The sanctions are over

It’s official.

Shortly after another glowing report from former senator George Mitchell, the most crippling of the sanctions the NCAA unjustly levied on Penn State’s football program in July 2012 are over. The NCAA also said it will not fight Pennsylvania to keep the $60 million fine in state anymore. There was no mention of the vacated wins from 1998-2011, but that fight will still forge on. And be won. It’s only a matter of time.

The NCAA lifted them Monday, saying that because of Penn State’s “significant progress toward ensuring its athletics department functions with integrity” the Nittany Lions will be eligible for postseason play this season and will be back to a full complement of 85 scholarships in 2015. Here’s the NCAA’s full statement.

The wording of the statement still makes my blood boil. There was never a problem with Penn State’s integrity. Never. Those who think differently bought into a false narrative that was set immediately after the grand jury presentment of Jerry Sandusky was released and furthered by Louis “Fact” Freeh’s shoddy report. It’s just another case of the NCAA sitting on its high horse like its lacky president Mark Emmert did two summers ago, but they needed to do that.

See, there are several lawsuit against the NCAA regarding the sanctions and the last thing they wanted was to have to go through a discovery phase. That would be crippling and embarrassing. They knew it. And those who have followed this case closely knew it, too.

Same thing with Freeh. When he got in his “car accident” recently, I saw that some people on social media were disappointed he wasn’t hurt further. I was shocked by that. I want that guy 100 percent healthy, mind and body, so he has to sit on a stand and testify under oath. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot of “I invoke my fifth amendment right,” though. That’s another discussion for another day.

The end of the worst of the sanctions is fantastic news for Penn State and awful news for everyone else.

Even with no postseason play until the 2016 season to pitch, James Franklin still had a top-five recruiting class lined up for 2015. He didn’t have 85 scholarships to work with either. Not until 2016. Both of those things are now back in play.

The fact that he was able to sell top recruit after top recruit on Penn State without those promises is amazing. Now that he can use that as part of his reasons why a young man should come to Happy Valley should scare the hell out of opponents, especially in the Big Ten.

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Media day gold

Penn State held its football media day on Monday, Aug. 5 and I came away with a small gold mine.

Now, it wasn’t quite I did years ago when I interviewed and wrote stories on about 10-to-15 players, but I was still able to put together five stories. Here there are in all their glory:

Confident Hackenberg, Penn State ready for the season

All eyes on Nittany Lions’ offensive line

Picking up the slack: Penn State tight ends look to offset production

Something to prove: Nittany Lion linebackers looking to show what they can do

Strong at the point of attack: Defensive line should be a strength for PSU

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ICYMI and what’s coming up

I never linked my story from last week’s Penn State media day so here it is in all its glory.

I talked to a number of players for future stories and they’ll run this week. Check out Wednesday’s paper for a story on the Nittany Lions offensive line. I’ll also have stories on the tight ends, which took a hit today when Penn State announced that sophomore Adam Breneman is out indefinitely with an undisclosed knee injury, the defensive line and linebackers. Not sure which story is running when, but there will be Penn State stories in the paper Wednesday through Saturday.

On Sunday, I’ll have a story on East Stroudsburg South graduate and Virginia Tech senior Kyshoen Jarrett, who will going into his third as a starter at safety for the Hokies.

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James Franklin Q&A Part 2

I got so much good material from Penn State coach James Franklin when we talked Tuesday that I didn’t want to cut anything out.

So I decided to run a question and answer story, but at over 2,000 words total I figured people probably weren’t going to read a 60-inch Q&A. Instead, I broke it down into two parts. Here’s Part 2 that ran in Friday’s Pocono Record after Part 1 ran Thursday.

Enjoy.

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James Franklin Q&A Part 1

Penn State coach James Franklin was kind enough to give me some time Tuesday … over the span of two phone calls.

I asked him first about speaking at East Stroudsburg University’s graduation Saturday and by the end of his response our connection was going in and out. By the next question I had totally lost him. I called him back and he asked me what was the last thing I heard. I told him not much because he was going in and out too much for me to really get anything. He said that was too bad because he was giving me some of the greatest quotes he’d ever given.

A few minutes later as he gave me a lengthy answer he asked if I was still there. “I’m here, I didn’t want to miss any of these great quotes and you’re on such a roll,” I responded. We both laughed. Fifteen minutes later I had so much good material (and great quotes) that I decided to run a pair of Q&As with the charismatic coach and former standout quarterback at East Stroudsburg University. Here’s a link to Part 1 with Part 2 to come Friday.

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James Franklin is a home-run hire for Penn State

I never posted the column I wrote in Monday’s paper about how good of a hire James Franklin is for Penn State. Well, here it is. Enjoy.

