BY Dan Gelston
The Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE —
Bill O’Brien will soon have a few more scholarships to offer when he hits the recruiting trail.
He also has more reasons to stick around State College and finish his contract at Penn State.
On Tuesday, the Nittany Lions got some rare good news from the NCAA, which will restore some of the scholarships taken from the school as part of the punishment over the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Five will be reinstated next year, and more will be phased in until the school reaches normal totals in 2016-17.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing,” O’Brien said, “which is work extremely hard to do what’s right for our football program here, for our players, our student-athletes, and most importantly, for the university.”
The NCAA credited the school for making significant improvements to its athletics programs after the Sandusky scandal. The scholarship amount will continue to increase until Penn State reaches the full allocation of 25 initial football scholarships in 2015-16 and 85 total in 2016-17.
While the surprising reversal won’t help this year’s Nittany Lions (3-1), O’Brien was pleased the sanctions were eased for the long-term health of the program.
“It’s more about the future,” the second-year coach said.
Even better for Penn State, the NCAA said it also may reduce the postseason play ban, depending on the university’s future progress.
The NCAA said the unanimous decision by its executive committee was based on the recommendation of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who has been serving as Penn State’s athletics integrity monitor.
With more players on the roster and the bowl ban potentially lifted, O’Brien would have more incentive to stay at Penn State. That’s certainly good news in Happy Valley, where O’Brien has been embraced as a worthy successor to Hall of Famer Joe Paterno.
O’Brien replaced Paterno, who was fired in November 2011 in the aftermath of Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges. Paterno died about two weeks after O’Brien was hired in January 2012.
O’Brien received a nearly $1 million raise in June after his debut season at Penn State. Counting compensation for radio and television work and a Nike contract, O’Brien’s total deal this year would be worth more than $3.2 million.
He led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record after the program was hit by the landmark NCAA sanctions and by player defections weeks before the start of the 2012 season.
The sanctions included a four-year bowl ban, which would expire after the 2015 season, and a $60 million fine to be paid in five annual installments ending in 2016.
The team was also limited to 65 scholarship players – 20 less than allowed for FBS schools – for a four-year period starting in 2014 and ending after the 2017-18 academic year.
Now that last punishment has been reduced.
O’Brien’s success sparked interest from NFL teams, including the Eagles and Browns. He electrified Penn State’s offense with schemes similar to the high-scoring Patriots.
He’s helped put the program on the right path.
“We’ve made mistakes and we’ve owned up to those,” he said. “Like, if we sent an improper text or made an extra phone call, we’ve tried to report that right away. We try to do things the right way. We’re certainly not perfect.”
The NCAA’s decision to ease the scholarship restrictions won’t appease critics who questioned whether the organization had the authority to punish the football team over the Sandusky scandal. Paterno’s son Jay, a former assistant coach, and ex-cornerback Stephon Morris were among those ripping the NCAA on Twitter on Tuesday.
O’Brien said it was difficult to recruit, simply because the numbers forced him to sign few players certain positions. But the program has kept afloat, O’Brien said, because he was pitching a great university.
“We always felt once we were able to get a young man and his parents here on campus, the place sold itself,” he said. “It’s a place where you can get a fantastic degree. It’s a place where you can play in the Big Ten. As far as recruiting the individual athlete, that was never difficult here.”