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Future Modifications of PSU's Penalties Will Hinge on Progress

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Copyright 2013 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Intelligencer Journal/New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
September 25, 2013 Wednesday
A; Pg. 1
970 words
What's Ahead For Psu?;
More Modifications Of Ncaa Penalties For Sandusky Scandal Hinge On Progress.
Mike Gross / Mike Gross
Lancaster, PA

The raw numbers - from 15 scholarships to 20 in 2014, then to the full 25 in 2015, and back to the full allowance of 85 on the roster by 2016 - may not seem huge.

They add up to Penn State's biggest football victory since, at the very least, the rousing season-ending defeat of Wisconsin last December. They amount to light at the end of the post-Jerry Sandusky tunnel.

In terms of the future of the NCAA, college football and all of college sports, they may point toward much more than even that.

George Mitchell, the widely respected former U.S. senator, was appointed as Penn State's Athletics Integrity Monitor, as a result of the now-infamous Freeh Report on the university's role in the Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and resultant NCAA sanctions.

On Sept. 6, Mitchell issued a report saying that Penn State had "substantially completed'' the initial phase of the Freeh recommendations and opening the possibility of a reduction in the sanctions.

When Mitchell talks, people, in light of his past mediator roles in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Northern Ireland peace process and Major League Baseball's BALCO investigation, tend to listen.

Mitchell's report led to the NCAA announcing Tuesday that coach Bill O'Brien will be able to offer 20 scholarships on national signing day this coming February, rather than 15.

The number will increase to 25 the following year and stay there. Just as important, the program will be back to 85 scholarship players on the roster by 2016, a year earlier than under the original sanctions.

The rest of the sanctions, including a $60 million fine and a ban from postseason play, remain.

O'Brien called it "tremendous news'' in a prepared statement released Tuesday.

He sounded more subdued during his weekly stint on the Big Ten Conference coaches' media teleconference, saying that he planned to discuss the news briefly with his players around 2:45 p.m., before getting on with the business of preparing for the Nittany Lions' next game, Oct. 5, at Indiana.

"Today is definitely more about the future,'' O'Brien said. "It really has no effect on this year.''

Questions remain.

Could the sanctions be further reduced?

Yes, evidently. Mitchell mentioned that possibility in his report and the NCAA acknowledged it in its statement Tuesday: "Additional mitigation may be considered in the future depending upon Penn State's continued progress."

Of the remaining sanctions, the fine, the postseason ban and the formal stripping of 111 Paterno-era victories, the postseason ban seems most likely to be lifted or reduced, since it penalizes current and future Penn State teams.

Is the Big Ten on board with this?

Another apparent yes. There have been published reports that the conference lobbied the NCAA for reduction of sanctions. It issued a statement applauding the NCAA on Tuesday.

Less formally, Big Ten coaches, including Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, lauded the decision during Tuesday's teleconference.

Is this an indictment of the NCAA, and/or the Freeh Report, and/or the Penn State Board of Trustees, which put so much stock in the Freeh Report that it essentially made a deal with the NCAA based on it?

In Tuesday's least surprising development, the Joe Paterno family thinks the answer is yes.

"Over the last 14 months it has become clear to open-minded people that the Freeh Report is deeply flawed ... and the actions by the NCAA were precipitous and unjust,'' the family said in a prepared statement. "This action begins to correct the mistakes ... of the [Penn State] Board of Trustees, Mr. Freeh and the NCAA."

That's probably, ahem, a bit over the top. What happened Tuesday can reasonably be seen as a reward for compliance with the Freeh recommendations, and thus obviously not an indictment of the recommendations' source.

Still, the NCAA seems at long last reconciled to the reality that it is among America's most-reviled institutions. Its embattled president, Mark Emmert, promised big changes to its organizational structure this week.

It is also, if tacitly, admitting it screwed up at Penn State.

Lou Anna Simon, NCAA Executive Committee Chairman and president of Michigan State, admitted to ESPN.com last month that, last July, "there was an outcry to do something and do it quickly,'' she told ESPN.com. "At the time, the decision was to accept the Freeh Report and not have the NCAA separately investigate.

"I think now it might have been handled differently by both parties. In hindsight, you have to decide how much the public outcry pushed both sides in a process that was unconventional.''

How much does this help Penn State on the football field, and how soon?

There is no bigger factor in success in major-college football than recruiting. O'Brien and his staff have by all accounts recruited brilliantly given the sanctions.

But the top programs on its schedule, including Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, have recruited some of the best classes in the country. Each year of the sanctions, Penn State figured to fall farther and farther behind.

"As far as just recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here. It's just the numbers that were the difficult part,'' O'Brien said Tuesday.

"We definitely can get more on an even playing field numbers-wise.''

O'Brien may have been more candid when he was asked about recruiting during his call-in radio show last week and said, "I believe if we had 25 scholarships to give, we'd be unbelievable.''

Which brings us to:

Does this development increase the likelihood that O'Brien will stay in State College?

O'Brien's reputation has skyrocketed because of his performance at Penn State, and he is surely intrigued by the NFL.

But doesn't he also have to be intrigued by what he could do at Penn State on a level playing field, when that field is closer to reality?

Mike Gross Sports Columnist
George Mitchell
Penn State Coach Bill O'brien, Center, Leads His Team Onto The Field At Beaver Stadium Before An Ncaa College Football Game Against University Of Central Florida On Sept. 14.
September 25, 2013

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