There are home-run hires and then there’s what Penn State got when it tabbed James Franklin as the 16th football of the Nittany Lions.

If you weren’t totally on board with the decision all you should have needed to do to get your full support was to watch Franklin’s hour-plus long introductory press conference Saturday.

From his promise to “dominate the state” in recruiting to acknowledging the what Joe Paterno did at Penn State, Franklin proved why he was so coveted by Penn State when Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL’s Houston Texans.

I admittedly didn’t know a lot about Franklin. I knew of his success at Vanderbilt, where he had as many nine-win seasons the past two years as the Commodores had had in the previous 121 seasons, and of his local connection as an East Stroudsburg University graduate who was a candidate for the Harlon Hill Trophy in 1994.

I had no idea Franklin was such a charismatic, captivating character. He spoke clearly, with conviction and like a man who has no doubts about who he is, what he wants to accomplish and how he’s going to reach his goals.

That’s exactly what Penn State needs.

As irritated as I was by O’Brien’s departure I knew full well that if he returned to Happy Valley for a third season that rumors of his departure would again dominate the 2014 coaching hot stove. It was no secret that O’Brien had one eye on the Nittany Lions and the other on an NFL head coaching job from the time he arrived in State College.

Some were curious if Franklin would be in the same boat. The Washington Redskins were interested in him, but Franklin put those concerns to bed when he said Saturday that Penn State was his “dream job” and that he planned to be there for a very long time. O’Brien never said anything close to that. He wouldn’t even commit to being there after both of the past two seasons.

That’s not to say that NFL teams won’t chase after Franklin. If he has success at Penn State they’d be dumb not to, but hopefully he will stay true to his word. Everything I’ve read and heard about him leads me to believe Franklin is in this for the long haul and to help Penn State return to the top of the mountain.

It won’t be easy. Not by a long stretch.

While rumors have circulated that the NCAA may further decrease the sanctions it unjustly placed on Penn State it’s certainly not a sure thing. Getting scholarship back was a start, but at the present time the Nittany Lions are still ineligible for the postseason until 2016.

That’s where Franklin’s personality will help.

Get him in a recruit’s living room and I don’t see how a young man and his family could say no. To borrow a line from the movie Tommy Boy, “Franklin could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves.”

Happy Valley was anything but on New Year’s Eve when O’Brien left. There should only be smiles now that Franklin is on the job.


 

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My column on O’Brien leaving

I said I wouldn’t talk about it, but sports editor Mike Kuhns asked me to so here it is. Enjoy.

How should someone with close ties to Penn State react when the football coach lies his way out of town?

That’s exactly what Bill O’Brien did when he went back on his word to current players and those who were verbally committed to Penn State as part of the 2014 recruiting class to take the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.

Commitment, honor and loyalty — words that have always defined Penn State football — were torn up and tossed aside with no regard by O’Brien when news of his agreement with the Texans broke around 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve made no secret about my allegiance to Penn State. I’ve been a fan since 1987 when I watched the Nittany Lions beat Miami to win their second national championship in four years. I’m a graduate of Penn State, doing my first two years at branch campuses before moving to University Park and earning a degree in journalism in 2002. I covered the Nittany Lions in 2007-2008, the last year resulting in a second Big Ten title in four seasons.

I have great memories of Penn State football — Craig Fayak’s late field goal in the upset of No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend in 1990, Bobby Engram’s touchdown catch that beat Michigan in 1994, Ki-Jana Carter’s 83-yard TD run on the first play of the Rose Bowl in 1995, watching Joe Paterno earn his 300th victory in my first game at Beaver Stadium in 1998, the comeback victory against Ohio State that made Paterno the winningest coach in major college football in 2001, the 2005 Big Ten championship following four losing seasons in five years, and Paterno scolding me once for asking him a question about Mickey Shuler in 2008. There are plenty of bad memories, too — losing to Notre Dame in the snow in 1992, being in the stands as Minnesota kicked a field goal as time expired to beat No. 1 Penn State in 1999, losing 6-4 to Iowa in 2004, and falling to Iowa on another field goal as time expired when the Nittany Lions were No. 2 in the polls in 2008.

But it wasn’t just the success on the field that drew me in.

I was hooked on the nameless, plain uniforms that emphasized team over individual. I was won over by Paterno’s ‘success with honor’ mentality. I loved that Penn State players were expected to do as well in the classroom from Monday to Friday as they were on the football field come Saturday afternoon.

For two years I thought O’Brien was upholding the principles Paterno established during a 46-year exemplary career. When players like Bill Belton and Richy Anderson weren’t allowed to play or practice because they needed to focus on the “academic side of things” I figured that O’Brien was exactly the man Penn State needed.

