We’re 11 weeks before Penn State kicks off the James Franklin Era on a rugby pitch in Dublin, Ireland. Around that time, we’ll have a much better idea about on what field the Nittany Lions’ 2014 season will end.
As of now, that place is the Beaver Stadium grass at some point during the day of Nov. 29, when the regular season ends with the incomparable Land Grant Trophy on the line against reigning Rose Bowl champion Michigan State.
Will Penn State – at least in theory – have an opportunity to earn itself a trip to the Rose Bowl itself this fall? As it stands, the answer is no. The Lions are entering season No. 3 of a four-year ban on postseason play levied by the NCAA during the summer of 2012.
But some of those unprecedented and crippling sanctions have since been softened – namely, scholarships were restored to the rosters (and incoming recruiting classes) in 2014, ’15 ’16 and ‘17. Those were by way of a recommendation from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who was appointed as Penn State’s independent athletics integrity monitor.
Mitchell’s next annual report is said to be due late in the summer. He and the NCAA both have hinted that further sanctions reductions could be coming – assuming Penn State doesn’t slip up. If that’s so, here are the remaining penalties affecting the football program: The 2015 team is limited to 80 scholarships (the usual FBS limit is 85), wins from 1998-2011 remain officially vacated and, of course, the postseason ban for the 2014 and ’15 seasons.
New Penn State president Eric Barron, in an interview with the Trib, already has publicly maintained that the school should be rewarded for complying with all that was asked of it since the controversial Freeh Report’s release.
Of the penalties remaining, the vacated wins seem, by far, the least likely to be restored. At least not now. Too much politics involved – and besides, they do not immediately affect the program in the present or going forward. I know these victories mean an awful lot to a lot of people, but for now, put it on the back burner. It’s probably not changing now, and doesn’t need to.
The five extra scholarships are something to keep an eye on. These, in all likelihood, would be in the form of five incoming freshmen – and with the recruiting momentum the new coaching staff has, that will figure to only help the Lions immensely in the future. Although the currently-lessened sanctions allow PSU the full complement of a 25-prospect freshman scholarship class, that does the Lions no good because the 80-player roster limit will be passed by then (barring some significant roster shakeup before signing day in February). The bowl ban is getting all the publicity now – but those seemingly-innocuous five remaining extra scholarships to give might have a greater longterm impact.
Many at Penn State are privately cautiously optimistic about getting the remaining “bowl ban” lifted – or at least half of it. Personally, at this point, I’d be highly surprised if PSU isn’t permitted for postseason play (remember, that now also includes the Big Ten championship game, should the Lions win the new East Division) in 2015. This season, I wouldn’t be shocked, either way.
The player who is arguably Penn State’s best upperclassman, linebacker Mike Hull, told the Trib he and his teammates are hoping they can go bowling during his fifth-year senior season.
“I’m speaking for every guy on our roster,” Hull said in a recent phone interview. “Everyone is aware of (Mitchell’s next annual report), and everyone hopes the sanctions get reduced.
“We’re hopeful — but you never know what’s going to happen, so we’re just thankful to still be playing football. But it would be great if we could go to a bowl game and play for a Big Ten championship, especially in my last year.”
Like their university leadership over most of the past two years, Penn State’s players haven’t too often campaigned for sanctions reductions. Of course, they’d be in favor of them (why wouldn’t they be?). And it’s understandable why they’d be reluctant to say so, though (You know the clichés/coaches’ rationale: It’s out of their control, the focus is on the current season, etc.).
The opinion of fellow linebacker Ben Kline is more of the diplomatic answer you’ll get from a Penn State player when asked by the Trib if he’s eager for Mitchell’s report and hopeful for sanctions relief: “All that stuff goes over my head, I try not to pay too much attention to it. Me being here, the years I’ve been here, my class and Mikey’s class, we’ve been through it all. So we’ve kind of learned to just pay attention to what we can pay attention to. So I really don’t pay a lot of attention to it.
“I will say that I know that Penn State’s going to do whatever they can to make sure that we maximize our experience while we’re here and put Penn State football in the best position possible moving forward. I trust them to do that. Whatever goes on with the NCAA and the Big Ten and Penn State, I don’t really try to pay attention to it, but I will say that I do trust Penn State as an institution and I do trust the administration will make the right decision and fight for us for whatever they think is appropriate. And I will deal with whatever they decide.”
That fact is – barring any backroom politicking – the fate of the state of the sanctions (on face value, at least) lies not with the school, not with the conference, and not even with the NCAA. It lies with Mitchell (Although it will be the NCAA that acts – if it acts at all – it will be upon a recommendation from Mitchell).
The Nittany Lions have much to concern themselves with besides what Mitchell’s next report says. That doesn’t mean it surely isn’t in the back of a lot of blue-and-white minds.
“I’m trying not to get my hopes up for anything, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Hull said. “But it would be great if we could go to a bowl game after not being able to go for the last couple years. It would be really big for our program, especially for the younger guys. I’m not getting my hopes up right now but it is in the back of my mind that there’s a possibility that the sanctions might be reduced.”