Fourteen months after Penn State was hit with historic sanctions from the NCAA, the program received some welcomed news yesterday.
Citing "continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity," the NCAA dialed back its sanctions. Penn State's football program will gradually see its number of scholarships increase in the next 3 years. That process will begin next season, and the Nittany Lions will be back to a full 85 scholarships by 2016.
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the athletics integrity monitor for Penn State, said the university has "made a serious, good-faith effort to embrace and adopt the changes needed to change its future." The NCAA issued the original sanctions on July 23, 2012 in response to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and the Freeh Report, in which former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, who led the university's investigation, made 119 recommendations for the school to implement.
"[Penn State] President Rodney Erickson and his administration, and the leaders of the Board of Trustees have acted with courage and fortitude in implementing the changes required by the athletics integrity agreement," Mitchell said yesterday.
Penn State was initially supposed to have just 65 players on scholarship from 2014 through 2017. However, that number has been pushed up to 75 for 2014, 80 for 2015 and the full 85 for 2016.
The school also was hit with a $60 million fine, forced to vacate all football victories from 1998-2011 and given a 4-year postseason ban last July. None of the other penalties was lifted yesterday, but it cannot be ruled out that they might be altered in the future.
Mitchell said he recommended that the NCAA Board of Directors reinstate future scholarships to where it saw fit, and he also noted he thinks lifting the postseason ban somewhere down the road should be on the table as an incentive for Erickson and future Penn State leadership.
NCAA president Mark Emmert was one of the officials on a late-morning conference call with reporters and deferred a question about the possibility of retracting Penn State's postseason restriction for the current season.
Emmert and Mitchell were also asked if the university had requested the penalties be diluted. Mitchell said, "It's been widely reported that Penn State wanted modifications," and Emmert noted yesterday's action didn't have to do with what the university asked for.
"It's important to note that the decision was not based upon any request coming from the university," Emmert said. "But rather based upon, as the senator just said, the observable changes in behavior and attitude that he's seen throughout the last year."
While he still may not go to a bowl game for a while, the increase in scholarships is encouraging for Bill O'Brien. The second-year coach said he found out about the increase of scholarships yesterday morning.
"We're happy right now for our players, and the student-athletes in our football program, they're a resilient bunch of kids," O'Brien said. "We're happy for our people here at Penn State, the people who have worked extremely hard to implement the recommendations of the Freeh Report. We're just trying to take it one day at a time."
After the sanctions were imposed -- which led to a handful of players transferring -- O'Brien was able to lead Penn State to an 8-4 record in 2012 and has the Nittany Lions off to a 3-1 start this season. He also had a surprisingly strong recruiting class that featured blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg, now the Lions' starter.
Yesterday's announcement certainly makes O'Brien's work in the future easier. Though O'Brien said he hasn't had trouble pitching Penn State to prospects, the news is huge for the program in terms of depth.
"We know we can't go to a bowl or compete for a championship," O'Brien said. "But we definitely can get more on an even playing field numbers wise, and that's what we're concentrating on as a staff."
Original headline: NCAA lightens PSU sanctions
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