In 2012, NCAA president Mark Emmert circumvented any notion of protocol or precedent in handing down crippling sanctions against Penn State over a matter better left to the criminal justice system. Seemingly just as arbitrarily, the NCAA Executive Committee on Monday turned around and lifted the program’s postseason ban two years early due to the university’s “commitment to the integrity of its athletics department.”
It didn’t make sense then so don’t bother trying to make sense of it now.
As James Franklin, Christian Hackenberg and the rest of the Penn State community rightfully celebrate the end of their time in purgatory, I can only think to ask: What exactly did this whole thing accomplish?
I wrote it back on that July day that Emmert held his press conference and it still holds true today. By injecting on-field penalties into a decidedly off-field scandal, the NCAA directed attention away from the human tragedy at the center of the awful Jerry Sandusky scandal and turned it instead into a story about Silas Redd’s transfer options and Bill O’Brien’s roster management.
Now, it’s a story about whether this year’s 2-0 Nittany Lions, suddenly given new life, can contend for a championship in the watered-down Big Ten.
In his second annual report as Penn State’s appointed “athletics integrity monitor,” Sen. George Mitchell writes: “In light of Penn State’s responsiveness to its obligations and the many improvements it has instituted, I believe [current] student-athletes should have the opportunity to play in the post-season should they earn it on the field this year.” Two cheers for sanity.
But the 2012 and ’13 Nittany Lions players never should have been denied that opportunity, either. The infamous Freeh Report never blamed football players for any malfeasance in Happy Valley. The report’s chief villains – former president Graham Spanier, AD Tim Curley, VP Gary Schultz and head coach Joe Paterno – were all fired and/or indicted. And Sandusky is behind bars for life. No one could ever explain why current quarterback Hackenberg or former star receiver Allen Robinson had to stay home for the holidays because of an alleged criminal conspiracy more than a decade earlier by completely unrelated individuals.
The stigma of the Paterno-era Penn State scandal won’t vanish overnight for the university, and maybe it never will, but now Franklin’s 2014-era football program is no longer tarnished by association. It’s only a shame O’Brien never got a reprieve for his considerable heavy lifting.
While the lifting of the postseason ban carries the most immediate ramifications, presumably Franklin is just as excited by the lifting of scholarship reductions for 2015-16. He’s already lining up a Top 10 recruiting class for February, and who knows how many other Nittany Lions prospects that were previously on the fence just got a whole lot more interested.
Needless to say, the news couldn’t come at a better time for the Big Ten – so much so that many people found the timing of Monday’s announcement suspicious. It comes just two days after the conference’s collective on-field meltdown and accompanying doomsday discussions about its playoff chances, as well as five days before commissioner Jim Delany’s pet newcomer Rutgers hosts its primetime conference debut Saturday against … Penn State.
Mind you, while the Nittany Lions have performed admirably thus far in wins over UCF and Akron, they’re highly unlikely to rise up and become a Top 10-type team. But could they win the Big Ten East, which suddenly seems less imposing than it did a month ago what with Ohio State’s and Michigan’s obvious flaws? Short of that, could they perform well enough to boost the resume of another contender like season-ending opponent Michigan State? Absolutely.
But most of all, Delany’s conference needed this for its long-term future. There is no shortage of factors behind the conference’s continuing slide into further levels of mediocrity, but having one of its marquee programs rendered nationally irrelevant didn’t help. With the league hell-bent on an East Coast takeover, and with an anticipated massive TV payday coming when its current contract expires in 2016, the Big Ten needs Penn State to be Penn State again just as badly as Nittany Lions fans want it to be.
Well, that timetable just got accelerated. Penn State already has the ideal coach in place. One need only look at Vanderbilt’s overnight descent post-Franklin to know what an impact he and his staff can have. The recruits are already coming. In the meantime, the Nittany Lions can finally play for a championship just like everyone else.
And when they do, you can look forward to all sorts of quotes and stories about how the players “overcame adversity” – adversity manufactured by, and now arbitrarily removed by, Mark Emmert and the NCAA. Hope it was worth it.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.