The NCAA's judgment of Penn State football was preceded by weeks of doomsaying and visions of a bureaucratic apocalypse, and the reality may have exceeded them all. Within a matter of a few minutes Monday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert methodically buried the Nittany Lions under the reality of a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, heavy scholarship reductions and 14 years' worth of vacated wins – one for every year that late coach Joe Paterno and other university officials allegedly turned a blind eye to allegations that longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused young boys in football facilities. The severity of the sanctions is unprecedented on all counts. The announcement instantly take its place alongside the temporary scuttling of SMU's program in 1987 as the most crippling verdictsin NCAA history.
Unlike SMU, however, Penn State is not dead: Barring an act of ritual seppuku by the university, it will play a full schedule this fall in those defiantly austere white and blue uniforms, and will continue to field a team for the foreseeable future. In place of the pitch-black specter of the "death penalty," the more accurate analogy for Penn State's program is to the un-dead. Its future now hinges on one central question: Who wants to play for Zombie Lions?
The obvious answer, of course, is nobody – at least, nobody who was likely to meet the standards of the old, living, breathing Penn State. On paper, the sanctions may restrict themselves to matters of quantity. Beginning with the 2013 recruiting class next February, the Nittany Lions will be restricted to 15 scholarships per year – significantly down from the usual limit of 25 – for the next four years, through the recruiting class of 2016. (The 2013 class currently boasts a dozen verbal commitments, though the majority of them are already beginning to reconsider.) Beginning with the 2014 season, the roster as a whole will be restricted to 65 scholarship players through 2017, down from the usual limit of 85 and only barely above the 63-man cap for schools in the FCS. As it stands right now, if not a single player on the current roster decides to transfer or otherwise washes out in the next two years, and PSU signs a full 15-man class next year, the 2014 recruiting class will consist of five players.
Considering that there most certainly will be attrition from the current roster (see below), that's an extreme scenario. But even if they Lions operate at full capacity under the sanctions, over four years, that's 40 scholarships – 40 possible recruits – they'll be forced to cede to other schools. Every week in that span, there will be 20 more scholarship players standing on the opposite sideline. That's essentially a full recruiting class, an entire layer on the depth chart, that Penn State will not have at its disposal.
That's all before we arrive at the question of quality. Every player on the current roster is eligible to transfer to any school that will have him, and to play this fall without counting against their new team's scholarship cap. The four-year bowl ban is a virtual guarantee that no recruit with a chance to go anywhere else in the Big Ten (or ACC, or Big 12, or SEC, etc.) is going to opt for State College; a rung or two down the ladder, even peripheral prospects may see greener pastures in the MAC or Conference USA, where at least no one they know will mock them with crass molestation jokes. Bill O'Brien has received nothing but exemplary marks in his first few months on the recruiting trail, but he now faces the prospect of having to effectively re-recruit his own locker room, one composed almost entirely of players who committed to play for a coach who is no longer alive, in a program that for all intents and purposes no longer exists, and who have every reason to feel that the ground has shifted beneath them. For every veteran who feels a sense of loyalty to his school, there will be another who feels betrayed.
For the foreseeable future, there is no opportunity to be part of a championship or any sort of recognizable tradition at Penn State. Money that would otherwise be set aside for facilities, personnel and general arms-race maintenance will be tied up in exorbitant NCAA fines; the pipeline from the Big Ten's bowl revenues has been shut off. There is no compelling incentive for a player with options to stay, and even less incentive for a recruit with options to sign on in the first place. Within two or three years, there is every reason to expect the depth chart at Penn State to resemble Indiana's or Northwestern's, or even Temple's.
If somehow that turns out not to be the case, O'Brien will deserve a raise and a fair opportunity to nurse the program back to full strength when the sanctions are lifted. If somehow, by some distant miracle, his teams bear even the dimmest resemblance on the field to a traditional winner under Paterno, O'Brien will deserve to stay as long as he wants to see the project through. (Just, uh, no statues, please.) Where there is still a team, there is still a chance.
By design, though, it is an extraordinarily slim one. Today's verdict was specifically intended to ensure a lost decade, defined by a mass exodus of talent, losing records, dwindling attendance and a steady erosion of the assumption that Penn State is a first-rate football power. If Nittany Lion football is going to continue to exist, it's going to be as a demoralized shell of its former, vital self. That's the reality. And now that it's been laid out in front of them like a road map to oblivion, the university's new leaders are left to mull whether a swift death might be preferable to taking their medicine.