WPIAL players who have become key contributors -- linebackers Sean Lee (Upper St. Clair) and Tyrell Sales (Butler), cornerback Justin King (Gateway), quarterback Anthony Morelli (Penn Hills), center A.Q. Shipley (Moon) and guard Stefen Wisniewski (Central Catholic).
"[Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel is the Joe Paterno of 20 years ago when it comes to recruiting -- he's really aggressive," Lemming said. "Twenty years ago, Terrelle Pryor would have gone to Penn State, for sure, and a lot of the other [WPIAL] kids would have followed him."
Before the annual Blue-White spring game two months ago, Paterno bristled at a reporter who asked if his future -- he is entering the final year of his contract and his status will be re-evaluated after the 2008 season -- is affecting the school's recruiting process.
"That's ridiculous," he said. "You guys always get caught up with stuff. I think we've had a heck of a year recruiting. You're succumbing to the Web site mob. I think we're doing great."
Lemming doesn't expect the Nittany Lions to begin stockpiling the majority of the state's top talent again until Paterno announces a retirement date or a successor is named.
"Name a successor now and that will be the continuity that will help Penn State's recruiting improve immensely," Lemming said. "They have a couple of good in-house candidates in [defensive coordinator] Tom Bradley and [defensive line coach] Larry Johnson. All they have to do is sit down and pick one. Or they could go outside and get someone else."
Neither Bradley nor Johnson responded to interview requests through Penn State's athletic department.
Bradley recruits in Western Pennsylvania, while Johnson has played a major role in securing six of the Lions' 12 verbal commitments for 2009 from Maryland, including two four-star recruits -- cornerback Darrell Givens and defensive end Sean Stanley.
"The last four years, Penn State has really been cleaning up down here and it's all because of Larry Johnson," said Oxon Hill High School coach Kevin Wolfolk, whose receiver, Brandon Felder, is among the verbal commitments for 2009.
Wolfolk, whose parents are from Pittsburgh, played for Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall in the Arena Football League. Wolfolk believes Johnson would be a good choice to replace Paterno.
"The answer Larry gave us when we asked was that they were going to promote from within, but he didn't give us any hints," Wolfolk said. "Brandon, his family and I are comfortable with all the assistant coaches there. As long as those pieces stay in place, I believe it's going to be fine."
Verbal commitments, however, are not binding. Some members of Penn State's 2009 class could change their minds.
Paterno, who rarely makes home visits these days, has been urging players to pick Penn State based on its merits, not on whether he will be their coach throughout their stay.
"I tell them I hope to coach here while you're here," Paterno said. "God only knows what's going to happen to me in the long run. ... I'm excited about our prospects in recruiting. I'm excited about your being interested in Penn State and, if I'm not here, the people you see around you, the facilities, the commitment to this program and the kind of attitude that Penn State has had about athletics, will be."
Felder and Shrive, from West Scranton High School, said Paterno's uncertain future wasn't a factor in their decisions.
"Coach Paterno told me he was going to be around for a long time, not to worry," Felder said. "But if he's not, then I'll have to play for one of the other guys there."
Shrive had 32 scholarship offers and made 12 visits. He said a few schools weren't too kind to Paterno or Penn State.
"On some of my visits, schools tried to put both of them down," he said. "I told them I didn't like negative recruiting and it stopped, but it was too late. Penn State is two hours away from me and it was an easy choice.
"You can't base your decision on whether coach Paterno's going to be there or not. You have to realize that anywhere you go, you can play for a guy who's 40 years old, and he gets an NFL offer, and the next day he's gone and he's not there for you, either. This is a similar situation."
Since the 2000 season, Penn State is 32-32 against Big Ten competition. That record includes a 5-16 mark against heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Lemming said poor recruiting has played a big role in the Lions' slide.
"They have been somewhere between third and sixth in recruiting in the Big Ten the last few years," he said. "That's not terrible, but it's not the elite status Penn State used to enjoy before joining the Big Ten. They've got a lot of work to do to catch the Big Two -- Ohio State and Michigan."
Ron Musselman can be reached at email@example.com .