Walt Moody | Penn State feeling like a winner even without a game

wmoody@centredaily.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Who says you can’t win during a bye week?

Penn State’s football program sure felt like it Tuesday morning.

When the NCAA announced it was gradually restoring a number of the scholarships that it had taken away as a result of the Sandusky scandal, the Nittany Lions got news that was better than a victory over Ohio State.

Since the NCAA lowered the boom last July, we’ve contended that the most damaging of all of the sanctions was the mandate that scholarships would be reduced to 65. The Nittany Lions would have had to be at that limit by next fall.

That number would have dropped Penn State a full 20 scholarships below its Division I peers and extensively put the program on par with Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) programs, which offer 63 scholarships.

It was a sanction designed to give a program the “death penalty” without actually cancelling a season.

Remarkable recruiting efforts by coach Bill O’Brien and his staff have softened the initial sting of those reductions, but the effects eventually would have shown up on Saturday afternoons.

O’Brien is already limiting practice contact because he can’t afford to have any more of his current 71 scholarship players injured. He needs every one of them healthy on game day.

Coaches rightly agree with the TV cell phone commercial that states, “More is better.”

You need more and better players to compete at the Division I level, especially when you’re at a northern school and the talent pool is a little leaner than it is down south. Depth is critical both on the playing field and practice field.

The effects would have been felt much farther down the line than 2016. With normal graduation rates (and Penn State does graduate 88 percent of its players) and the limit of 25 players per recruiting class under normal circumstances, it would have taken multiple years for the Nittany Lions to actually build back to 85.

With Tuesday’s announcement, Penn State will have 75 scholarships next fall, 80 in 2015 and a full complement of 85 in 2016.

That’s welcome news to O’Brien, the athletes, the students, officials and the fans, many of whom have remained steadfast in the face of a scandal that has tarnished the university forever.

The surprising thing Tuesday is that the NCAA, quite possibly the most inconsistent governing organization, actually backtracked on its sanctions.

Maybe the cool temperatures Tuesday morning indicated the temperature in Hades was dropping a little.

The NCAA rarely reverses itself on anything. President Mark Emmert seemed like he had a special place for Penn State on his list.

The NCAA has ruled twice now in 14 months on Penn State, while Miami is still awaiting a ruling from the governing body on major allegations of impropriety with a football booster.

The NCAA’s official stance Tuesday was that the scholarships were restored thanks to Penn State’s “progress” in reports from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who is now the athletics integrity monitor at the university.

Obviously, Penn State has done an exceptional job in compliance and this is a so-called reward for the university’s response.

Maybe this is a form of justice.

What Emmert and his organization will never admit is that the NCAA was overzealous in the first place, especially in regards to the scholarships.

Of all of the sanctions — vacating wins (111), monetary penalties ($60 million), the bowl ban (four years) — this was the one that seemed vindictive and contrary to the mission of the organization.

Keeping kids — ones that had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky or Penn State football in 2002 or thereafter — out of school doesn’t seem just.

This was a judicial matter and the NCAA set precedent with its ruling, since there were no specific violations within its rule book unless you want to cite the vague “lack of institutional control.”

Punishing current or future players didn’t fit the crime, especially now.

The principals implicated by the Freeh Report are no longer involved with the university.

Jerry Sandusky is in jail and will remain there for the rest of his life for his heinous crimes against children. Joe Paterno was fired and passed away in January 2012. Officials Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have all been removed from their positions by the school and are awaiting trial for their alleged complicity in covering up the matter.

The university has settled with some of Sandusky’s victims and is in the process of settling with others.

With several lawsuits looming against the NCAA on behalf of Penn State, a cynic would say that this is a way for the organization to gain some positive traction. Emmert, who seemed determined to take Penn State down, has come across in the whole process as vindictive and petty. He didn’t sound overjoyed Tuesday.

Penn State fans now may clamor for having the bowl ban reduced and getting the wins back.

Let’s not go overboard there.

Tuesday’s ruling will keep Penn State on a level playing field with its Division I and Big Ten peers.

Maybe it will even keep O’Brien around for the duration of his contract, now that he won’t be fighting an ever frustrating battle with numbers.

Penn State is obviously on the right path and that’s something even the NCAA can admit.

That is a quite a victory, even in a bye week.

Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or wmoody@centredaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt

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