Penn State ruling captures ACC's attention

League coaches react to sex abuse case, NCAA’s sanctions

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 23, 2012 

— Frank Spaziani was a feared defensive end in the late 1960s at Penn State, before Joe Paterno gave him his start in coaching as a graduate assistant. Now the head coach at Boston College, Spaziani spoke softly Monday about the NCAA sanctions that will cripple the Penn State football program.

There was emotion in his voice, a subdued sense of sadness. At the ACC’s annual preseason football kickoff, news of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State spread quickly, and the league’s 12 coaches spent much of the afternoon discussing some of the harshest penalties in the history of college sports.

“It’s a tragic situation,” Spaziani said, speaking of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case that Paterno and others in power covered up for more than a decade. “And once again, it’s going to take a while before anyone understands what the ramifications are of what just happened. It’s not going to be good.”

In an unprecedented move, the NCAA on Monday penalized Penn State for covering up Sandusky’s crimes. A jury found the Nittany Lions’ former defensive coordinator guilty, among other charges, of sexually abusing boys in Penn State’s football facility.

The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, banned its football program from the postseason for four years and vacated all of the Nittany Lions’ victories dating to 1998, which is when allegations of Sandusky’s abuse first surfaced. Perhaps the most damaging blow, though, will come in the form of scholarship reductions.

Penn State will lose 40 football scholarships over four years, and will only be allowed a maximum of 65 scholarship players for four seasons, beginning with the 2015 season. Under normal circumstances, Division I-A teams are allowed 85 scholarship players per season.

“They made them a I-AA school,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said, referring to the I-AA football scholarship limit of 63.

The ACC’s coaches had gathered to discuss their teams, and their hopes for the upcoming season. But questions about the Penn State case, and the NCAA’s handling of it, were unavoidable. Jim Grobe, the Wake Forest coach, tried to put himself in the position of Bill O’Brien, whom Penn State hired after firing Paterno last November.

Grobe has turned Wake Forest into a regular contender in the ACC but when asked how he might sustain a program dealt the kind of scholarship reductions that Penn State faces, all he could say was this: “I don’t have any idea.”

“That’s a real de-cleater,” Grobe said, referring to a kind of tackle that knocks an opponent off his feet. “I think that’s a really tough situation.”

The NCAA’s swift, damning action raised questions about what kind of precedent it might set – and whether the most powerful governing body over collegiate athletics went too far. There wasn’t an ACC coach on Monday, though, who spoke out against the NCAA’s ruling, in which president Mark Emmert acted as judge and jury.

Those with Penn State ties, perhaps viewing the case through a blue and white tint, saw things differently.

“I think it is arrogance by the NCAA for them to presume they can rewrite history,” said Jeff Palmer, a Penn State graduate and Durham resident who is a member of a local Penn State Nittany Lion Club. “ ... It appears the NCAA has just been getting on the bandwagon of a media-driven frenzy.”

Jeff Servesko, a Durham resident who graduated from Penn State in 1996, said Penn State’s misdeeds represented a “legal issue,” and not one related to football.

“The NCAA is supposed to adjudicate over things that give programs unfair advantages such as illegal recruiting or someone taking tests for someone else,” Servesko said. “Some of these people have not even been in court yet and (the NCAA) is rendering judgment and pronouncing a sentence.”

Back at the ACC’s preseason kickoff, coaches wondered aloud whether their programs might soon be home to Penn State players searching for refuge, and a new beginning. The NCAA will allow Penn State players to transfer and play immediately at their new schools.

The news had some ACC coaches reciting their scholarship numbers, quickly doing the math to see if they had room for a transfer or two. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said the Seminoles were under the scholarship limit. Larry Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said he’d have to closely examine whether UNC had such space.

“It happened this morning and, you know, I haven’t had time to look at,” Fedora said. “You’ve got to be able to manage your own roster first and see what you’ve got.”

Later, Fedora wondered how Penn State football would continue on. In penalizing North Carolina for its impermissible benefits and academic fraud case, the NCAA mandated that the program forfeit 15 football scholarships over three years. That number, of course, seems paltry when compared to Penn State’s.

“Those are huge numbers,” Fedora said. “Huge numbers. And it’s not just now. It’s the future. It’s not what’s going to happen in these four years. It’s what’s going to be four years from then? You’re talking eight years. And how long is that going to take to recover? … We’ll find out, I guess.”

The NCAA has long drawn criticism for its handling of infractions cases, and for its expansive, difficult-to-enforce rulebook. A ruling that went outside that rulebook, though, was met mostly with praise at the ACC’s football kickoff.

Fedora said the NCAA’s ruling was the kind that would make people stop and pay attention. O’Brien, the N.C. State coach who served in the Marines, put it another way.

“One thing about discipline … you don’t discipline the bottom,” he said. “You discipline the people at the top and when you do, then everybody stands up and pays attention.”

O’Brien said the NCAA had offered but one judgment in a case that has soiled the reputation of Paterno, who began Monday as the NCAA’s all-time most victorious major college coach but ended it far behind Bobby Bowden, the former Florida State coach who reclaimed that record.

“I believe that he’s already been judged by somebody who I believe will do the judgment for all of us,” O’Brien said of Paterno.

The one judgment anyone wanted to talk about here, though, came from the NCAA. Spaziani, the Boston College coach who played in two bowl games for Paterno in the late 1960s, asked reporters to think of Sandusky’s victims, who “should be kept in the forefront,” Spaziani said.

He sat quietly at a table, and the NCAA’s ruling against his alma mater still seemed to be registering. Spaziani had thoughts on the ruling, he said, but he didn’t want to share them.

“There are other tragic stories,” he said.

Staff writers Chip Alexander and J.P. Giglio contributed.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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