Sanction Reductions Welcome News For Penn State, But Questions Remain
Almost two years ago, Penn State entered a bye week following a snowy 10-7 victory over Illinois. By the time that week was over nothing would ever be the same in Happy Valley.
After the Jerry Sandusky grand jury report became public, then head coach Joe Paterno was relieved of his duties only days later. Soon the administrators of one of the largest public universities in the nation would find themselves facing criminal charges and the focus of perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of the NCAA.
Months later the NCAA would hand down unprecedented sanctions that most people believed would cripple the Penn State program. Massive scholarship reductions, a four year bowl-ban, and a $60-million dollar fine would all but pound the Nittany Lion football program into the ground.
Following an 8-4 season under new head coach Bill O'Brien, it looked as though Penn State would be able to fight through the sanctioned years and come out the other side intact.
Nearly two years after it all started, fittingly during Penn State's bye week, O'Brien was greeted in the early morning with the first good news regarding sanctions in months. The NCAA announced that the scholarship restrictions would be slowly lifted ahead of schedule.
These changes, endorsed by the Division I Board of Directors were based on the recommendation of George Mitchell, the independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for Penn State and former U.S. senator.
Beginning next academic year (2014-15), five additional initial scholarships will be restored to the university’s football team bringing the total number to 75. This amount will continue to increase. Penn State will now reach the 85 scholarship limit by the 2016-17 season.
No school can give out more than 25 scholarships per class year.
Originally, the NCAA sanctions would have kept Penn State at 65 scholarships until the 2017-18 season. That meant Penn State wouldn't be back to full strength -- 85 scholarships -- until the 2018-19 season.
In effect, by lifting the sanctions early, Penn State will be able to give out the maximum number of scholarships two years ahead of schedule.
“While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program,” says Mitchell. “The university has substantially completed the initial implementation of all the Freeh Report recommendations and its obligations to the Athletics Integrity Agreement, so relief from the scholarship reductions is warranted and deserved.”
What that means for Penn State: Freedom
Defensive coordinator John Butler quietly noted last week that there was a legitimate worry that an injury or two could see the program dip into the 50's in terms of active scholarship players on the roster.
Despite the news on Tuesday, that remains a concern for the immediate future.
The sanction reductions don't prevent Penn State from falling prey to the bumps and bruises of the season, but there is a light burning much brighter at the end of the tunnel.
Survive the season and you can recruit much like you have in the past. Survive the season and you can tell players that there will be other talented prospects coming to town. Survive the season and you can tell players that in terms of scholarships, the recovery is already underway. While bowl games are a cherry on top of the season, scholarships are what keeps the boat from sinking. The NCAA's announcement is CPR on a program that walks the line each practice between a comeback story and a train wreck.
Even with the good news, questions remain.
When O'Brien came to Penn State he was, for better or worse, painted as the man who would guide the program through the sanction years. What happened after that was an open question.
So with the largest and most crippling sanction essentially removed, the largest hurdle has now been toppled over. This leaves O'Brien in ambiguous waters.
Between his contract buyout stipulations which favor him staying for the next few years, and his current focus on the likes of star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, it seems unlikely that O'Brien will bolt at the first opportunity to do so. He and his family like the area, a place perfect for raising a young family.
On the other hand, things should become easier for him not harder. Winning increases any coach's stock and O'Brien has been honest about his feelings, saying that coaching in the NFL is the pinnacle of his profession.
At the end of the day, any coach who wins will find himself courted by other programs. Paterno turned down NFL offers and O'Brien already has. While O'Brien's long term future is unclear, the NCAA's decision to reduce the scholarship-related sanctions is a welcome development. If O'Brien were to leave a fully-functioning Penn State program, the job opening would attract high-caliber coaches.
On the recruiting trail Penn State will continue to battle with all of the nation's top programs. Going forward it's a much better situation but winning in 2013 is still important. Recruits can overlook a bowl ban, but a losing record presents a very real risk and one that often snowballs. If Penn State can overcome the odds with the current roster, it'll go a long way towards making Tuesday's news a real step forward for the program.
“If Penn State wasn’t on all those sanctions, this decision would have been a lot more difficult," Jabrill Peppers once said after committing to Michigan. "I really, really liked Penn State"
"We always felt once we were able to get a young man and his parents here on campus, the place sold itself," O'Brien says. "It's a place where you can get a fantastic degree. It's a place where you can play in the Big Ten. … As far as recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here. The numbers were the difficult part."
For now it's full steam ahead. While the program has moved onward and upward under O'Brien's leadership, Tuesday's news brought with it a new sense of purpose. Things could still be hard for the 2013 team, but with the end of the sanctions in sight O'Brien, will likely have a little more pep in his step when meeting with his team Tuesday afternoon.
"When the rules changed a little bit, we adapted to those rules," O'Brien says. "The rules now are we can sign a few more guys and can get back to 85 scholarships a little bit sooner. We can’t go to a bowl or compete for a championship, but we definitely can get more on an even playing field numbers-wise, and that's what we're concentrating on as a staff."
As for the rest of the sanctions? The fine will stay, but the bowl ban could be reviewed again as early as next August if Penn State continues to make progress implementing the Freeh recommendations. So make sure you have money saved for a trip to Ireland and maybe one of the Big Ten's many bowl games in 2014.
So when you think about it, Penn State scored a big win, even in a bye week.