UNIVERSITY PARK — Reinforcements are on the way.
Penn State, limited two summers ago in the number of scholarships it could award to football players, can now offer more after the NCAA announced Tuesday reductions to the sanctions imposed on the program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
When announced in July, 2012, the sanctions, which included a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban plus a transfer waiver that made it possible for players to defect to another FBS school without having to sit out a year per usual NCAA rules, also reduced Penn State's scholarships from 25 to 15 per year until the 2016-17 season.
Penn State currently has 71 scholarship players on its roster and was required by the original sanctions to be down to 65 by the start of next season. Now, the Nittany Lions will be able to field 75 scholarship players next season and can add up to 20 scholarship players in the current (2014) recruiting class. Penn State has 12 commitments in the current class so far.
"We've got a long way to go here at Penn State," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "We're happy for our players, our student athletes that are here in our football program. They're a resilient bunch of kids. We're happy for our people here at Penn State, people who have worked extremely hard to implement the recommendations of the Freeh Report and we're just trying to take it one day at a time and working as hard as we can and continuing every single day to do the right thing."
According to the NCAA Executive Committee which decided to reduce the scholarship limitations on recommendation from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the Athletics Integrity Monitor assigned to the university, Penn State will be able to give out 25 total scholarships beginning with the 2015-16 academic year. Penn State will be back to the original 85-scholarship allowance by 2016-17.
Despite the added scholarships he and his staff can offer, O'Brien wouldn't offer any details about how they may impact his recruiting strategy.
He did say it would be easier to put together a deeper class as the restrictions forced Penn State to take just one linebacker in the 2013 class with just one currently in the 2014 class. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions have just one running back commit over the past two classes with one offensive tackle in each class and one guard.
"The difficult part came with the numbers," O'Brien said. "For instance, say that you could only take one such-and-such position. Say it was an offensive tackle. That was difficult that you were only going to be able to take one kid in the class for that position. That was tough."
While the transfer waiver expired in early August and the scholarships will be fully restored sooner, Penn State is still barred from postseason competition. Its forfeiture of the Big Ten's shared bowl revenue is still in effect, too.
When asked if the bowl ban could be lifted in time for this season, NCAA President Mark Emmert said any comment on that would be speculative at this point. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, who chairs the NCAA's Executive Committee, echoed Emmert's remarks.
Meanwhile, O'Brien said he and the football program, in addition to the rest of the university, would continue to work toward meeting guidelines established in the athletics integrity agreement.
"When the rules change a little bit we just adapt to those rules and right now the rules are that we can sign a few more guys and get back to 85 scholarships a little bit sooner," O'Brien said. "Those are the rules I'm playing under and we still know we can't go to a bowl and can't compete for a championship but we definitely can get more on an even playing field numberswise and that's what we're concentrating on as a staff."
Fairness was a theme multiple Big Ten coaches addressed when asked about the Penn State situation on Tuesday.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz was blunt despite having only recently learned of the NCAA's decision.
"Needless to say I think that whole thing was a bad deal and so hopefully some steps are being taken to make it a little more fair," Ferentz said.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, who was one of a handful of FBS coaches who tried to take advantage of the transfer waiver and pluck Penn State players away from Happy Valley, said he is glad the added scholarships will give additional athletes a chance to attend college.
"The game of football is about the student athletes so anytime they give opportunities to student athletes to play, I'm all for it," Beckman said. "We coach this game for the student athletes. We arrive every morning and leave every night knowing that the student athlete's in mind to be successful in any avenue that we create. So I would think that would be a definite good thing for college football."
Purdue's Darrell Hazell agreed.
"I'm happy for Penn State," Hazell said. "They're able to get themselves in a position where they can help some other players out and not punish some guys that had nothing to do with that tragic happening in the past."