|Penn State football players leave the Lasch Football Buliding following a team meeting after the announcement of the NCAA penalties and sanctions on the Penn State campus in State College, PA July 23, 2012. Photo by Craig Houtz, Reuters.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The governing body of U.S. college sports refrained from delivering the "death penalty" to Penn State's storied football program on Monday, but it effectively put it into a coma that will last half a decade or longer, college football experts said.
"They don't matter anymore after these sanctions today," said Jed Donahue, owner of The Pennsylvania Sports Network and a radio sports talk host for 20 years.
In an unprecedented rebuke to the university and its football program for failing to stop one-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children, the NCAA fined Penn State $60 million to be used to fund a foundation to help victims of child sex abuse, voided 14 seasons of victories, slashed the number of football scholarships it may hand out and banned it from playing in post-season bowl games.
The penalties fell short of an all-out suspension of the football program, referred to in college sports circles as "the death penalty." But it could have roughly the same effect on the near-term vitality of the Penn State program.
The current Nittany Lions team is coached by Bill O'Brien after the late Joe Paterno, a once-towering figure in college sports, was fired last year because of the scandal. O'Brien's biggest challenge now is likely the loss of bowl appearances, followed by the reduced number of scholarships.
"Any four- or five-star player is not going to come to Penn State because you can't compete for Big Ten championships and you can't compete for a national championship and you can't go to a bowl game," Donahue said.
The NCAA also removed 20 of Penn State's 85 scholarships over the life of the ban.
"The depressed scholarships mean that this is going to be, essentially, a (Division) 1-AA team competing against traditional powers, and that doesn't usually end well," said Devon Edwards, a recent Penn State graduate and now lead writer for the widely read Black Shoe Diaries, an online blog at SBNation.com.
Division 1-AA ranks just below Division 1-A, the division in which the nation's premier teams play.
Donahue said it's likely that each of the incoming Penn State recruits will take the NCAA's offer to be released from their commitments to the team and will seek to play elsewhere. That class includes the top-ranked tight end in the country, Adam Breneman of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and a much-heralded quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, from Fork Union, Virginia.
Few recruits appeared to be wavering until now, despite a scandal that erupted into one of the biggest national news stories of the year when word of Sandusky's arrest broke last November, resulting in Paterno's firing.
Sandusky was convicted last month of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period. Paterno died of lung cancer in January, just over two months after his dismissal.
"The recruits were more than willing to look past the scandal because they didn't see it affecting football. The sanctions, not the moral failures, will be what scare them off," Edwards said.
Any members of the incoming class who do stay are likely to sit out their freshman year to retain a year's playing eligibility and look for new teams once other schools have new scholarships to offer for the 2013 season, Donahue said.
"We're five weeks from the season, and most of the schools now are at their scholarship limit of 85. They're maxed out of scholarships," Donahue said.
Both analysts predict football at Penn State will not turn around until at least the year after the sanctions are lifted.
"I'd be surprised to see the team win more than five games in a season between now and 2017, and that makes the bowl ban pretty irrelevant," Edwards told Reuters.
"It's going to be tough for them not to be 3-and-9, 4-and-8. I think a 5-and-7 season three years from now I would consider that a good year," Donahue said.
O'Brien, who left a job as offensive coordinator for the National Football League's New England Patriots, a perennial pro-football powerhouse that lost the 2012 Super Bowl to the New York Giants, appeared to take the sanctions in stride.
"I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead," O'Brien said in a statement. "But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes."
(Reporting by Mark Shade; Editing by Dan Burns and Lisa Shumaker)