Senior College Football Columnist

Penn State evades 'death penalty,' but regaining status will be painful


Maybe the best way to describe it is "lingering death." It's not quite the death penalty at Penn State, but the patient faces a shaky, drawn-out, uncertain future. The program was spared its life, but that's all for now. Coach Bill O'Brien could soon be begging for Big Ten quality-recruits. Or just those who are merely FBS quality.

That would be Football Bowl Subdivision. We used to know it as Division I-A. Penn State used to know it as home.

There are small victories -- Penn State will remain at the highest division of college football following the NCAA penalties -- but there is a great unknown filled with losses, lots of losses. That's a certainty isn't it, with the program being stripped of 40 scholarships beginning in 2013 and being limited to a max of 65 scholarships for four years?

That's two more scholarships than are allowed in FCS (former Division I-AA). That's also assuming that the players on the roster will be of that Big Ten quality which begs the question: When will Penn State be back? Back, as in competing for conference titles. Back, as in restored to national prominence.

"It will take them a decade to dig out," Pat Jones said.

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That is one man's opinion, but the former Oklahoma State coach ought to know. In 1989, his program was staring down the barrel of the death penalty. The NCAA was ready to shut down the program accused of recruiting violations and extra benefits. Receiver Hart Lee Dykes -- the subject of an unseemly recruiting bidding war -- put four different programs on probation by singing to the NCAA.

There was, the association concluded, a "blatant disregard for the rules" in Stillwater for a period of 15 years. Jones was not named in the NCAA report but he felt the penalties. The Cowboys were docked 20 scholarships over three years and got a two-year bowl ban. The coaches lasted until 1994 at the school, never again posting a winning record.

Most notably, Oklahoma State became eligible for the death penalty "for the foreseeable future." The NCAA considered limiting the program to three home games and eight overall in 1989 -- a de facto death penalty itself -- until it hired Mike Glazier.

In January 1989 the term "NCAA troubleshooter" was a foreign one. Glazier was a former NCAA investigator who was partners in a Chicago boutique law firm with Mike Slive. Yes, the current SEC commissioner. Glazier was able to mitigate the violations with the NCAA enough to keep the Cowboys on the field. The program that won 10 with Heisman-winner Barry Sanders in 1988, didn't have another winning season until 1997.

That's what a source must have meant Sunday when it said prior to the penalties that Penn State may eventually prefer the death penalty.

The reality is the current lingering death. Oklahoma State got the message. In the 23½ years since then, the school has been before the NCAA for a major violation once (wrestling in 1992).

"It's a double whammy once those numbers start getting reduced," Jones said when asked about Penn State. "You take normal attrition -- flunk outs, injuries, guys that leave early for the NFL, run offs -- you can't numerically replace them."

Penn State faces the same prospect. An anticipated feeding frenzy for its current players began Monday within minutes of the penalties being announced. Penn State players are allowed to transfer immediately because of the extreme nature of the penalties. It was the most unlikely free agency period ever in college football, roughly a week before camps open.

Jones called it a "free-fire zone."

Barry Switzer called it disgusting. Less than three weeks before Oklahoma State got its penalties, Switzer's Oklahoma program was slapped with its own major sanctions in late 1988. Lack of institutional control? You may remember, back then it was lack of human control. Switzer would eventually resign in the summer of 1989 after a series of embarrassments that included a shooting, rape and drug dealing.

"It will destroy them in the Big Ten," Switzer said of Penn State. "They'll be recruiting Division II and Division III players. That's what they'll be getting. I'd rather have the death penalty for a year."

Like Oklahoma State, Oklahoma was close to that ultimate sentence. It lost 24 scholarships over two years. OU wasn't allowed to go to a bowl for the same period. Eleven years later it won a national championship. But it took three coaching changes and an incredibly efficient coaching search by AD Joe Castiglione in late 1998 to find his man. Bob Stoops said yes to Oklahoma over Iowa.

OU embarked on a 14-year journey that has included a national championship and seven Big 12 titles. Penn State is in Week 1 of the unknown.

"They wanted to gut them. The press and media beat the drum for it," Switzer said. "The penalties didn't hurt anybody that was involved in the crime. They're all gone or dead. Kids who woke up and looked in the mirror said, 'I've got to transfer, go to a new system, go learn a new system.' "

And they have to do it right now with camps starting.

Since Oklahoma State's penalty almost half of FBS -- 56 schools -- have been cited for major football violations. Alabama has been in NCAA jail three times. Of those 56 schools, 26 have been to BCS bowls. Ten have won national championships.

"If it happened at Penn State, Ohio State, they could recover but if it happened to one of the weaker teams it would hurt," recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. "SMU just started doing the cheating when [coach] Ron Meyer got there. They didn't have the foundation to last."

There is that case at Penn State, as Switzer pointed out, for the innocents. O'Brien had to know there was something coming, though perhaps not this. The players at least have that the ability to leave right away.

"Penn State will never be the same," academic reformer David Ridpath told on Tuesday, "and it shouldn't be."

There is hope. As Lemming mentioned, Penn State may be among the handful of schools to eventually shovel its way out of this. Two years after crippling penalties at USC, the Trojans are going to begin the season as Pac-12 favorites ranked in the top five nationally. How did that happen?

USC had a plan. Lane Kiffin has proved his worth as a coach and quarterback Matt Barkley stayed.

It's hard to imagine that the Trojans still have two years of recruiting restrictions left, but at least now they can recruit to the possibility of bowl games, conference and national championships. What Kiffin once referred to as "our death penalty" may end up being nothing more than an 8-5 bottoming out in 2010.

"They're penalizing all those [Penn State] kids who are going out there with half a team, with guys who are going to be hurt and injured," said Pat Ruel, former USC offensive line coach, "It all depends if they get through too many injuries. The fact of the matter is SC is still SC."

Lemming says it will be in Year 3 of the sanctions beginning in 2015 when Penn State will start recovering.

"I heard people say [the worst] about USC two years ago. They're still coming up with No. 1 recruiting classes," Lemming said. "Penn State is going to be the worst. If O'Brien stays the course and they give him a contract extension, by the third year they'll start recruiting well again."

If, those injuries, flunk outs and early entries don't gouge the roster. Never mind graduation. Twenty-five percent of a typical roster turns over each year. Look for O'Brien to get a contract extension in order for him to have the time to get through the tough times.

"It's a place that combines great academics with good, tough football," O’Brien said Tuesday. "None of that has changed."

Lemming says those 2015 recruits can be sold on the fact they could potentially play in four bowl games. That year marks the final year of the bowl ban. If some of that year's recruits redshirt, they would have four years beginning in 2016.

If, Penn State has the ability to get back up to FBS standards, then Big Ten standards, then bowl standards.

"It looks like they'll lose every top player," in the 2013 class, Lemming said. "O'Brien has got to galvanize them around him and the new regime. By the time the bowl ban is over, they'll start recruiting again and gradually start building back to the powerhouse they used to be."

The alternative is a slow, agonizing, debilitating lingering death.

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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