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Need to Know

Penalties Rock P.S.U.’s Past, Present, Future

When given no other option, when an error-prone program shows little sign of remorse, waylays an ongoing investigation or hides pertinent facts and figures, the N.C.A.A. assesses penalties focused on the program’s past, present and future. In this vein, Penn State’s penalties fall right in line with those dropped on U.S.C., a recent transgressor against which the N.C.A.A. levied a series of potentially crippling punishments.

The N.C.A.A. impacts the past by vacating wins; it impacts the present by allowing any current player to transfer without penalty, a wonderful rule, and by levying a postseason ban; it impacts the future by instituting scholarship reductions. Penn State is no different – except in the magnitude of the penalties, which, to cite the buzz word surrounding the ruling over the last 24 hours, were absolutely unprecedented.

Another word: inevitable. The penalties were unavoidable, as were those assessed by the Big Ten. For its part, the league banned Penn State from the Big Ten title game for four seasons and stated that the school will not receive any bowl revenue over the same period.

It’s the scope of those penalties assessed by the N.C.A.A. that stands out. The death penalty wasn’t a viable option for the N.C.A.A., for two reasons: one, the body is fearful of setting a standard, one that would force it to assess the same penalty in any case that trumps Penn State’s down the road; and two, there’s simply too much money on the line – too strong a relationship between the N.C.A.A. and television broadcasters, for example – to simply write a program out of existence.

You can divide the six penalties assessed by the N.C.A.A. into three separate categories: those that alter the program’s past, those that define the program’s present and those that potentially change the Nittany Lions’ future place among the elite programs in college football.

Vacation of wins since 1998. That’s a total of 112 wins; also vacated are the team’s two co-Big Ten championships, one of which, in 2008, led to a Rose Bowl berth. The bigger takeaway, of course, is that this takes 111 career victories away from Joe Paterno – moving him from first on the all-time F.B.S. wins list to fifth, at 298 wins, behind Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg.

$60 million fine. That’s the equivalent to the “approximate average of one year’s gross revenue” created by Penn State’s football program. The fine will be paid over a five-year span into an “endowment for programs preventing child sexual abuse and/or assisting the victims of child sexual abuse.” In addition, the N.C.A.A. ruled that “no current sponsored team may be reduced or eliminated” to fund the fine.

Five years of probation. The N.C.A.A. mandated that the school appoint an independent “Integrity Monitor.” Failure to comply with the standards put forth by the N.C.A.A. would result in even stricter penalties placed upon the university and its football program.

Four-year postseason ban. This period begins with this coming season and runs through the 2015 year. As noted, the Big Ten followed suit by banning P.S.U. from its conference title game – which was already mandated by the N.C.A.A. in its own ruling: Penn State “shall not be eligible to participate in any postseason competition, including a conference championship, any bowl game or any postseason playoff competition.”

Four-year reduction of grants-in-aid. Beginning in 2013 and running through the 2016 season – which adds another year on the ruling, in essence – Penn State will be allotted a maximum of 15 scholarships in each recruiting cycle, down from the usual 25-scholarship allotment. From 2014 through 2018, the Nittany Lions will be limited to no more than 65 scholarship players on the roster.

Waiver of transfer rules and grant-in-aid retention. As written by the N.C.A.A., “Any entering or returning football student-athlete will be allowed to immediately transfer and will be eligible to immediately compete at the transfer institution.” Entering student-athletes include any players who signed in February – the incoming freshmen. Returning student-athletes include any players currently on the roster, from walk-ons to redshirt freshmen to would-be seniors. All can leave today or any point during their four-year careers on campus.

You can see how this completely changes Penn State’s place among the elite programs in college football. It changes Paterno’s stature in the sport; no longer does he hold the most career victories, for starters, though whether you choose to adopt the stance that he didn’t win 409 career games depends on your willingness to ignore what you saw with your own two eyes.

How this really impacts P.S.U., however, and where the ruling truly becomes unprecedented, is in how it defines the program from this point forward. You know that Penn State is going to encounter a terrible patch from here through at least the 2018 season – and this might last beyond 2018, considering the magnitude of the scholarship reductions levied upon the program.

For this coming season, it’s possible that several upperclassmen set for major roles could opt to spend their final season of eligibility at another F.B.S. program – even another program in the Big Ten. Jim Delany ruled that transfers will not be subject to the rule that traditionally forces them to leave the conference altogether.

The Nittany Lions can accept only 15 recruits in this current class; Bill O’Brien and his staff have already gained 12 verbal commitments, though it’s difficult to project how many will stick. From 2014-17, P.S.U. can have only 65 scholarship players on the roster.

Only in 2018 can the Nittany Lions begin recruiting on an even plane with the rest of the country, and it’s easy to see it taking the program at least two additional years to get its depth back to an adequate level.

