By Jake Saltzman
If there’s one thing the recently released Freeh Report makes sure of, it’s that with all the answers come just as many questions. So much of Joe Paterno’s legacy prior to 2011 involved the transformation of Penn State into a football powerhouse in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, but as of this past Thursday, the 2010s have become Paterno’s most remembered decade. And we’re not even three years into it.
More than a football story, the Freeh Report has become the eye of a human story. The travesties occurring at Penn State are bigger than football, and while the Freeh Report will ultimately function to guide the university’s football program moving forward, the Nittany Lions will now fall under the world’s microscope. Whatever happens on the field in the next ten years no longer belongs only to ESPN. Time Magazine will be in State College too, covering football not for the sake of football, but because the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky saga spans an audience far greater than the one that tunes into College Gameday 14 Saturdays every fall.
Penn State is preparing to put a team on the field in the fall. The death penalty that many have called for does not yet appear to be forthcoming. The NCAA has said they’re considering it, but as of right now there isn’t much to make it appear likely. The investigation into the University of Miami football program has gone on far longer than anybody anticipated, with new waves of details emerging off and on really since the 1980s. And that’s an investigation the NCAA has had all to itself. If the NCAA views the recruiting and booster violations in Coral Gables as worthy of a multi-generation investigation, there’s no reason to believe the Penn State mess will be dealt with swiftly.
The anticipated non-death penalty ruling can be viewed in one of two ways. To be sure, the NCAA has issued the death penalty to programs for scandals far less severe than the one presently looming over Penn State. If sketchy boosters and faulty recruiting are deserving of a program’s two year termination, a sex abuse scandal certainly ought to as well. No questions asked.
Then again as far as the NCAA and only the NCAA is concerned, recruiting violations are an almighty evil, a bugaboo worthy of a greater punishment than any other infraction a university may commit. Because the NCAA was never the highest authority in the Penn St. scandal, it was never just the NCAA’s problem. Only the US Justice System should have the authority to dole out punishments, as it was the highest authority involved in the matter. Only if Louis Freeh recommends a death sentence shall the NCAA seriously explore that option.
A third, less-talked about body that also governs over Penn State is the Big Ten Conference, home to the Nittany Lions since 1993. The Big Ten currently stands twelve members strong (oddly enough the Big 12 now has 10 football members) with the arrival of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2011, and is one of only three major conferences strong enough to avoid losing football members to realignment in the past two years. One of those three conferences, the ACC, was even forced to raise exit fees to $20 million last year due to the threat of departures.
Though the Big Ten is nowhere near as powerful as the NCAA, it has weathered college football’s recent storms as a conference far better than the NCAA has as an organization. If serious football punishments were to be handed down to Penn State, the Big Ten is currently in a much better position to sanction them than not only the NCAA, but from a football perspective, absolutely the US government.
Now the Big Ten is not the SEC. No other collegiate conference has dominated a sport the way the SEC has football in recent seasons. The Big 12 seemed to be coming close in the middle part of this past decade, but has since lost powerhouse programs Missouri and Texas A&M to the aforementioned SEC, as well as Colorado to the Pac 12. In fact things have gotten so far out of control in the Big 12 that as of July 2012, only four conference schools (Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State) have abstained from talks of conference relocation.
However, what the SEC and Big 12 have gained from expansion and realignment, the Big 10 has gained largely by staying idle, standing pat with its only change being the addition of Nebraska.
As a result, the SEC now spans two time zones from South Carolina to Texas. The Big 12 is even more of a geographic enigma, ranging from West Virginia to Kansas.
Save for Penn State, the Big Ten is the only conference of the three that makes any sense geographically.
Because of the locations of its member schools, the Big Ten thrives on natural and in-state rivalries like Michigan/Michigan State, Minnesota/Wisconsin, and Indiana/Purdue, to name three of the more obvious. Northwestern and Illinois battle yearly in the battle of Illinois, while Michigan/Ohio St is arguably the most spirited rivalry in all of college sports. Keeping these rivalries unchanged has allowed the Big Ten to remain unchanged, while at the same time ensuring local talent continues to be able to play against local talent, at least on the in-state level.
That isn’t the case with Penn State however, whose major in-state rival, Pittsburgh, hasn’t played the Nittany Lions since 2000. Penn State and Temple have just recently resumed yearly play, but given the major disparity in talent between the Big Ten and Big East, Penn State has won the last 30 meetings between the two. Put the two in the same conference though, and within five years the winning streak is broken.