When the NCAA leveled Penn State with unprecedented sanctions in July 2012, thanks to the shoddy work of Louis Freeh and laziness of Mark Emmert, it was O’Brien — with a huge assist from the likes of Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich — who helped the Nittany Lions from falling apart. Penn State lost only 11 players to transfer and kept most of its top-notch recruits, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, on board because O’Brien said if they stuck with Penn State through the tough times then so would he.

Fast forward 18 months and O’Brien did the exact opposite. His lies to recruits like five-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley, who O’Brien told that talks of a deal with Houston weren’t true and that he’d be there when Holley arrived at Penn State, was a kick to the Penn State community while they were down.

There are no sour grapes. There’s no point. O’Brien did what he thought was best for himself and his family and that’s fine. What he didn’t do was uphold the ideals of Penn State, ones that were firmly in place when he arrived and made it more than just a football program.

 

 

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Next man up

I’m focusing on the future of Penn State.

Dwelling on the past, which includes Bill O’Brien bolting in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve for the Houston Texans despite telling recruits that reports of him leaving Penn State “were not true” and that he’d be at Penn State “when they got there,” is pointless and unproductive.

If there is one lesson those in charge of finding Penn State’s next coach it’s that they better find someone who will stay loyal, committed and genuine. There is no room for annual flirtation with other jobs and no place for the outgoing coach to rip those who had become used the previous coach practicing those same three words (loyal, committed and genuine) over and over and over again for 46 years.

Penn State got the first part of the post-O’Brien era (can we call two years an era?) right when it made defensive line coach Larry Johnson the Nittany Lions interim coach. Johnson, who coached under Joe Paterno starting in 1996, is Penn State’s best recruiter and can provide a calming voice to both the current players and recruits verbally committed for the class of 2014. There will be a push for Penn State to make Johnson the coach for good, but he has never even been a coordinator at the college level. I don’t think the sell would be tough, but Penn State fans who see past the shiny vernier would understand there are better men with head coaching experience out there. But make no mistake, Johnson must be kept on staff. That is not a question at all.

Whether it’s former East Stroudsburg University quarterback James Franklin, former Penn State player and assistant coach Al Golden or ex-PSU assistant coach Greg Schiano, Penn State must find a new coach who will commit to the task at hand, be loyal to his players, the community and the school and genuine with his actions and words. Without ALL of those, Penn State risks going through this situation again and again.

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JUCO defensive tackle signs with Penn State

Junior college defensive tackle Tarow Barney signed a letter of intent Wednesday to continue his football career at Penn State.

Barney, who verbally committed to the Nittany Lions last month, also had offers from Arizona State, Illinois and Kansas State among others. He will enroll at Penn State in January and have three years to play two.

Here’s the release from Penn State:

Penn State has received a national letter of intent from Tarow Barney, a defensive tackle who played the last two seasons at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He plans to enroll in the University in January and will be eligible to play for coach Bill O’Brien’s squad during the 2014 season.

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Barney led the Rangers with 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during the 2013 season. He started all nine games, recording 36 tackles, forced one fumble and had five quarterback hurries. His 9.5 tackles for loss ranked No. 15 in NJCAA Region 23.

As a freshman in 2012, Barney appeared in all 10 games and compiled 20 tackles (12 solo) and four quarterback hurries. He helped the Rangers to their first bowl victory in 20 years when they claimed the Brazos Valley Bowl, 47-36, over Kilgore College. Barney helped Northwest Mississippi Community College to an 8-2 overall record in 2012.

Barney was the No. 5 defensive lineman and 19th ranked player overall in the ESPN Junior College top 50 rankings.

Barney played one season at Bainbridge High School in Georgia, helping the Bearcats to an 8-2 record as a senior. He was an All-Region honorable-mention selection after posting 55 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.

 

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Backup QB Ferguson will transfer

In a move that should surprise nobody, backup quarterback Tyler Ferguson has decided to transfer from Penn State.

Ferguson, who was 10-for-15 for 155 yards and a touchdown this season, lost a close battle with highly touted freshman Christian Hackenberg for the starting job in preseason camp. Hackenberg went on to throw for the third most yards in a single season at Penn State to go along with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Ferguson, a junior college transfer from the College of the Sequoias who arrived at Penn State in January, was a four-star prospect who had originally committed to Houston before switching to Penn State. He split reps in spring practice with Steven Bench, who eventually transferred to South Florida. Ferguson will have three years to play two at his next college.

Ferguson’s transfer leaves Hackenberg as the only scholarship quarterback currently on the roster. That will change when four-star prospect Michael O’Connor out of Florida enrolls for the spring semester. Walk-ons D.J. Crook, Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour are also on the roster.

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