"In four years, we'll be better than ever," said a Penn State student Monday while processing the NCAA's list of punishments.
This is likely not true, even though most of the penalties expire after four years or so. It's a nice thought for fans, but it underestimates the full recovery by at least a decade. There won't be a tidy return like USC's -- but actual crimes happened at Penn State, so perhaps that all lines up.
Knowing what we know about college football over the next decade, let's try and wargame up the future history of Penn State football's road back from oblivion. It should be noted this is probably a worst-case scenario for the most part.
Penn State entered the year having suffered critical transfers from all throughout the roster. Some team leaders chose to spend their upperclassmen years going down with the ship, but the exodus of underclassmen meant this was the best team Nittany Lions fans got to see for quite a while.
Star running back Silas Redd left for USC with no hard feelings, giving himself a national title shot and preserving his NFL Draft hopes, and then the dam broke.
Incoming freshmen were the next to go. They got to take official visits, just like they were being recruited all over again. Several left to play around the Big Ten and elsewhere, as staying at Penn State would've meant they would've had to redshirt just to have a single chance to play in the postseason. Star receiver Eugene Lewis and defensive tackle Jamil Pollard were the most coveted -- they landed at Pitt and Boston College.
As for the non-freshmen, West Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and Virginia Tech each acquired talent and remained in the hunt for more, with Vanderbilt using James Franklin's prior recruitment of several Penn State players to also make a move. And, why yes, there were the requisite Ole Miss and Kansas State rumors, but every coach in the country at least snooped around.
Coach Bill O'Brien steered Penn State to a stunning 6-6 record despite fielding a MAC roster and facing a tough out-of-conference schedule that included three 2011 bowl teams. Protests at road games never really took off and just died down after September.
The first post-Freeh Report signing day arrived in February.
O'Brien entered July of 2012 with 13 commitments, all of them well-regarded, making for a class shockingly behind only Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten. But four-star cornerback Ross Douglas decommitted just before the NCAA's sanctions were revealed, and soon after it came out, the class collapsed. Stuck with a 15-man class anyway due to sanctions, Penn State still couldn't try to sell players on being part of an exclusive group, a la USC, since no championship chances were on the horizon.
Ohio State picked off two, prolonging the food chain Urban Meyer had established during the 2011 season. Four-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg wanted to stand fast, but risking a promising career on PSU proved too much. He ended up at Tennessee. Class linchpin Adam Breneman, the nation's top tight end, was one of those who went to Ohio State.
Due to the handful of Big Ten-quality linemen who did remain true to Penn State, this was the best class the Nittany Lions put together for years.
Transfer woes weren't over yet for Penn State, as several players who'd waited to take advantage of the NCAA's get-out-of-State College-free card finally bolted with the possibility of playing in major college football's first playoff just around the corner.
On the field, out-of-conference games against Virginia and Syracuse helped make for another step back in the wins column. The Nittany Lions limped in at 3-9.
Bill O'Brien, having piloted Penn State through perhaps the two most disheartening years any football team has ever faced and winning nine games in the process, was offered a career lifeline via a return to the NFL. He accepted. No one blamed him. He was replaced from within.
As of 2011, the same man had coached PSU for almost 46 years. Soon, the program was on its third post-Paterno coach within 29 games, counting interim Tom Bradley.
College football now had a playoff. Due to its talent losses, Penn State wasn't good enough to come anywhere near it, even if it hadn't been officially banned from the postseason. It was also ineligible to take financial part in Ohio State's appearance in the first-ever tournament; two other bowl-ineligible teams also missed out on their national cuts of the payday, but Penn State's losing the Big Ten-specific share was the biggest loss.
Penn State lost to three-year FBS program UMass in football. The dark ages were officially upon Beaver Stadium.
Notre Dame's NBC contract expired. Back in 2012, when the college football playoff was first announced, Notre Dame's eventual conference destination was assumed to be either the Big 12 or the ACC. But with the Big Ten lugging around Penn State's dead football weight (and great fencing program!), many wondered whether the chance to lop off PSU and bring on Notre Dame without altering scheduling would be too tempting for the Big Ten to pass up. Neither the Big Ten nor Notre Dame gave a straight answer.
Notre Dame ended up in the Big 12 anyway. State College exhaled.
With the postseason ban almost done, recruiting picked up somewhat. It still wasn't anywhere near the 2011-2012 USC model, but PSU was at least able to get a little more choosy with the slight possibility of championships at play soon.
Penn State lost to Temple for the second time in two years, leaving no doubt as to Pennsylvania's football pecking order. By the record books, that made for nine straight non-wins against Temple -- if not for the NCAA, it would've likely been a 30-game winning streak by the 2015 game, not a non-winning streak.
