Death sentence for PSU football? Not so fast
College football success at the big-time level often is measured in terms of national championships or conference titles or BCS bowl appearances. This season Penn State will have none of these things.
Yet its 8-4 record (6-2 in the Big Ten) has been marked as a superior achievement or even a miracle by many, including and especially those who believed the exact opposite might occur.
“I remember sitting there last August talking about this,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit recalled. “Looking at them on paper, I was saying, ‘How many wins? Three? Four?' That was kind of the majority of people looking at what they were facing. I'm the first one to happily say I was wrong.”
It was, in fact, a vast, overwhelming majority of college football insiders and outsiders, observers and participants whose predictions for Penn State football ranged from dire to apocalyptic after NCAA president Mark Emmert announced oppressive sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
It's hard to fault anyone for expecting the worst. The penalties included a $60 million fine, forfeiture of all wins since 1998, a four-year ban from bowl games (including a two-year ban from the BCS playoff starting in 2014) and a reduction of maximum scholarships allowed per year from 25 to 15 over the next four years.
The Big Ten also banned Penn State from its conference championship game for four years and took away $13 million in bowl revenues during that time.
Not since Southern Methodist became the first and only Division I (now FBS) football program terminated by the so-called “death penalty” in 1987 had such severe penalties been dispensed. In fact, some asserted the death penalty was preferable to the Penn State sanctions' long-term effects.
Headlines such as “Penn State recruiting impact will be immediate and lasting” and “NCAA sanctions deal lethal blow to Penn State” were typical. Fans, commentators, pundits and recruiting gurus weighed in from far and wide.
“The best case for recovery is seven or eight years,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.
“Penn State football will not recover for a decade,” said Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman.
Even Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson, who coached the Miami Hurricanes before heading to the NFL, tweeted that Penn State will be “no better than (Division II) for many years.”
The sanctions, said former Missouri Valley Conference and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, were “more devastating than the death penalty.”
A small minority believed that Penn State could survive despite the monumental challenges. Acknowledging “the program is gonna take a hit,” CBS recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said it could maintain a balance by using the available scholarships wisely on quality players.
But that kind of talk was drowned out by the conventional wisdom expressed by so many others, including Herbstreit, who said on ESPN, “You're talking about a minimum of 10 years until Penn State's probably fighting to get above .500 and trying to compete and trying to be a team their fans can be excited about.”
Such sentiment intensified over the following weeks after several key players, including running back Silas Redd, took advantage of the amnesty offered by the NCAA and transferred immediately without losing eligibility. It seemed pretty hopeless.
But that was then. This week, Johnson said in an e-mail, “The coaching staff at Penn State has done a tremendous job this year, not only coaching but staying positive under adverse conditions. They are to be commended.”
So what happened?
It was a weak Big Ten, but mainly coach Bill O'Brien, the unexpected successor to Joe Paterno, grabbed the rudder and steadied his listing program. The departures hurt, but all except one of the 18 recruits from the 2012 class remained. One of them, Brian Gaia, a defensive lineman from Maryland, said, “The score is 6-0, and we have not lost the game,” according to his father, Tim Gaia.
Meanwhile, linebacker Michael Mauti and other seniors screamed their commitment, then backed it up. O'Brien and his staff did some significant coaching, even surmounting an 0-2 start that momentarily appeared to confirm the dire predictions. O'Brien ended up as Big Ten Coach of the Year. In any other season, it would have been Ohio State's Urban Meyer, another first-year coach saddled by sanctions (although not nearly to the extent of Penn State's), who led the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record.
“Penn State's 8-4 makes Urban Legend's 12-0 seem like chump change,” said Vrooman, invoking Meyer's nickname.
“I'm surprised,” Farrell said. “I think Bill O'Brien did a great job keeping as many players as he did. At the time the sanctions came down, I thought there would be mass defections. But they just came together for the most part. I think half the coaching job he did was keeping the roster together.”
The future might look brighter than before, but Farrell cautioned of tough times ahead when scholarships are cut, and that the conference should improve next season. But he added that the manner in which Penn State bounced back from 0-2, combined with dealing with the sanctions, “tells me that (O'Brien) might be special, and maybe the predictions I and others made about Penn State not coming back for a decade, maybe you have to rethink them.”
Herbstreit describes what confronted O'Brien as “unprecedented,” extending even beyond the Sandusky scandal.
“Just filling the shoes of Joe Paterno,” Herbstreit said. “I remember when he was hired and some of the famous Penn State alums going, ‘Who?' Just being an outsider was difficult enough. Then dealing with all the other stuff. Then he's got players leaving, and he somehow wins eight games. That's just truly remarkable.”
Beebe, a partner in a Dallas risk management firm, in July called the sanctions the “most horrendous situation” to hit a college program. Last week he said what happened this season “was a testament to the coaches and the young men. They did what you want to teach, that for anybody who goes through adversity, it's an opportunity to turn it into something positive. I think that's the greatest lesson you can get out of sports, if it's done right.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7810.