You begin to understand the unprecedented nature of these penalties when you view them from a distance. In essence, the N.C.A.A. has not only erased a portion of Penn State’s past – vacating wins from 1998-2011, docking Paterno four spots in the record books – but also ensured that the program continue to suffer for its misdeeds for at least another half-decade.

The only losers here are the current players and the staff that signed on to replace Paterno; the Nittany Lions’ roster and O’Brien had no role in the scandal and its cover-up, though they’ll take on the brunt of the fallout. Whether P.S.U. can survive this stretch hinges on O’Brien’s ability to coach up a team that will stand behind the eight ball through at least the 2017 season – like the situation at U.S.C., but tripled.

The Penn State community can take solace in only one fact: it could have been worse. Yes, the death penalty always felt like a long shot. But bad football is better than no football; that’s the silver lining, if one exists. One thing the community cannot do is rail against the penalties themselves – the penalties are unprecedented, but so were the actions that brought them on.

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  1. Ezra says:

    there’s a better way to do this than the NCAA blowing its top. A little history: in 1912 TCU’s coach knowingly played an ineligible player. TCU was kicked out of its conference for a year, and had to reapply to join in 1914. A modern equivalent to this would be better than the NCAA jumping into the fray.

    More about this here: http://www.frogsowar.com/2012/7/23/3177538/opinion-a-better-way-to-punish-rogue-programs

  2. DMK says:

    PSU covered up crimes to protect their powerful football program. They were found out. PSU is deprived of their powerful football program.

    Seems simple.

  3. Jim Narby says:

    this all but gtees Ohio State the Big 10 Championship for 4 more years.

    -jim narby

  4. BobJ says:

    I wonder how the transfers will work out. Will the players shop around, or will there be a feeding frenzy by other college coaches?

    Also, if no other sports team can be reduced or eliminated, and since some of the revenue for other sports comes from football, the fine is effectively more than $60M, it seems to me, since football money will have to be replaced.

    On the field – will PSU be able to beat Indiana?

  5. Dom says:

    Hi Paul, is there a chance you will rerank PSU?

  6. Burnt Orange says:

    I was glad to see the wins vacated from 1998 foward. It often seemed like people were starting the timeline from when the grad assistant saw the incident in the shower(2001) yet the mother of one of the victims first lodged a complaint in May 1998. The 2001 incident was the SECOND REPORTED INCIDENT. I have wondered why Sandusky was not “retired” ( with a 164K severance) then or at least following the 1998 season

    Instead, Sandusky did not retire until after the 1999 season – one in which Penn State was loaded and viewed to be a national championship contender from the start. (Undefeated and ranked # 2 to Florida St. until November)

    Joe Paterno’s two undisputed national championships came with Sandusky running the defense and the 1994 team was also undefeated. Paterno’s records in the five seasons after the Sandusky retirement – 5-7,5-6,9-4,3-9 and 4-7.

    The cover-up started in 1998 and the NCAA recognized this.

  7. WashingtonDCduck says:

    A truly sad day, not just for us college football junkies, but for everyone who loves the pureness of college athletics and the associated pageantry. Happy Valley has been a special place for so many years, however, regrettably it’s been altered forever by the callous acts of a pedophile with a subsequent extraordinary cover that went from the head coach’s office all the way to top at State College. A sad day.

    My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Football is a game, that’s all it is – a game. These poor kids and now grown men must live with those heinous crimes for the rest of their lives. I hope Sandusky rots in prison and is tormented by his acts.

    On the field, Penn State will enter 2020 still reeling from this. PSU will for a long time struggle to build quality, elite depth. That’s where the rubber meets the road in successful programs. How good are your #2’s and #3’s? For years they’ve had that, and why they were a step ahead of in-state rival Pitt or second tier Big 10 teams. They’ll land enough guys to be competitive the next four years, winning records maybe? Who knows? What’s a given is they’ll struggle to bring in out of Pennsylvania home grown talent for years to come.

  8. DotBone89 says:

    (also posted in South Florida comments)

    This is not the “Death Penalty”, so much as the “Coma Penalty”.

  9. M Meyer says:

    Let me preface the following by saying that I agree with the bulk of the NCAA penalties even though, in this case, the school is being penalized for a criminal coverup rather than matters related to competition on the field or eligibility of players. This is a really unprecedented situation.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s wrong to take away victories when the issue was not cheating/intelligibility. Those games happened. Paterno coached victories in those games. He is and will be the winningest coach in Division I history AND he was a morally bankrupt individual who covered up child sexual abuse. Removing his statue and taking away those victories is a soft coverup in its own way. Don’t pretend like those games didn’t happen. Don’t pretend like Paterno wasn’t there. He was a great coach who looked the other way when horrible things happened.

    Anyway, on a different note, I’m sure Urban Meyer and Brett Bielema already have most of the PSU players on speed dial.

  10. Dawgs says:


    Are you seriously comparing something 1912 where one player was paid to a federal cover up?

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