PSU still topped Temple in attendance, though.
Penn State became eligible to play in bowls and the Big Ten Championship Game. It was definitely not good enough to make the latter, and due to the playoff system forcing six bowls into extinction, the former was a longshot as well.
In more tangible benefits, the Big Ten began sharing bowl revenue with PSU again. The $13 million that had gone elsewhere had been sorely missed, and the school had held off on facilities upgrades entirely and had to shrink its recruiting budget.
Hope was kindled, but nobody really knew why. Penn State did beat Kent State and Indiana. No bowl was made.
The fifth anniversary of Joe Paterno's passing was marked by an understated, disregarded procession through Happy Valley.
In February, Penn State finally got to haul in its first full, 25-man recruiting class since 2012. This still didn't make for a full roster, but it was a welcome infusion. In better days, PSU wasn't known for taking on more than 20 players in a class, but the 2017 class was obviously different.
Also, Penn State finally came off probation. "Awwwwwww, there's gonna be some Rust Belt recruits with a little somethin' extra in the bill fold this summer, baby!" No. There were not.
Pitt completed its two-game sweep of PSU, putting a joyless end to the once-premier state rivalry for the time being. No one remembers Joe Paterno's bitter remarks from the '80s on Pitt betraying Penn State by joining the Big East. Nobody cared about Joe Paterno anymore.
The roster had a little bit of talent, but injuries were just as catastrophic as ever due to the annual lack of depth. Still, another two-win season felt like the darkest point before dawn.
This was the earliest possible point at which Penn State could've hoped for an 85-player roster; they ended up in the high 70s, but having an entire starting 11s worth of additional scholarship players meant the first positive buzz around Penn State football since coach O'Brien (now a Super Bowl winner) was putting together that recruiting class back in 2012.
The out-of-conference schedule has maintained a little intrigue through the years -- just as SMU was able to get games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and a post-SWC Arkansas after its death penalty, Penn State was still able to touch up its schedule with a recognizable name or two every year. The downside was having to adopt an "anytime, anywhere" philosophy like a brand new program, making for some kind of freak show tour, and once a year we tuned in out of sad curiosity to see, essentially, a MAC team in white helmets and black Nikes get pummeled by a former peer.
Remember when we never would've expected Boise State to ever land a home game against a classic Big Ten power? Penn State was just a minor speed bump on the Broncos' path to their long-delayed first playoff appearance.
For the first time since 2011, Penn State entered a season with an 80-player roster. As a result, attendance crept back above 60,000 for the year, with a concentration of hype on the Illinois game even rolling back the upper deck tarps at Beaver Stadium for a change.
Still, the roster's best talent remained very young -- those first two 25-player classes were all about depth, while the 2019 crop actually included a couple widely sought recruits.
Now on its third full-time coach since Paterno was fired and boasting 85 scholarship football players, PSU scored a staggering upset of Wisconsin, giving rise to actual hope and whatnot for the first time in almost 10 seasons.
Nike felt good enough about the program's future to create for it some truly hideous and 2011-Maryland-ish special uniforms for the Michigan game. Despite State's long tradition of wearing the most boring gear possible, it had no other choice but to accept the free publicity and make one last lap around the circus tent.
A five-win season with a couple near-misses and one big win, and the national media finally started firing up its Road To Redemption narrative templates.
Mark Ruffalo won an Oscar for his unsparing portrayal of Joe Paterno.
For the first time since 2012, Penn State went .500 on the year. A senior-heavy roster including a few real, live, Big Ten-quality seniors made for a disciplined team that generally lacked noteworthy athleticism, but Penn Stately linebacker play and an offense finally willing to stoop to total underdog schemes made them a team nobody really wanted to play -- losing to Penn State still had quite a stigma to it, much like losing to someone like 2011 Indiana did, but the team was finally dangerous. At times. Most of the time, it was just really slow.
Penn State wasn't set to compete for championships anytime soon, and wouldn't make a bowl until the Facebook.com Bowl in 2023 due to the 2013 decree against six-win teams in the postseason.
But just like other programs that have seen the bottom of the cellar and made it out (TCU, Rutgers, Temple, Florida International, Kansas State, SMU), the Nittany Lions inched their way back, and thanks to a generational fan base, immense facilities, huge student body, world-class academics, State College's football-friendly environment, proximity to big cities and a fond yearning for football success even during the most sparsely attended years, Penn State was better suited to make an on-field recovery than perhaps any other school that's been buried in an absolute lost decade.
It took another 10 years for the football program to truly recover from the sanctions, but the stain of scandal and crushed innocence lingered forever. Penn State won championships again, but it never was and never will be the Penn State we were sold as kids.
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