Analysis: NCAA Hammers Penn State

I have covered Ohio State and Big Ten football since 1989.

PSU president Graham Spanier and coach Joe Paterno are at the center of the NCAA's sanctions against the school

I can remember the excitement in the early 1990s, when it was announced that Penn State would join the Big Ten for the 1993-94 school year. I’ve enjoyed covering every Ohio State-Penn State game played over the last 19 years. Penn State, in almost anyone’s eyes, has been a model member of the Big Ten – at least until this Jerry Sandusky controversy became a front page story last fall.

I also lived through and covered the almost unending controversy that enveloped the Ohio State football program over the last two years.

It’s not my aim to compare what happened at Ohio State with what has transpired at Penn State, including the NCAA’s announcement of major sanctions against the PSU athletic department and football program. I am just using it as perspective to say I’ve been through an NCAA process in the past year.

In fact, I spent today driving with my family home from our vacation in Florida. This was the first full week I have taken off in two years – due in large part because since December 2010 my life was largely consumed by covering the allegations against Ohio State, Jim Tressel’s ouster, the season that followed and Urban Meyer’s hiring.

As we came up the interstate to Ohio, I had the satellite radio plugged into Ch. 91 for the various college football programs with our man Bill King and Jack Arute. I also flipped over and listened to ESPN’s coverage with Colin Cowherd, who had a number of great interviews on the Penn State topic.

News actually began to leak over the weekend that the NCAA was preparing to lower the boom on the Penn State program. The $60 million figure was even discussed in the media on Sunday. So it was not such a big surprise this morning when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the sanctions against Penn State.

The NCAA levied an unprecedented $60 million fine against Penn State for the role school officials and former coach Joe Paterno took in allegedly covering up the sexual abuse against minors that Sandusky stands convicted of perpetrating. That money will go into an independent endowment to aid victims of childhood sexual abuse across the country.

The Big Ten followed suit later in the morning by announcing it will hold back $13 million in bowl revenue from Penn State.

The governing body also put Penn State on five years of probation and docked the school 10 initial scholarships and 20 total scholarships a year over the next four years. Penn State is also ineligible for postseason play for four years.

In one other piece of the penalties, the NCAA is allowing anybody on the Penn State roster to walk away from the program and play anywhere else in the country without having to sit out.

And, keep in mind, none of this was tied to the typical NCAA rules violations like providing illegal extra benefits and making improper recruiting contacts. True enough, this is new and uncharted territory the NCAA has stepped on as it tried to police what it described as “an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity.”

Taking a step back, I want to join the chorus of commentators and columnists who have sent out sympathy to the victims of Sandusky’s crimes. He used his position in the community as a respected college football coach to prey on youngsters who had no way to defend themselves or bring him to justice.

One commentator talked about that betrayal of trust as, arguably, the biggest story in the history of organized sports. The recently released investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh showed that PSU officials were well aware of Sandusky’s alleged proclivities but they did nothing to stop him. They decided that sweeping those allegations under the rug was a better course of action than a scandal that could have derailed their Penn State football machine.

(It should be noted that former PSU president Graham Spanier as well as representatives of the Paterno family have attempted to deny any hint that Spanier or the revered Joe Paterno looked the other way.)

At any rate, here are some of my thoughts on the various sanctions handed down as well as the impact on the Big Ten and where things are headed for Penn State football in the short and long term.

* A $60 Million Precedent? – The NCAA has docked schools NCAA tournament money here and there for transgressions over the years. But a $60 million fine? That’s unheard of. It’s also almost half of Penn State’s total athletic budget for a given year.

Emmert said he and the NCAA arrived at that figure as they noted that approximated what Penn State grosses off football each year.

A fine like this sounds so National Football League in nature. But I think it fits the crime. The powers that be at Penn State stand accused of putting the well being of PSU football ahead of the well being of Sandusky’s past and future victims.

This fine sends a clear call to NCAA coaches and administrators from coast to coast that the welfare of children (and we assume athletes as well) must be first and foremost in their thinking.

"In the Penn State case, the results were perverse and unconscionable,” Emmert said. “No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims.”

I appreciate that the fine money will go to aid victims of childhood sexual assaults. That also seems fitting – as in, perhaps some good will come of this entire episode.

* Tough Scholarship Reductions – Penn State will have to be down to 65 scholarship players by the start of the 2014 season. PSU can’t add more than 15 new scholarship players in any of the next four classes.

This is pretty rough, considering most of Penn State’s competitors will be at 85 scholarships at the same time. (Well, everybody but Ohio State, which will operate the next three years with 82 scholarship players.)

