COLLINS: Penn State buried, but not dead
This isn't death.
It is close, mind you. But it isn't death.
There has not been one day in this unreal saga, this horrifying scandal, this American tragedy, like Monday. Long after the Jerry Sandusky verdict, weeks after the Freeh report, two days after Joe Paterno's statue was jackhammered from its bearings, we see just how heavily the football program affects Penn State. The NCAA came down hard on the Nittany Lions, levying unprecedented punishment on a school that violated none of the organization's bylaws, but offended all of our moral principles.
A four-year bowl ban.
A $60 million fine.
The loss of 10 scholarships per year over four years that will drop the Nittany Lions from 85 to 65. By the end, their once-coveted scholarship offers will be handed out at the same rate Lafayette College and Lehigh University hand out theirs.
Five years probation, for a school that had never been on probation for a single day.
And every win from the 1998 season through the 2011 season will be stricken from the record books, if not the minds of Penn State fans. Of course, the byproduct is that Paterno went from winningest coach in NCAA history to No. 12 all-time in an eye-blink.
The reaction was predictable: Penn State fans are shocked and saddened, feeling they're being punished for a crime they didn't commit. And maybe they are. But know what else was predictable? The punishment.
There was no way, none, that the NCAA could allow Penn State to rest on the changes it had to make. No way is firing Paterno and Spanier, and essentially Curley and Schultz, enough to satisfy the NCAA after the Freeh findings. No way the NCAA was going to take the chance that Penn State would let Bill O'Brien perhaps make this program even better than it was before.
There had to be a deterrent. There had to be punitive damages.
Quite frankly given all this, it is surprising Penn State fans and players have reacted the way they have so far. We've all heard the opinions:
n The scholarship loss is the biggest blow, because how can O'Brien possibly recruit the best players now? There's simply no guarantee Penn State will be deep enough to be competitive.
n No, the bowl ban hurts most. Players want to be on the biggest stage. They want to play college football so they can be seen. Who will want to play at Penn State when they know they'll be watching the Rose Bowl from home on New Year's Day?
n No again, the $60 million fine hurts most, because that money represents about a year's worth of football revenue. Didn't Paterno always used to boast about how the football program funded the entire athletic department at Penn State?
Truth is, it all is going to hurt. It is supposed to hurt. Penn State fans can't In good conscience feel victimized by an NCAA finally drawing a line in the turf. Not when it was their school that didn't protect victims in the first place. In a week, or a month or a year, Penn State will sit down and realize it can recover from all of this. It must, if it wants to continue to have a viable athletic department. But it will have to recover the right way.
This is close to death. But it is not death. Penn State will play a football game Sept. 1. And next September. And the September after that. Although they may not win a lot of those games, they'll play. They can continue. Fans can flood Beaver Stadium. Businesses can hope for big profits.
They couldn't do that at SMU in 1987, when the Mustangs suffered the death penalty's wrath. Then in 1988, they sat out again, dealing with the after-effects.
It has been 25 years, and SMU is barely relevant. It doesn't have to be that way for Penn State.
Penn State still has scholarships to give. Penn State still has games to play and plenty of opportunities to make enough money to pay off that fine over five years. Penn State has a team and players and a coach and, really, might not be any worse off than Indiana is competitively for four years.
See, college sports isn't supposed to be about winning. It is supposed to be about opportunity. And Penn State still offers that.
It was the punishment that held the least bite, but maybe Penn State fans can learn the most from the NCAA's striking Paterno's wins. You can still play. You can still gather. But you can't put the same emphasis on football that you have in the past.
Here's hoping the NCAA plans to keep its teeth sharp for other schools having problems balancing athletics and academics.
But what a story Penn State would be if it recovers from this better all-around. As an institution. As an athletic program. And an alumni- and fan-base that truly understands that balance.
For too long Penn State had the chance to right a wrong and didn't do anything. Now, it pays the price. It just isn't the ultimate price, unless you overvalue winning football games.
DONNIE COLLINS covers Penn State football for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog at http://blogs.thetimes-tribune.com/pennstate/, or follow him on Twitter @psubst