When he gathered his players together for an afternoon practice, Bill O’Brien briefly talked about the NCAA’s surprising announcement of lessening the harsh sanctions against Penn State.
And then the Nittany Lions quickly re-focused on improving their play during the bye week and preparing for the Big Ten opener against Indiana.
A low-key O’Brien said there really isn’t much else to do right now.
While he is “happy right now” for his players, for university officials who have worked to implement the recommendations of the Freeh Report and for Penn State fans, he also noted how the NCAA’s giving back of some scholarships won’t exactly help them yet, not in the middle of the season.
The leniency of the penalties detail that five additional scholarships will be added to the Nittany Lions’ program beginning next year and the amount of restored scholarships will continue to increase.
Penn State now will be able to bring in full recruiting classes of 25 members in 2015-16 and will have a full roster of 85 scholarship players a year early in 2016-17.
The recruiting road will be impacted immediately: Instead of being able to sign only 15 high school recruits with this class in February, O’Brien can now give scholarships to 20.
NCAA officials cited Penn State’s impressive implementation of guidelines instituted in light of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal as reason for the reduction of penalties. For now, the remainder of the four-year postseason ban, the $60 million fine and erasing 111 victories under Joe Paterno remain — though officials said further reductions are possible.
When he spoke with reporters on the weekly Big Ten teleconference today, O’Brien said he and his staff simply have not had enough time to digest the changes and how it will affect their recruit and team plans.
But he won’t divulge what they are anyway.
“I was hired here just trying to do what’s right for the student athletes,” O’Brien said. “We’ve made mistakes and we’ve owned up for those. If we sent an improper text (message) or made an extra phone call (to recruits), we’ve tried to report those immediately. We’ve just tried to do things the right way.”
He maintained that the scholarship losses and other penalties never hurt his staff in being able to attract interest from quality recruits. The university and athletic facilities continue to sell themselves.
“Recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here,” O’Brien said. “The difficulty was in the numbers part.
Now, “We definitely can get to more of an even playing field, numbers-wise.”
As part of the teleconference, several other Big Ten head coaches expressed their support of reducing the sanctions, including Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.
As for O’Brien, the announcement “ gives me a chance to talk to our team about sticking with it and taking it day by day and being committed.
“And then we’ll immediately get back to work on Indiana. Today is definitely more about the future. It doesn’t have much of an effect on this year.”
He then refused to elaborate on the effect of the postseason ban being lifted in the future, saying that “should be addressed to someone (at Penn State) other than me.”
As expected, though, former players made their feelings known quite clearly about the sanctions reduction via social media such as Twitter.
“The future gets brighter and brighter for Penn State,” said Matt Stankiewitch, a center on last year’s team. “The dark days are well behind us.”
Teammate and former cornerback Stephon Morris added this: “The NCAA is taking some baby steps cause they know they’re wrong. They should admit that they were wrong.”
The Paterno family also offered a statement: “Over the last 14 months it has become clear to open-minded people that the Freeh Report is deeply flawed … and the actions by the NCAA were precipitous and unjust. This action begins to correct the mistakes … of the [Penn State] Board of Trustees, Mr. Freeh and the NCAA. ”
In an NCAA press conference Tuesday, president Mark Emmert sidestepped questions related to his charge in July of 2012 that Penn State’s culture was out of balance in regards to athletics.
Today, he did praise the university for demonstrating its “daily mindset within athletics that the highest priority has to be placed on educating, nurturing and protecting young people, and to recognize the impact of the abuse on the lives of the victims in this case.”
On Sept. 6, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who is the athletics integrity monitor for Penn State, published a report stating how Penn State has “substantially completed” the initial phase of the Freeh Report’s recommendations, including all of its annual duties under the Athletics Integrity Agreement.
Mitchell also said that more relief could be coming if Penn State officials “remain steadfast” in their actions.
“I recommended that the NCAA hold out the prospect of further mitigation in postseason eligibility. This, I believe, is appropriate and will create an incentive to stay the course for the new leadership that will take over on President Erickson’s impending departure.”
Meanwhile, Emmert said the Penn State decision sets no precedent for reducing sanctions with other programs.