The NCAA did not give out the death penalty on Monday but the sanctions the association levied will be a slow and painful death to the Penn State football program that was held in such high regard just a year ago around this time. The announcement that program would be fined $60 million, be prohibited from postseason play for the next four seasons and, most importantly, will be limited to no more than 65 players on scholarship and a limit of 15 initial recruits for four years is a crippling blow for what once was among the all-time winningest schools in college football.
The sanctions, announced by NCAA president
Make no mistake, although the program is not going away for a season, life in State College will be different moving forward -- that's the aim of all of the sanctions. The football program itself is essentially reduced to an FCS squad with just 65 scholarships (FCS has 63) and the prospect of no bowl game for four years will weigh on many current and future recruits as they process the news. Considering how deep the cuts are, it's likely the prospect of no postseason play looms larger than it does at USC, Ohio State or Miami because of the tough nature of getting into a bowl with a depleted team.
Also, given how things will play out in terms of numbers (see chart), it's unlikely Penn State will be back to full strength until 2019 or 2020. As CBSSports.com senior writer Bruce Feldman points out, that first full class would draw on kids currently in the 4th grade.
Every single player on the current Penn State roster can transfer and play right away at another school. They can do it before the season or for the rest of the career until their eligblity runs out. That's a huge blow because it starts the roster management issues and depth concerns before they even start. While it can have its benefits when you consider it allowed USC to load up with players on the front end of sanctions, this seems like an even bigger issue for Penn State because the current players on the roster will very likely be better than anybody they can bring in at a later date.
One of the things the NCAA tacked on was the fact that incoming recruits could be released from their letters of intent and be allowed to take a visit and enroll elsewhere. With the class of 2012, the Nittany Lions signed 19 players in Bill O'Brien's first recruiting class, including well-regarded players like wide receiver Eugene Lewis, tight end Jesse James and defensive tackle Jamil Pollard among others. While it was not considered an especially good class, it was a solid one by Penn State standards and especially so considering the uncertainty surrounding the program at the time. Now, each of those players is free to be pursued by other programs and they are of course free to leave.
The current class of 2013 Penn State has assembled was ranked 18th overall in the latest MaxPreps rankings updated last week. This is the group that is poised for the most defections as they now know what lies ahead of them and there's plenty of time to go back through the recruiting process. Those currently holding offers or being recruited by the staff will likely look elsewhere.
Erial (N.J.) defensive tackle Greg Webb decommitted from the program on Sunday and flipped his pledge to North Carolina as the first of the class to go. This was an expected change however and likely would have occurred even if the NCAA hadn't sanctioned Penn State back to the stone age. He had previously committed back in April.
Shortly after the NCAA wrapped up their press conference in Indianapolis, Avon (Ohio) cornerback Ross Douglas messaged several reporters to inform them that he, too, would be decommitting. Once one of the players who was trying to recruit others to come to Penn State, the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder had turned into a soft verbal over the past month or so and was strongly considering Nebraska and Wisconsin. It's a good bet that he winds up at one of those two schools after taking visits.
Most pressing for Bill O'Brien and staff is the two marquee players committed for 2013 in Fork Union (Va.) quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Camp Hill (Pa.) five-star tight end Adam Breneman. Both players shied away from commenting on the situation following the announcement Monday morning but are considering all options.
"We will not be making any comments regarding Penn State or Adam's recruitment at this time. Thank you," Breneman's father, Brian, tweeted.
"We're on hold just waiting to see what happens, we don't have any control over it," Hackenberg's father, Erick, told CBSSports.com on Sunday. "I think the hardest part, as a father, is the fact that Christian loves Penn State. A lot of people have inferences that because we grew up there but it's not. When he went there, he met the staff and saw the opportunity as a player there and he realized the boxes were checked academically, he fell in love with it. His heart is there.
"When all this happens it's hard. When your heart is into something but things are happening outside of your control, you can still make a decision based upon what's in front of you. He knew there was some stuff, but no one knew in February what was coming."
Hackenberg was named one of the Elite 11 quarterbacks in the country on Sunday at a prestigious competition in Southern California. The four-star is ranked No. 64 overall in the class of 2013 and sixth-best pro-style quarterback in the country. He connected with O'Brien and staff shortly after wrapping up and heading to the airport and learned of Penn State's fate while in the car driving home following a red-eye flight home. He talked at length about the issues regarding the program all week long and was wearing a Nittany Lions hat and jacket throughout most of the week-long competition.
One of the college counselors at the Elite 11 was USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who knows a good number of things about being at a school dealing with NCAA sanctions and no bowl game for multiple years. Hackenberg was one of several players who spent time with Barkley and did admit that he could see himself taking a similar role of leading Penn State through dark times.
"I'm definitely looking at it like that," he said. "I want to be able to play in a bowl game in my career though. I obviously want to play football wherever I am going. I definitely look at myself and see a Matt Barkley-type situation.
"All the schools I had down in my final group were all great academically and were great socially. The football standpoint in all of them was also great. Ultimately when it came down to it -- with coach O'Brien and the depth chart situation, him coming over from the Patriots and being able to work with a guy that just worked with Tom Brady -- it was just fantastic for me. He could mold me into what I could be and I could fulfill my upside I guess you could say."
The four-star quarterback is bracing for a barrage of interest from colleges looking to get back into his recruitment and were already peppering him throughout last week. His father said that he was already contacted by a few major programs and Hackenberg himself later told a Rivals reporter that South Carolina and Auburn would be two of the first programs he contacts.
Depth chart is one of the top concerns for the quarterback, as is playing at a good program with a suitable offense. There's a possibility that Florida could get involved given the obvious fit, as well as a number of others. Expect Hackenberg to take his time before deciding anything but the severity of the sanctions could eventually lead to a decommitment down the road.
Moving forward after this year, as the shock subsides and the reality of the issues sets in in State College, the program is looking at a huge uphill climb toward respectability. Many may point to how USC has rebounded from sanctions to national title contention this year and Ohio State looks likely to bring in two top 10 classes under Urban Meyer but this is a different situation entirely.
First off, Penn State doesn't have the recruiting base that either of those two schools have. Pennsylvania football has produced notable players over the years but there's not the depth to sustain a Big Ten program like the Nittany Lions. Although it's been successful in the past, the reasons the program did well is gone and forgotten and this is all about O'Brien recruiting moving forward. There may be solid facilities and an extremely large alumni base but that doesn't help a program with recruits like it used to. Add in the fact that State College isn't a bustling, sexy (for lack of a better term) place to live like Los Angeles or Miami, and it's easy to see why things will be difficult at best.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that winning will cure a lot of ill effects but that might be hard to come by. SMU had one winning season in 20 years following the death penalty and that was in much weaker conferences but also happened without the exposure that Penn State will still receive in the Big Ten so it's a double-edged sword. Can the program get back to respectability? Certainly, it will just be hard to do while limited to just 65 scholarship players. In the long term outlook things might improve but at the moment, the school's aim might be to saddle in next to Indiana at the bottom of the division and hopefully get a few wins every year until returning to full strength.
There's 40 days until Penn State hosts Ohio in their first game of the 2012 season and plenty can happen until then. The future looks bleak for the Nittany Lions football program in the wake of everything that has happened and, on the recruiting trail especially, tough times are headed toward Happy Valley. This is still a proud program with fans that will be looking for any shred of positive news to celebrate but when taking the long view, it's difficult to imagine anything coming along in the foreseeable future.