It goes without saying it will be difficult for Penn State to compete at the highest level without the full complement of scholarship players. And with no championships or bowl games to play for, you have to wonder what kind of quality coach Bill O’Brien will be able to attract with the few spots he will have.

This is a double whammy that will hamstring this program for the next five to seven years, as it turns out.

* Current Players Can Leave – Because the NCAA has taken such drastic action against the program, it is allowing any and all current Nittany Lions – from the seniors down to the freshmen who just enrolled – to walk away and go elsewhere without having to sit out a year.

Sure enough, early this evening there were already “sources” touting that 1,200-yard rusher Silas Redd, a junior this year, could transfer to USC – a school that is still dealing with scholarship restrictions of its own. (Talk about irony.)

The NCAA said it would relax rules on visits and even on scholarship limits at other schools to accommodate any and all Penn State players that want to transfer. That means a school can go over the 85-man limit to take one or more PSU refugees.

This is one we will have to watch in the weeks ahead. My guess is the seniors, by and large, will stay put. Everybody else will be fair game. I would assume some of the freshmen will leave since they can’t play in a bowl game in any of the next four seasons.

* The Impact On Recruiting – O’Brien faces an uphill battle in terms of recruiting, at least for the next couple of years. Recruits arriving in 2014 and 2015 will at least have the ability to play in a bowl game their last two or three years in the program.

Blue chip prospects figure to be few and far between for Penn State during this intervening period. Penn State may still be able to beat some of its lesser nonconference opponents but wins against Big Ten opponents will be much harder to come by with these depleted rosters.

Some prospects may see this as their chance to play at their dream school. And it seems to me that this is the time that Pennsylvania high school football needs to come to Penn State’s rescue. Simply put, the Keystone state’s best players – or even its serviceable players – need to be encouraged to stay home and be a part of the solution.

This will not be easy. Penn State lost Ohio DB Ross Douglas, who decommitted this morning. Star QB recruit Christian Hackenberg has said he’d like the chance to play in a bowl game. Standout TE Adam Breneman says at least for now he is still committed to PSU.

The one thing in O’Brien’s favor is he is coming from the NFL’s New England Patriots. Recruits could see him as a conduit to The League.

* No Television Ban – The NCAA has steered away from the TV ban over the last two decades. That’s because fans of teams playing the offending school got caught in the crossfire on those bans.

With today’s technology, they could have blacked out Penn State games in Pennsylvania. But the NCAA will allow Penn State’s games to be televised as it serves out its probation sentence. The Big Ten will also let Penn State receive its share of regular season television money.

This is a case where the Big Ten (and its TV partners) still see Penn State as a bankable commodity. Thus, their games will continue to be shown in perpetuity.

* The Rush To Judgment – Some have condemned the NCAA’s sudden action on this case without its standard protocol of due process. Emmert said, however, that the Freeh investigation was commissioned by Penn State and the school also approved its findings as fact in this matter.

Emmert said the NCAA’s investigators would not have been able to do anywhere close to as thorough an investigation. So there was no reason to delay NCAA sanctions. The Big Ten also had legal counsel involved in the Freeh probe and the conference also accepts that report as fact as well.

* Dissension In The PSU Ranks – Everybody in the Penn State family is coming at this situation from different angles. Some have accepted the situation and the punishments. Others are still in denial that this was not a football issue and the program did not deserve to be punished so harshly. After all, the main culprits are gone or deceased and the ones who will be punished (the current players) are innocent bystanders.

PSU trustee Anthony Lubrano told USA Today he was “outraged” that the new school president, Rodney Erickson, simply accepted the NCAA penalties as presented. It sounds like he unilaterally signed a consent agreement with the NCAA, ensuring that the school would not balk or appeal the sanctions.

In an interview with the Centre Daily Times, Erickson said, "We had our backs to the wall on this. We did what we thought was necessary to save the program."

Erickson talked about how he did not want the NCAA to amend the penalties to include a “death penalty,” which would have meant no Penn State football for one or two seasons – as SMU served in the late 1980s.

* No Bowl Games – USC just served a two-year postseason ban, while Ohio State will sit out this year. A four-year bowl ban is basically unprecedented. It seems a bit excessive and almost seems like the NCAA was determined to shut down the Penn State program without actually shutting it down.

In this day and age, imagine trying to sell a recruit on the experience of playing major college football without the ability to play in a postseason bowl game. I could have seen a two-year ban. But four is going to be hard to overcome.

* Vacating Wins – The NCAA looked at the Freeh report and noted that the first hint of allegations against Sandusky came in 1998, when he was wrapping up his tenure on the PSU coaching staff. So they opted to vacate all of the school’s wins from 1998 through 2011.

