George Mitchell

Oversight monitoring of Penn State will conclude in December

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The hefty parts of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State have already been lifted, revised or rescinded. Now the oversight of the university’s athletics program will wrap up at the end of this year, instead of the previous target date of 2017. an agreement between Penn State, the NCAA and Big Ten was made final today.

“As reflected in the third annual report of the independent athletics integrity monitor, Penn State has made considerable progress through its commitment to reform and we support the recommendation that the monitoring conclude at the end of the year,” a statement from Kansas State president and Board of Governors chair Kirk Schulz said. “We appreciate the thorough oversight of Charles Scheeler and Senator George Mitchell, as well as [Penn State] President Eric Barron‘s leadership and the university’s dedication to continued progress.”

Penn State agreed to being monitored by George Mitchell in 2012 as part of the NCAA’s unprecedented sanctions on the program in response to the details shared by the Louis Freeh Report following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Mitchell was tasked with authoring an annual progress report of the university’s response to the Freeh report, and his reviews were overwhelmingly positive for Penn State when made available. It was partly because of Mitchell’s reviews the NCAA restored scholarships for the football program and lifted the final two years of a postseason ban. The postseason ban was originally scheduled for four seasons, which would have been ending this fall. The NCAA cut that sentence in half and allowed Penn State the opportunity to participate in a bowl game last season. Penn State defeated Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Sandusky is currently in his appeal process after being sentenced to 30-60 years in prison after being found guilty of sexual crimes against children.

Three years after the NCAA hammer, Penn State still alive and well

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Three summers ago Penn State’s football program was thought to be wiped as much from existence as a program can get this side of the SMU death penalty. The NCAA dropped a three-ton anvil on the program following the release of the Freeh Report related to the university’s handling of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and his sickening crimes against children both on and off campus; a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, 112 victories vacated, a loss of scholarships ultimately limiting the program to 65 available scholarships instead of the NCAA limit of 85, five years of probation and the possibility of further NCAA investigations following criminal proceedings related to Penn State officials. A lot has changed since that July morning in 2012. Through it all, Penn State has managed to not only survive but also find a path moving forward with great promise.

NCAA president Mark Emmert suggested Penn State had a culture problem on its hands, where the football way of life trumped all other facets of the university. Some applauded Emmert and the NCAA for going all in on Penn State. Others believed the NCAA should have gone further. Others felt it was too harsh a punishment or the NCAA had no jurisdiction on the Penn State shortcomings. Everyone had a side on this subject, and many have stuck to those opinions over the years. Whatever your opinion was at the time, things looked bleak for the future of Penn State football.

The NCAA assigned former Senator George Mitchell to monitor and keep tabs on Penn State by way of an annual progress report. Through Mitchell’s reports, the NCAA saw fit to cut back on some of the sanctions dropped on the program. First the NCAA handed back a handful of scholarships. It later lifted all scholarship restrictions as well as the final two years of the postseason ban. Finally, the program was relieved of all NCAA sanction terms earlier this year with all vacated wins going back on the books, although Penn State remained committed to fulfilling its intent to pay off the $60 million fine, with that money being put to good use to promote the awareness of child and sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

New head coach Bill O’Brien, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, served admirably in his role as head coach and should someday be recognized for the job he did in his two years in State College. O’Brien took over a program some deemed toxic and was soon hampered even more with the sanctions. O’Brien could have whined about the situation left and right, but instead he kept the program moving forward with whatever players chose to stay with him. Yes, some players took advantage fo a free transfer opportunity from the sanctions (most notably running back Silas Redd to USC), and some recruits opted to go elsewhere. O’Brien worked with what he had, and decided to fight for the players who remained committed. Names were placed on the jerseys to recognize those who stayed. Some schools say those who stay will be champions. Penn State’s 2012 squad may not have won a championship, but it was honored on the inside of Beaver Stadium alongside past memorable teams like the Big Ten champions of 2005 and 2008, the undefeated 1994 team and the national championship squads of the 1980s. Penn State’s 2012 team had a championship mentality and personality.

O’Brien left after two years at Penn State to become the head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans. O’Brien always seemed like a coach looking for an NFL opportunity, and few begrudge him for leaving the program when he did. This is because he made sure the program would be as ready to take the next steps forward as possible under grave circumstances. Penn State hired Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, who is now in the midst of doing just that with a full allotment of scholarships and no sanctions to work around. Depth is rebuilding, and the pride in the program remains. It may even be stronger than ever before, as the football program has ironically played a role in bringing the community together in a new way. This season Penn State will strip the names off the jerseys in another show of moving forward while embracing the tradition of the program.

Penn State’s football program may very well have been the product of a football culture gone overboard to some degree, but it also plays a role in the rebuilding the faith of a fractured community. There is still work to be done in State College, Pennsylvania and the pains suffered by the victims of Sandusky may never heal, but the football program can serve as an outlet to promote awareness of child and sexual abuse in the community. Lessons can be learned from the Penn State saga, and ultimately that is more valuable than any win experienced on the field.

NCAA says Penn State is bowl eligible this year

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Penn State is now officially four wins away from becoming bowl eligible. The Nittany Lions received the good word from the NCAA on Monday. The NCAA has decided to allow Penn State to participate in the postseason and will restore the scholarship limits. The decision came following the latest review of the university according to George Mitchell, who had been assigned to monitor the university following the release of the Free Report two years ago.

“Due to Penn State University’s significant progress toward ensuring its athletics department functions with integrity, the NCAA Executive Committee today eliminated the school’s postseason ban, effective immediately, and will return the full complement of football scholarships in 2015-16,” a statement from the NCAA claimed.

“Penn State’s commitment to the integrity of its athletics department and its progress toward meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree are clear,” said Northern Arizona President Rita Hartung Cheng, who chaired Monday’s Executive Committee meeting. “We thank Senator Mitchell for his meticulous and exhaustive work over the past two years. Mitchell’s efforts and the dedication of Penn State officials made today’s decisions possible.”

Earlier on Monday it was reported the NCAA was withdrawing its protest over the terms of the fine money for Penn State. The NCAA wanted the $60 million in fine money (to be paid over five years) to be used for national awareness programs and efforts focusing on child abuse. That money will instead stay in-state per Pennsylvania law. There has been no change on the sanction terms regarding the fine money. That should remain in play, and at this point there may be no more cutting back on sanction terms for the football program. The only sanction term that would be left to consider overturning would be the vacated wins, but that may not be likely to happen.

Of course, at a time when the Big Ten has been slumping, this also means Penn State would be eligible to participate in the Big Ten Championship Game, if they qualify as the Big Ten East Division champs.