Philadelphia, PA – The Penn State Nittany Lions have a bye this weekend. Normally during such a week, the biggest news to come out of Happy Valley would be a change on the depth chart for the Big Ten opener.
That is not the case this time, as the biggest and best news of the week for the Nittany Lions has nothing to do with such a game.
On Tuesday, the NCAA announced it will begin to "gradually" restore football scholarships to Penn State that were taken away as part of the unprecedented sanctions against the university in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The restoration plan calls for Penn State to receive five scholarships each year until it reaches the limit of 25 initial scholarships in 2015-16 and 85 total in 2016-17.
As with any action taken by the NCAA in these matters, there are clearly winners and losers, even in a case like this.
The very clear and obvious winner is Penn State football, especially head coach Bill O'Brien and his coaching staff. O'Brien was hired away from the New England Patriots to take over a sinking ship following the dismissal of long-time head coach Joe Paterno.
Every new coach faces challenges, but O'Brien had to deal with a lot more than adjusting a defensive scheme or fixing problems on the offensive line. From the onset, O'Brien's recruiting powers were crippled by the NCAA sanctions, which included the still-in-place postseason ban and a $60 million fine to go to child abuse programs. O'Brien not only couldn't bring in as much talent, he had to watch a lot of the talent that existed leave. The prime example was leading rusher Silas Redd going off to USC.
Even when saddled with such difficult circumstances, O'Brien found a way to make his team competitive. The Nittany Lions went 8-4 and O'Brien was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Now O'Brien and the players who stuck around, the group of people who would have been continually punished for heinous acts performed by others far before their time, can begin to raise Penn State back up.
"I'm happy for a few groups of people," O'Brien said. "I'm happy for our staff. This is an excellent football staff of people here who have worked extremely hard every day since we arrived here at Penn State. I'm happy for our players. I think we have a resilient bunch of kids here in our program. They've acted the right way off the field, and I believe they have performed admirably on the field. And I'm very happy for the people here at Penn State."
Though he may not have said it, there are certainly a few groups of people that O'Brien is not happy for. Obviously, disgraced and dismissed former university president Graham Spanier and athletics director Tim Curley have already suffered their punishment. However, there is another group that "lost" in this scenario - the NCAA itself.
Restoring the scholarships, even on a gradual basis, is the right thing to do. The coaches and players at Penn State presently and in the future had nothing to do with the terrible actions of Sandusky and then Paterno, Spanier and Curley. It was a punishment even those in direct competition with Penn State saw as wrong.
"I think that was a bad deal personally," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Seems like a lot of people that shouldn't have paid a price, paid a price. That's just my outsider looking in. I'm looking at the players and coaches."
Now those players and coaches will not have to carry so heavy a burden of punishment that Sandusky and others created for the program.
However, it is difficult to separate the actions taken by the NCAA on Tuesday from the continued missteps the organization has taken recently. Examples like the debacle with the University of Miami and the hypocritical condemnation of players profiting while selling jerseys with players' names on them on its online store. Thanks to Jay Bilas for exposing the latter misstep. Finally, there was the handling of the Johnny Manziel autograph situation, which ended with a cowardly first-half suspension in Texas A&M's season opener.
Now the NCAA is taking back some of the most severe punishments it has ever put into action. Though the official announcement claims the gradual restoration is being awarded because "Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program," there are certainly other reasons than what amounts to good behavior that pushed the NCAA to act.
But the saying goes that to the victors goes the spoils. Penn State is the victor here, even if the spoils are somewhat minor. There is still a postseason ban on the program and it won't be at full strength until at least 2018. However, if O'Brien could go 8-4 with recruiting handcuffs, it's going to be fun to watch him mold a team with those shackles loosened.
"It's always important on the competition level itself to be on a level playing field," O'Brien said. "(The Big Ten) is a fantastic conference with great head coaches and great players. It's good to be getting back to being on a level playing field with them in terms of scholarship numbers."
Getting back to level ground will still take some time, perhaps less time if other sanctions are lifted, but time nonetheless. For now, Penn State can only prepare for Indiana, which it faces in the Big Ten opener a week from Saturday.