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How Much Practice Has the NCAA's Bowl Ban Cost Bill O'Brien and Penn State Football?

by on December 13, 2013 1:11 AM

It’s a college bowl season myth: Teams are permitted to hold a maximum of 15 practices in preparation for a postseason game.

The truth is, they may practice a whole lot more.

And that is just another cold, hard fact that makes the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State football even colder and harder.

Bottom-line, by the end of the 2013-14 bowl season, the first two years of the NCAA’s postseason ban on Penn State will have cost Bill O’Brien and his team upwards of nine weeks – as many as 180 permissible hours, according to the NCAA -- of extra practice time, meetings and film review.

That’s not saying O’Brien would have made use of all that time – the typical number of postseason practices is about 15 to 20, depending upon the date of the game. But he could have. It would have been within the NCAA’s guidelines. When combined, even at the 15-practice level the 2012 and 2013 bans are more than the equivalent of an entire month of preseason practices, when the NCAA permits teams to have 29 separate practices from the official start of summer camp until the season-opener. 

Not playing in a bowl game hurts on the marketing and publicity front as well, with over a month of Penn State not getting any media props. But one of the biggest on-the-field hits of all the NCAA sanctions is the postseason ban, perhaps more than anything because it nullifies the possibility of Penn State having any formal practices, multiple meetings or players-coach film sessions after its final regular-season game.

‘PUNITIVE COMPONENT’

As it appears in Section III, Subsection A, bullet point 2 of the “Binding Consent Decree Imposed By The National Collegiate Athletic Association and Accepted By The Pennsylvania University,” it puts O’Brien and his team in yet a(nother) bind.

It states that that, under “Punitive Component, Four-year-postseason ban, (t)he NCAA imposes a four-year ban on participation in postseason play in the sport of football, beginning with the 2011-13 academic year and expiring at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 academic year. Therefore, the University’s football team shall end its 2012 season and each season through 2015 with the playing of its last regularly scheduled, in-season contest and shall not be eligible in any postseason competition, including a conference championship, any bowl game, or any post-season playoff competition."

So, not only are the games gone. So are the practices.

So are meetings and film sessions. As are the learning and teaching. The lost December pre-bowl practices are developmental, team and individual skill-building times the Nittany Lions will never get back. And those dozens of hours are another way that the top teams continue to hold, and even build upon, their mastery over teams that don’t go bowling. (The rich get richer: The later a team plays into the bowl season, the more practices it is permitted to have.) Unfortunately for Penn State, no matter how much O’Brien has tried to overcome that handicap – i.e., in-season Monday night scrimmages with non-starters – that gap has widened.

BTW: The Croke Classic against Central Florida, on Aug. 30, 2014, is nice, but it only translates into – at most -- four extra hours of practice time vs. last season for the Nittany Lions, who started the 2013 campaign on Aug. 31. Postseason bowl practices are where the hay for the following season is made.

Now, to officially debunk the 15-Practice Myth:

According to the “Postseason Bowl FAQs” portion of the rules section of the NCAA’s website, and confirmed to me Thursday by Christopher Radford, the NCAA’s associate director of public and media relations, permissible practices are greater in number than most folks think. The following are the NCAA’s rules for FBS practices for every week of the season, including those weeks between the final regular season – or conference championship game – and a bowl game.

“Although there is no specific limit on the number of practices teams may hold while preparing for a bowl game, standard NCAA rules apply for student-athletes’ participation in practice or other athletically related activities. Same as the regular season, these rules limit practice and other athletic activities to a maximum of four hours per day and 20 hours per week.”

HERE’S THE MATH:

In 2012, had there been no bowl ban the 8-4 Nittany Lions would have been eligible for as many as five weeks of practice starting after Penn State’s Nov. 24 season finale and running until a likely appearance in the Jan. 1 Gator or Outback bowls. In 2013, it would have been four weeks, assuming a gastronomically-inviting berth in either the Buffalo Wild Wings (Dec. 28) or the Outback (Jan. 1) bowls.

Overall, that’s nine weeks of practice. And at 20 hours a week, that’s 180 hours. Even at more-realistic two-thirds of that figure, O’Brien and the Nittany Lions are missing out on 120 hours of invaluable on-the-field practice and film study spent mostly gearing up for 2014 and not a bowl opponent.

No less an authority than Penn State fan favorite Urban Meyer, the second-year coach of Ohio State, can testify to the importance of pre-bowl practices. In 2012, Meyer’s first year with the Buckeyes, they were forced to sit out the bowl season due to NCAA sanctions handed down under former coach Jim Tressel.

“The extra practices were something we didn’t have a year ago, and that was a panic situation for me – 15 practices that you’ll never get back,” Meyer said on an Orange Bowl teleconference call Sunday night. “Any coach will tell you those 15 practices are critical to player development. It’s a game-changer. We’re going to take full advantage of that.”

Penn State has been at a disadvantage quite a bit recently. From 2000 to 2013, Penn State has been to only eight bowls in 14 seasons. Seven were bowl visits were from 2005-2011.

Since 2000, Ohio State will have been to 13 bowls as of this January. Nebraska and Wisconsin (Penn State has beaten Wisconsin the past two seasons) will have been to 12. Those three teams have had the equivalent of two, maybe halfway to three, full sets of fall practices more than PSU since 2000. In that time, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska have had four losing seasons. Combined.

So for now, for Penn State, this is two no-bowl postseasons down. And two to go. Or is it?

BOWL BAN CRYSTAL BALL

Could that ban be lifted early, ala the modification of the initial scholarship reductions? Possibly. But don’t look for that to happen any time before George Mitchell issues his full annual report – with recommendations – in September 2014. (That was the time frame and protocol for easing the scholarship sanctions, so precedent has been set.)

It’s hardly a chip shot. And a lot will be happening at Penn State between now and then. In 2014, continued work toward compliance must be done. Eventually (probably?), a new Penn State president will be introduced – although it’s already been an astonishing 702 days since current president Rod Erickson announced his intention to retire on June 30, 2014.

After that, there will be a decision on athletic director Dave Joyner’s future. Meantime, the NFL could quite possibly begin knocking on Bill O’Brien’s door.

It’s all enough to bowl you over.

ON MONDAY: With the NCAA sanctions in place, what the football part of December looks like for the Nittany Lions.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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