As a result, Paterno was stripped of 111 wins and fell out of the top spot on the Division I wins list. Grambling’s Eddie Robinson regains possession of the D-I record, while Bobby Bowden sits atop the major college wins list. Bowden said this was not a happy day, however.

I’ve never been a big fan of the vacation of wins. It just seems so hollow on one hand. However, it also penalizes programs for their ill-gotten gains.

Former Penn State players were quick to comment and Tweet that they gave their all to the school and those wins will still stand in their hearts and minds. That’s understandable, too.

* Paterno’s Legacy – Time will heal a lot of wounds. He did a lot of great things in his long tenure at Penn State. It’s unfortunate all of that greatness has been swept aside because of his inaction on the Sandusky matter.

The school removed Paterno’s statue from outside Beaver Stadium during the early morning hours on Sunday. (This, too, was leaked a day ahead of time on Twitter, which seems to be where all of the news cycles a day ahead of time.)

It sounds like the school is keeping Paterno's name on its library. He and his family donated a lot of money and helped raise much more for PSU's library system. I think it's appropriate that his name remains connected to that part of the campus.

Make no mistake, he was a great football coach for well over five decades. He graduated a lot of players and made such an impact on the culture of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But in his last decade-and-a-half, it's also clear he became insulated because of his success and put his wants and desires ahead of the good of the community and the university.

Unfortunately, that part of his legacy is going to live on for quite some time.

* The Big Ten’s Stance – When the NCAA announced its sanctions, any number of people came out on Twitter wondering whether the Big Ten would cut Penn State loose.

My immediate stance was, “No, they’ve been good partners for two decades. Penn State, on the whole, is one of the nation’s greatest institutions of higher learning. This is a huge bump in the road, but the Big Ten will stand by Penn State in its hour of need.”

That is, in fact, what happened an hour or so later when commissioner Jim Delany and Iowa president Sally Mason said the conference would be there to help shepherd Penn State through this process.

Mason did reveal that "everything (including expulsion) was on the table" when the league’s chancellors and presidents discussed penalties. But those talks never took hold.

"The Big Ten stands behind Penn State as one of our fellow members as they try to move forward,” Mason said.

* The Impact On The Big Ten – This is certainly not good news for the Big Ten. Penn State can’t play for a conference title or play in a bowl game. That diminishes some of the conference’s cache. Penn State is a national college football brand name.

The programs at Wisconsin and Michigan State have made tremendous progress in the last several years, so one or both can take Penn State’s spot in the hierarchy alongside the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska.

The Leaders Division will have two ineligible teams this year with Ohio State and Penn State. That means that Wisconsin can probably already book its trip to Indianapolis for this year’s Big Ten championship game.

* The Future Of PSU Football Short-Term – This depends on how many players on the current team abandon the ship. This could probably be an eight-win team (or thereabouts) if it’s at full strength. If O’Brien can reach eight wins now in this total chaos and turmoil, they should erect a statue for him outside the stadium.

Again, we have to wait and see who stays and who leaves. The guess is the win total will decrease precipitously with each following season.

In terms of fan support, it’s possible that some of that will erode. Indiana basketball hit rock bottom after Kelvin Sampson’s firing, but Hoosiers fans still filled Assembly Hall for three straight losing seasons. Yes, it’s easier to fill a 17,000-seat basketball arena than a 110,000-seat football stadium. But I think the diehards will still be there.

* The Future Of PSU Football Long-Term – This program is going to bottom out probably in 2014-15. O’Brien, provided he stays, should be able to again attract true blue chip prospects in 2014. By the time some of them reach their junior season in 2016 and the program can get back to the full 85-man complement, Penn State should move back toward respectability.

Contending for a top bowl bid or a conference title probably won’t happen until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest, though.

Former Oregon coach Mike Belotti said he thought it would be hard for O’Brien, a rookie head coach this year, to see through his five-year contract. But O’Brien, issuing a statement today, said he is in it for the long haul.

“Today, we receive a very harsh penalty from the NCAA and as head coach of the Nittany Lions football program, I will do everything in my power to not only comply, but help guide the university forward to become a national leader in ethics, compliance and operational excellence,” O’Brien said. “I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead. But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.

“I was then and I remain convinced that our student athletes are the best in the country. I could not be more proud to lead this team and these courageous and humble young men into the upcoming 2012 season. Together we are committed to building a better athletic program and university.”

Delany believes Penn State has the support in place to survive the rough times that will most certainly come through it.

"Many of the ingredients for success are still in place at Penn State," the commissioner said.

The Penn State story will dominate coverage of the Big Ten media days Thursday and Friday in Chicago. Stay tuned, we will be there to provide all of the viewpoints from the Windy City.

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