On July 23, 2012, 100 pounds of hot garbage in a 20-pound bag shuffled up to a podium and announced a panoply of sanctions against Penn State, eight months after the Jerry Sandusky scandal stripped a university of its dignity, a legendary coach of his reputation, and a community of its harmony.
Spencer Hall’s nationally televised words on whether the NCAA should get involved in Penn State’s business will never leave my mind -- it would be like having your homeowner’s association investigate a triple murder. Mark Emmert, seizing his moment of national relevance and public relations glory, thought otherwise.
The sanctions were universally judged to be a half-notch short of the infamous Death Penalty given to SMU in the 1980’s. Bill O’Brien begged Penn State administrators to keep the team’s games on television, and that was about the only good news Penn State received from Mark Emmert. The scholarship reductions and vaporized transfer rules left the program fighting to keep its own players and unable to recruit effectively for subsequent seasons.
O’Brien and a small cast of senior leaders successfully scrambled to maintain most of the program’s upperclass nucleus. They proceeded to cobble together two consecutive winning seasons with the players mostly recruited by Joe Paterno’s staff. With a few exceptions, the incoming recruiting classes lacked talent. The decaying effect of the sanctions slowly infiltrated the system.
It remains a small miracle that Penn State did not have any losing seasons under Bill O'Brien or James Franklin since the scandal. The sanctions decimated specific parts of the team, namely its offensive line, and Penn State was generally unable to compete with most quality teams on its schedule. There were blowout losses to good teams, and even more close losses to bad teams sprinkled between truly unexpected, brilliant performances.
Whatever your thoughts about the villains involved in the Sandusky mess -- and we all have plenty of heartfelt, diverse opinions as to who was to blame and to what degree -- it is inescapable that the Penn State players were blindsided by the scandal and sanctions. For all of the people at Penn State who deserved to be ruined for being abusers, enablers, or good people who made tragically awful and selfish choices, the young men who wear those plain blue and white uniforms deserved a better fate than to be pillaged by the NCAA.
Now, whether they’re recent graduates or still in the program, better has arrived. A team that many of us left for dead at halftime of the Minnesota game has played nearly flawless football for two months. A coaching staff that seemed lost and endangered is now being mentioned for national awards, gigantic raises, and -- it’s coming -- interest from other programs. Meanwhile, a fanbase that has experienced the very worst kind of sports-related infighting finally has a common cause. Winning, indeed, cures everything.
So here we are. All of us. In a conference that has revolved around Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer from the moment Harbaugh took the Michigan job, James Franklin and his army of underdogs are going to the Big Ten Championship Game while Harbaugh and Meyer await their teams' fates from home.
The players that arrived as true freshmen in 2012 -- Nyeem Wartman-White, Evan Schwan, Wendy Laurent, Malik Golden, Derek Dowrey, and Brian Gaia -- all played integral roles in lifting this program from the dust. Along with so many of their current and former teammates, two coaching staffs, and the support of key people within Penn State’s administration, they helped raise Penn State above the choking dust and into the light once again.
The institutional scars from the Sandusky scandal will always remain, and should. However, at least on the football field, the darkest days are finally behind us.