One thing Penn State does give the Big Ten is a major pro factory, particularly for linebackers. The Big Ten has traditionally sent just as many if not more prospects to the NFL than other major conferences, and while the SEC has won the past six national titles, it had only one more prospect drafted into the NFL than the Big Ten in the 2012 draft.
But as far as Penn State is concerned, of the 10 Big Ten schools with players drafted this April, three schools had more players taken than Penn State. In fact, only five Big Ten schools had fewer players taken. That includes Minnesota and Indiana, neither of which had a single player taken.
Of course, players-drafted is a fluctuating statistic and not always the best indicator of talent or competition. But it is still very telling for powerhouse programs, which is exactly what Penn State was, is, and will remain barring either conference relocation or a death sentence. Penn State has long been regarded as college football’s linebacker factory, and with Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee headed for the level of stardom already achieved by former Nittany Lions Paul Posluszny, Aaron Maybin and Tamba Hali, there’s no reason to believe that moniker won’t stick.
Yet what Penn St. does for its conference with pro-ready linebackers, Michigan has done over the years with quarterbacks. Similarly in West Lafayette, Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Jeff George and Gary Danielson all stepped onto the field at one time or another for Purdue. Although the Boilermakers haven’t sent a star quarterback to the NFL since Drew Brees and Kyle Orton in the 2000s, they have quietly been hard at work becoming one of the better producers of O-Linemen prospects in the nation. Uche Nwaneri has been rock solid for the Jaguars since arriving in Jacksonville in 2007, and both of Purdue’s draft picks this year were offensive linemen. That includes under the radar pick Dennis Kelly, who joins a Philadelphia Eagles team that yielded St. Louis a dozen QB hits last season, despite the Rams being without rookie sack specialist Robert Quinn in that game.
In what has become the ultimate offense-driven sport, it seems more likely now than ever that the Big Ten would opt to hang its hat on Michigan and Purdue’s pedigree of QBs rather than Penn State’s development of linebackers. No one position dominates it’s league the way the quarterback does the NFL, and so well Penn State’s tradition of sending the NFL linebackers is impressive, it simply involves a less relevant position on the field. Not irrelevant; just less relevant.
What the Big Ten thrives on, (in-state rivalries and close geographic proximity from school-to-school) Penn State fails to bring. What Penn State does bring, (winning tradition, chance to play in BCS Bowl games and more than anything else, a pro-factory) the conference has in abundance.
If there was ever a time to make an example out of an at-fault program, it is right now. The concern is that should the task of issuing punishment fall on the NCAA, nothing the NCAA can do (or will do, though that’s a story for another time) will fit the severity of Penn State’s infraction. One of the most severe penalties the NCAA can inflict on a program short of the death penalty is the elimination of the chance to compete in BCS Bowls, including the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game. Though that punishment would be a harsh one in most circumstances, especially because of the new four-team playoff rule effective in 2014-15, before the revelations at Penn State, similar punishment was doled out to programs for things so seemingly insignificant as buying their tailback a new car.
The University of Southern California for example was recently denied participation in postseason play for two years as a result of the Reggie Bush scandal that also saw Bush relinquish his Heisman Trophy. Though that punishment seemed severe to some in that case, and though a multi-season ban from the postseason would surely deal Penn State a formidable blow in recruiting both players and coaches, prohibiting Penn St. from playing in the postseason for, say six seasons, is essentially saying what happened in Penn St. is three times as bad as what Reggie Bush did at USC.
That of course is ludicrous on multiple levels. Not only is the Jerry Sandusky case far more severe than any recruiting or financial compensation case imaginable, but sexual abuse cannot possibly be dealt with in the same manner as a typical NCAA recruiting or payment violation. It’s like apples and oranges; Reggie Bush scarred the game, Jerry Sandusky scarred the nation.
It’s unclear what, if any power the Big Ten Conference has in the matter. Even if the Conference approved a dismissal plan, many pieces would have to fall into place to force Penn State out. Still, the only greater crime than the ones committed by Jerry Sandusky would be for College Football to act with anything less than maximum urgency in reprimanding the program. Somebody needs to step up. In the best position to do so, undoubtedly, is the Big Ten Conference.
Unfortunately, it just may not happen.