STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State coach James Franklin sat behind a microphone, bantered with the media, and gamely tried to steer questions toward this weekend’s game at Rutgers.
“I would like to talk about Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers,” Franklin said, “and then maybe a little bit more about Rutgers.”
Dissecting X’s and O’s can wait.
Franklin knew the topic du jour had nothing to do with Saturday’s game, but rather, the lure of a brighter, bigger one ahead — a bowl game. Franklin has been flooded with congratulatory messages about his football team’s bowl prospects now that the NCAA has lifted the most severe sanctions to the program for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Not so fast — the Nittany Lions have a chance to become eligible for a bowl, they are not in one yet. Still, a shot at representing the Big Ten in a bowl game is something that was missing from their preseason checklist.
The Happy Valley faithful and its resolute players who stuck with the program through its bleakest era can finally start to feel whole again. The Penn State fans who lock arms and bellow “We Are” can finish the slogan: Bowl eligible. Back on track. Competing for a Big Ten title.
Not quite catchy, but good enough for devotees in a town where “Honor Joe” signs still dot windows throughout downtown in reverence to legendary coach Joe Paterno.
At Penn State, bowl games and packed stadiums under Paterno yielded to scandal, suffering and sanctions at the abuses of Sandusky.
The NCAA levied the blistering sanctions two years ago, including a four-year postseason ban. It softened that Monday, taking Penn State a step farther away from the fallout from Sandusky, a former assistant coach convicted of sexual abuse of 10 boys, including acts at university facilities.
Tom Kline, a lawyer who negotiated a settlement with Penn State for one of the eight victims who testified against Sandusky at trial, said Tuesday it made sense to ease the penalties, given the university’s reforms and other actions.
“I believe that the university should be able to move forward positively, based on everything they have done,” Kline said. “Lifting the sanctions is something that is earned, deserved and is a correct decision.”
It was certainly welcomed by a good chunk of the players on the Nittany Lions roster, who had every opportunity to escape without punishment when the NCAA levied its ban.
“I just love Penn State,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “I love the school, love everything about it. I’m just a Penn State guy at heart.”
Hull is one of 39 holdovers from the summer of 2012 still with the program. Another 10 recruits as part of the incoming class, including franchise quarterback Christian Hackenberg, kept Penn State together for two competitive seasons under former coach Bill O’Brien.
With sanctions lifted, a marker that Penn State is now a normal football school again, Franklin asked those 49 players who survived a cascade of controversy to stand at the front of the room for a standing ovation at an emotional team meeting on Monday night.
“We are all in debt to them,” Franklin said Tuesday. “We’re going to play for them because they were here for this program and this university when we needed them most.”
In addition to postseason play, Penn State also will be allowed to have the full complement of football scholarships in 2015.
Students celebrated peacefully on campus late Monday night after the lifting was announced, chanted Paterno’s name and the popular “We Are” slogan.
The jubilant rally was a 180 from the violent reactions seen 2½ years ago when disgruntled students learned Paterno was fired.
“There is enthusiasm and there is excitement and there is tremendous pride in this school, and part of the healing that’s taking place and moving forward,” Franklin said. “I think this is part of it.”
Some of the 40 scholarships the program was originally docked were restored earlier than expected a year ago.
The university still must pay a $60 million fine, vacate 111 wins that came under Paterno, plus another victory under interim coach Tom Bradley, and the school will remain under monitoring.
“It’s not, we have to do this because it’s part of our penalties or part of our sanctions,” athletic director Sandy Barbour said. “This has always been about doing things the right way. It needs to be solved, if it hasn’t already, and lots of places it has. It can’t be done because it’s part of the agreement part of our sanctions.”
Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1980s, said rolling back the sanctions gives the appearance of the NCAA acknowledging it might have overreached by getting involved with the Sandusky scandal.
“My first blush is I don’t know how it could be perceived differently,” he said. “I’d be very curious to dive into (the NCAA’s) rationale.”
If the Nittany Lions (2-0) win the East division, they will be eligible to play in the Big Ten championship game.
Paterno was the winningest coach in major college football history when he was fired not long after Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, was charged in November 2011. Paterno died in January 2012 and lost his record when the NCAA vacated those 111 victories.
O’Brien left for the Houston Texans of the NFL after last season, and Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt to take his place.
Paterno still looms in every nook at State College. There’s a pizza shop named “409” — the number of games Paterno won before some wins were vacated — and a prominent plaque on Beaver Stadium where listed benefactors donated in recognition of “Joe Paterno’s Outstanding Career as Penn State’s Head Football Coach.”
Also still vacated: the site of Paterno’s statue, where no trace of the bronzed tribute remains.
Some hiccups remain. The scandal badly tarnished what had been one of college sports’ most respected programs, and led to charges of a criminal cover-up against former university administrators Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley — whose cases are still pending.
“We probably do have some things ahead that have the potential to bring the situation up again,” Barbour said. “We’ll have to revisit something that was, particularly for the victims, a real tragedy. But as a leadership, that’s what you do. You lead this university through difficult times.”
It is now Franklin’s job to move the program forward by recruiting, and winning.
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