The mere suggestion that NCAA sanctions against Penn State were worse than receiving the so-called death penalty were enough to make first-year coach Bill O’Brien raise his voice a notch.
“No. We are playing football,” O’Brien said forcefully during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. “We open our season on Sept. 1 in front of 108,000 strong against Ohio University. We’re playing football and we’re on TV. We get to practice. We get to get better as football players and get to do it for Penn State.”
The NCAA crushed Penn State with scholarship reductions that could be felt for much of this decade and a bowl ban over the next four seasons, but it stopped short of handing down the death penalty, forcing the school to shut down the program the way it did to SMU in 1987.
It is fair to wonder whether Penn State football will ever be what it once was: a perennial Top 20 program that routinely contended for Big Ten championships and occasionally national titles. But to suggest that Penn State’s punishment is comparable to or worse than Southern Methodist University’s is to forget just how difficult it has been for the Mustangs to recover. And make no mistake, 25 years later, SMU football is still recovering.
“Until you’ve completely killed a program, it’s hard to understand all that it takes for a program to operate on a day-to-day basis,” said Andy Bergfeld, a receiver on SMU’s 1989 team, its first after the death penalty. “The fact that SMU had to start completely from scratch – they went from playing in Texas Stadium to converting their 1920 home stadium into a place we could play our home games – it was very, very difficult. I think Penn State, when all the dust settles, will have a lot better chance to recover more quickly.”
As difficult as it will be for Penn State to deal with having no more than 65 scholarship players for four years (their opponents will have 85) it’s a whole lot better than having no scholarship players at all.
SMU’s program was shuttered by the NCAA for one year because it was a repeat offender found to be systematically paying players and because high-ranking university officials knew about the payments.
The NCAA allowed SMU players to transfer without restrictions after the punishment was handed down, just as it is doing with Penn State players.
With no chance of playing until at least 1988, just about all of the Mustangs left the team.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team,” said Mitchell Glieber, a redshirt freshman on SMU’s 1986 team, the last one before the sanctions. “If you had aspirations of playing football beyond college there was no choice.”
As of Tuesday, Penn State has not lost a current player. No doubt defections will come, and O’Brien has said that keeping his team together is his top priority.