By RALPH D. RUSSO, Associated Press
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 if 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 SMU'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 that 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.
"It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team," said Mitchell Glieber, who was 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 right now keeping his team together is his top priority.
Glieber felt that professional football was probably not in his future back in the late '80s, so he stuck it out at SMU, along with a handful of other players, mostly former walk-ons.
SMU canceled the 1988 season as well, though it was allowed to hire a coach — former Green Bay Packers great and Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, an SMU alum, was brought in — and the team began practicing.
"The caliber of talent between the pre-death penalty and the post-death penalty were absolutely night and day," said Glieber, who is now the vice president of marketing for the Texas State Fair. "In the first few weeks of practice I was just in disbelief about the level of players we had out there."
SMU also had scholarship limits placed on the program by the NCAA and the school had responded to the scandal by drastically raising the academic standards for athletes, Glieber said.
Glieber looked at the team SMU was hoping to compete with Southwest Conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M and thought: "Can this group of guys stay healthy and continue to field a team week to week?"
"It was pretty bleak looking to be honest with you."
SMU, remarkably, won two games its first season back. But the program was a wreck. When the Southwest Conference broke up, many of the top programs from that league ended up in the Big 12. SMU was cast aside.
It is not unreasonable to think that the Big Ten, with multimillion dollar television contracts to fulfill that require 12 teams, would not have held a spot for Penn State if it had been given the death penalty.
Instead, the Big Ten will withhold Penn State's portion of the conference's shared bowl revenue while the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the postseason. That will cost Penn State about $13 million.
But the Nittany Lions will still get to have their games shown on the Big Ten Network. And probably on ESPN and ABC.
The spotlight will still be on Penn State football, and that could be a good thing.
The day after the NCAA's hammer dropped on Penn State, O'Brien made the media rounds, answering questions about how he will go about trying to lead the Nittany Lions through the difficult times that lie ahead.
Mostly, though, O'Brien was delivering the message that there are still plenty of reasons to play football at Penn State. The former New England offensive coordinator and Joe Paterno's replacement ticked off the reasons several times.
— A chance to get a great education;
— The ability to "play football on TV in front of 108,000 fans" at Beaver Stadium;
— To be able to play "six or seven bowl games a year right here in State College in front of great fans";
— His staff's ability to develop players for the NFL.
And he left off a couple of others.
Most likely, fans will still come to Beaver Stadium. College football weekends are about more than the game. They are about reunions of friends and family, a chance to cook out on crisp autumn days. Those things won't change in Happy Valley.
Also, while a four-year bowl ban sounds tough, think about it like this. An incoming freshman who redshirts for a year — retaining four years of eligibility — will be able to play for the blue and white in a bowl his senior season.
O'Brien has already shown signs of being a stellar recruiter. He was putting together a class that recruiting analysts were high on before the sanctions.
Analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports said that he thinks the first two years under the sanctions will be lean, but O'Brien can start selling recruits a future with bowl games and Big Ten titles by Year 3 and Penn State could be back on track in five years.
"It's all about the optimism and the ability to sell the future to these kids," Lemming said.
O'Brien said he found out exactly what the sanctions were at the same time as everyone else, when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced them at a news conference Monday morning.
Before they came down, O'Brien said he told his bosses what he wanted: "Let us play football and let us be on TV."
"At the end of the day that's what you want to do: play football in a fantastic, beautiful stadium and you want your fans that can't go to the game to watch you on TV."
It sure beats not playing at all.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap
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