Dienhart: NCAA made 'correct call' on Penn State today

The NCAA has taken a lot of criticism of late, and rightly so, with the Miami (Fla.) case feeding the fury of NCAA critics who howl for reform or the organization’s outright banishment.

But news that the overlords of collegiate athletics gradually will restore scholarships for Penn State is a good move that should quell some NCAA critics. Look, the NCAA isn’t totally uncompromising. It has a conscience. It can backtrack. It has perspective.

[ MORE: NCAA.com: Executive Committee to gradually restore Penn State scholarships ]

Still, others will take a dim view of this news, thinking the NCAA should have held its ground on these punitive penalties vs. Penn State.

Me? I think the NCAA made the correct call.

When the NCAA meted out punishment in the Summer of 2012 following the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State was hit with the reduction in the maximum allowance of scholarships offered from 25 to 15 a year for the next four years.

Yes, the NCAA also hit Penn State with a $60 million fine, with the money going to an endowment to benefit the welfare of children. And there also was a four-year ban on postseason play, including the Big Ten title game. Plus, Joe Paterno had myriad wins stripped from his resume.

Still, all of those paled compared to the scholarship cuts. In fact, the severe scholarship reduction had some crying that Penn State would have been better off getting the Death Penalty.

Some felt the NCAA rushed to judgment. This was an unprecedented case that the NCAA felt required unprecedented action, some argued. Forget due process. Penn State must be punished now. And very severely. But, were the sanctions too harsh? Did the penalties fit the crimes?

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Many felt Penn State was trampled by the NCAA’s rush to show “it meant business” in the new world order of NCAA prez Mark Emmert. Pundits for and against the harshness of the sanctions debated the merits and sense of the NCAA penalties with passion, with both sides making cogent arguments.

Meanwhile, new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was left to deal with the reality of a truncated roster and possible bleak future. Penn State would be compromised competitively. In essence, the Nittany Lions would be playing with a FCS roster. Heck, they are this fall, as scholarship numbers are in the mid-60s. (FCS schools get 65 scholarship/FBS get 85.)

But beginning in 2014-15, five additional scholarships will be restored to Penn State. This amount will continue to increase. Again, this is huge for O’Brien and his program moving forward.

[ MORE: AP: NCAA to restore scholarships | Reaction | O'Brien pleased with news ]

O’Brien already has defied odds, taking Penn State to an 8-4 record—8-2 finish after an 0-2 start–last season under trying circumstances. And he has the Nittany Lions off to a 3-1 start in 2013 behind true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Another 8-4 mark is very possible.

In addition to still winning despite the hurdles, O’Brien also still has been able to recruit at a high level. This year, the Nittany Lions have 12 commitments, according to Scout.com, and rank No. 4 in the Big Ten and No. 30 in the nation.

Last February, Penn State had the No. 7 class in the Big Ten (No. 46 in the nation) despite having only 17 signees.

Now, imagine what O’Brien and staff will be able to do with a growing complement of scholarships? Exciting, isn’t it?

Penn State will be able to offer 20 scholarships in 2014-15 to push its total to 75. The Nittany Lions will be able to offer a full complement of 25 scholarships in 2015-16, getting the program to 80 overall. By 2016-17, Penn State will be at the full 85-scholarship limit.

[ MORE: Penn State, Big Ten respond to NCAA sanction reductions ]

This decision by the NCAA also may secure O’Brien’s presence in State College for the long haul. Depending on who you ask, O’Brien may or may not have been a target for NFL coaching jobs of late. But now, knowing the lifting will be appreciable lighter, O’Brien should be inclined to stay and see what he can build at Penn State.

If Penn State’s compliance continues to excel, the NCAA may consider additional mitigation of the postseason ban in the future. That’s all well and good—and I expect that to happen—but news of the scholarship increase is what matters most. Players are the heart of a program.

The Big Ten also is a winner. The league can’t truly be a great on the gridiron without Penn State being a strong program, along with Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan. Heck, college football also benefits from the Nittany Lions being strong.

Penn State has and still will be punished for the Sandusky scandal. And rightly so. We never should forget the victims. But this move by the NCAA seems more in line with what the organization should have done back in the Summer of 2012. But, it’s better late than never.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Jon Baer on 9/25/2013 @ 1:33pm EDT Said:

PENN STATERS FOR RESPONSIBLE STEWARDSHIP REACTS TO NCAA SANCTION REDUCTION

SEPTEMBER, 24, 2013 Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship (PS4RS) is pleased that the NCAA, at the behest of Senator George Mitchell, has revisited the unprecedented and improper sanctions that it levied on Penn State in July 2012.

“Perhaps recognizing the enormity of its error and the recently filed lawsuit in Centre County Pennsylvania, particularly in light of the thorough debunking of the Freeh Report, the NCAA has taken the first step toward repairing some of the damage that it and Penn State’s leadership have inflicted upon Penn State,” said PS4RS spokesperson Maribeth Roman Schmidt.

While PS4RS does not agree that Penn State ever required an Athletic Integrity Monitor, nor that the football program is in any way responsible for Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, the members of PS4RS are grateful that Senator Mitchell recommended this reduction in sanctions. We are extremely happy for the student-athletes who will be afforded the opportunity of a great Penn State education.

Rob Tribeck, Chair of the PS4RS Legal Task Force, who met with representatives of Senator Mitchell’s team in May 2013 on behalf of PS4RS, expressed additional gratitude. “Senator Mitchell has recognized the need for a reduction, if not elimination, of these outrageous sanctions. This action today, while not completely eliminating the sanctions, is a significant step forward to recognizing that the sole basis of the sanctions was the Freeh Report’s wholly unsupported conclusions regarding Coach Paterno and the football program.” Tribeck continued, “The Freeh Report has been completely discredited by each and every qualified person to review it, including representatives of the Pennsylvania Attorney General and the lead prosecutor of Jerry Sandusky. This action today confirms what many have believed since July 2012: the Freeh Report’s conclusions were grossly flawed and improperly attributed responsibility to Coach Paterno and the football program.”

PS4RS remains committed to providing any additional support to Senator Mitchell or the NCAA in connection with its further review of these sanctions. To put this matter to rest, once and for all, the NCAA must rescind all sanctions and retract the offensive statements made about the Penn State culture.