O’Brien: NCAA sanctions cut more about future than now

Remember when everyone thought Penn State football would be an afterthought for a decade because of the NCAA sanctions?

There’s probably no one thinking that anymore.

Not after the NCAA’s historic about-face Tuesday in reducing the Nittany Lions’ scholarship sanctions.

“We can’t go to a bowl and can’t compete for a championship, but we definitely can get to more of an even playing field numbers-wise,” coach Bill O’Brien said.

Instead of worrying every day for four years about how he and his staff would go about the arduous task of running a program with only 65 scholarships, O’Brien now has a very bright light at the end of a very short tunnel.

The Lions will be back up to 75 scholarships next year, 80 in 2015 and up to the full allotment of 85 in 2016.

The sanction limiting them to 65 scholarships for four years? That wasn’t even supposed to start until next year, and now it has vanished without ever actually going into effect. (Although the team has barely had more than 65 scholarship players for two seasons now as a byproduct of the sanctions.)

O’Brien was careful Tuesday not to get caught up in celebrating the sanction reduction news. He’s in the middle of a season, and while he knows how significant the reductions are, they won’t come into play until next year and beyond.

“Today is definitely more about the future, it’s about next year and the year after and the year after that,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien didn’t find out about the NCAA’s decision until Tuesday morning, and he planned to discuss it with the team before their afternoon practice.

“We’re happy right now for our players, our student-athletes that are here and our football program,” the coach said. “They’re a resilient bunch of kids.

“We’re happy for our people here at Penn State and the people that have worked extremely hard to implement the recommendations of the Freeh report. We’re just trying to take it one day at a time and working as hard as we can and continuing every single day to try to do the right thing.”

O’Brien said he feels good for several groups of people, including the student body and the fans.

“Our fans, I think they’re the best fans in the country. It’s a good day for all those people,” he said.

Tuesday might turn out to be a bad day for the rest of the teams in the Big Ten, at least as it pertains to their own competitive hopes.

With O’Brien in place – and Tuesday’s announcement makes it easier for him to stick around rather than jumping to the NFL – a progressive offense with a dynamic young quarterback in Christian Hackenberg and now the addition of scholarships, it all gives the Lions a chance to remain a major player in the conference instead of having to endure the doldrums that might have come about with only 65 scholarships for four seasons.

Some Big Ten coaches, including Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, expressed their support for the NCAA’s decision.

“I’m happy for Penn State,” Hazell said. “They’re able to get themselves in a position where they can help some other players out and not punish some guys that had nothing to do with that tragic happening in the past.”

O’Brien said he appreciates the support from other coaches and is not surprised by it.

“There are fantastic coaches in this league,” he said. “Like I’ve said, I have respect for every coach in this league. They are tough guys to coach against and tough guys to recruit against, but they all believe in the common goal of educating the student-athlete and trying to do the best job they can to improve them as football players and as people.”

Penn State will have all of its scholarships back much sooner than previously expected, but for now the bowl ban is still in place through 2015. Everyone within the program is hoping that sanction also can be reduced perhaps as early as next season and if that happens, then for all intents and purposes, Penn State would be on an even playing field.

In order to perhaps get the bowl ban reduced, O’Brien said, “We have to keep doing what we’re doing, which is working extremely hard to do what’s right.”