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Senior College Football Columnist

Penalties could transform Penn State from powerhouse to patsies

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What will be will written about Paterno is up for debate. (Photo taken by Dennis Dodd)  
What will be will written about Paterno is up for debate. (Photo taken by Dennis Dodd)    

One of the biggest criticisms of Joe Paterno -- at one time -- was that he played too many patsies. His old program is about to become one.

In what could be the most significant moment in NCAA history, the one-time glorious, powerful and admirable Penn State football program is about to be burned to the ground. NCAA president Mark Emmert holds the torch, apparently ready to exercise never-used powers to penalize Penn State for its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

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Numerous outlets, including CBSSports.com, are reporting that the football program will suffer unprecedented, possibly crippling penalties that would severely impact the program’s ability to compete at the highest level. The question then will be not whether Penn State can play football, it will be whether the school will have the will. A picture is being painted of a program so stripped of grants that it could be physically impossible to play on an FBS -- never mind Big Ten -- level.

The next decision at Penn State: Whether to play football at all for a period of years.

That’s right, eight and half months after it was 8-1, ranked 12th and undefeated in the Leaders Division, Penn State stands in danger of becoming Colgate, everyone’s favorite homecoming opponent. We are told it’s going to be that bad.

The question is, should this nuclear option that a lot of us thought would never be used again, be in play? The answer has been clear for the last 25 years: Yes. This sort of thing has been a deterrent. While these penalties won’t be a classic death penalty where a program is shuttered, one source said the school may wish it had chosen the death penalty when the sanctions are announced.

CBSSports.com reported last year that the quantity of major football cheating since the SMU death penalty in 1987 has declined. Dan Beebe personally worked that SMU case.

“It’s much, much better,” said the former NCAA investigator and Big 12 commissioner. “You don’t have institutions doing what they did 25-30 years ago.”

That has to be part of Emmert’s thinking. Napalm works. If he drops The Big One and defoliates Penn State, it will make any coach, administrator or president think twice.

If they can hit Penn State, they can hit anyone. The program is one of only two national champions in the wire service area (since 1936) not to be hit with a major football violation.

Don’t think of it as a death sentence, think of it as a life sentence. Scholarships are likely to be taken away over a period of years. There could be a multi-year postseason ban. A financial penalty is expected as well according to CBSSports.com. That’s before the Big Ten possibly takes action. When it’s over, the Nittany Lions might be a facsimile of those teams JoePa invited to State College for slaughter in the 1970s -- Army, Navy, Rutgers, etc.

If that.

“Yes it’s going to hurt,” said a Paterno confidant who has known the coach since attending Penn State in the 1960s, “like needles through eyeballs.”

The message, though, will be sent: As a monster sits in jail for the rest of his days, any coach, administrator or president who even entertains thoughts of a cover up, will have to think long and hard ...

Is the risk worth the reward?

That has been Emmert’s mantra since he took office 27 months ago. Try as he might, he has not been able to wrap to grab the membership by its lapels and shake them until they gave the right response. On his watch, Ohio State, North Carolina and Miami -- among others -- have committed major violations.

On Monday, Emmert’s bully pulpit turns into a terrible, swift sword. His truth is marching on.

In one stunning moment, Emmert will become the most significant figure inside the NCAA headquarters since Walter Byers. Byers, the association’s first executive director, ruled by intimidation. Emmert is seeking change by consensus.

That mandate has come from the membership, the media, fans and alums. Not formally. It is expected that Emmert is acting after consulting with the NCAA executive committee. But if you want this to end, you have to give him this moment -- using commissioner-like powers to put the fear of God into collegiate athletics.

Analysts and critics argue that he is overstepping his boundaries, that he is setting precedent, going where no NCAA CEO has gone before. If Emmert sets precedent then it might be a place the NCAA never visits again. After setting a match to Penn State for the ultimate cover-up, seal the lid on the case. An NCAA executive will never step in again, unless ...

Unless, that membership doesn’t get the message. That’s how big a hammer Emmert is able to swing in this case. The bet here is that he is using the broad interpretation of lack of institutional control to hit Penn State. Never mind that the jurisdiction bleeds into ruling on criminal acts.

What are the odds of this situation repeating itself? Let’s remember that according to Louis Freeh, Penn State sat on the Sandusky information for 14 years. What if Emmert/NCAA had done nothing, stuck to the manual which rules on all things athletic? Quite possibly, the reaction would have been worse. The public would have asked why the NCAA didn’t do something?

While we in the industry would have known and not blamed, Emmert is a political animal. He has always been about positioning the association in the best possible light. Those same critics have accused him of grandstanding in this case.

Not now. Whether you agree with it or not Mark Emmert has made the NCAA what it hasn’t been for a while -- credible.

As he has pushed his reform agenda at a rapid pace these last 2½ years, more than one NCAA staffer has reminded me: What’s the biggest criticism of the process? That it moves too slowly. In less than three years, we have massive progress.

The NCAA Manual is being rewritten, a much more punitive penalty matrix is ready to be applied. Schools face a real danger of missing the postseason if they don’t measure up in the APR. Ask UConn. The term “academic redshirt” is a reality in future years. Current grade schoolers will have to start realistically thinking about meeting tougher NCAA initial eligibility standards.

Players have full four-year scholarships for the first time since Vietnam. The NCAA is pondering whether to give schools the option of paying those athletes $2,000 a year.

Those were sea changes too, just less emotional to consider than penalizing Penn State over a calculated cover-up that led to scores of young boys being abused.

The Grand Experiment is now Emmert’s. It starts with a question you won’t hear in Monday’s press conference: Can college athletics be saved? If these Penn State penalties don’t change things, what’s the use of trying to preserve the amateur ideal?

Bring on the napalm.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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