Setting the Proper Tone

Penn State backers worrying about vacated wins and legacies on the day the NCAA reduced scholarship sanctions should have taken a cue from second-year head coach Bill O'Brien.

Tuesday was a good day for the Penn State football program. Late in the morning, the Nittany Lions got official word that the NCAA was significantly easing the scholarship limitations it had placed on the program though the 2017 season.

As he's done so often in his 19 months on campus, head coach Bill O'Brien used just the right tone when addressing the matter.

There was no hint of glee in his voice, because that might have been taken the wrong way. O'Brien has always been mindful of the awful circumstances that led to the NCAA sanctioning PSU in July of 2012, and he was no different when he talked to the media in a short conference call Tuesday.

“We're just trying to take it one day at a time,” he said.

And while the immediate increase in available scholarships will make the task of winning games that much easier — and, in theory, make PSU a legitimate Big Ten title contender that much sooner — he never talked about such big-picture topics.

Instead, he discussed the positive impact the latest news was having on many of the souls who stuck with the program through the difficult first year-plus of the sanctions.

“I feel good for a few groups of people here,” O'Brien said. “I feel good for our football staff, they've worked extremely hard. I feel good for our student/athletes, our players. And our fans, I think they're the best fans in the country. … I feel good for our student body. They've been so supportive of this football program since the day I walked in here.”

Predictably, not everybody was quite so tone sensitive upon hearing the news. Despite the many positives from the NCAA's announcement — the softening of the most damaging of the sanctions, the opportunities it will create for more student-athletes, the chance for PSU to more quickly become a credible title contender and the likely shortening of the post-season ban — it wasn't enough to some in the Penn State community.

They're demanding that the 111 wins vacated by the sanctions to be … well … un-vacated. And that's really a not-so-subtle dog whistle that the late Joe Paterno should be re-credited with those victories, thus vaulting him back to the top of major college football's all-time wins list. Someone was so unsubtle as to suggest that there will be no “great” days for Penn State until Paterno's statue is returned to Beaver Stadium.

Talk about having zero sense of the moment.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the people who are trying to restore Paterno's legacy — especially his family members. Now, I'm of the opinion that the man's legacy will take care of itself if given enough time, and that a successful program moving forward will only highlight what's looking more and more like an indestructible foundation that he built.

However, if anyone wants to file lawsuits or create websites or take other reasonable drum-beating actions in an attempt to hasten the process, more power to them. Civil discourse is part of what makes this country tick.

The issue here is with timing, or, more specifically, poor timing.

Of all the sanctions thrown at Penn State in July of 2012, the scholarship reductions figured to have the greatest negative impact on the long-term viability of the program. Likewise, they figured to have (and have had) the greatest negative impact on the new coaches and the players who are on the team right now.

So the easing of the scholarship restrictions was THE single most important thing that could have happened to the program with respect to the sanctions. And time was of the essence.

Picking Tuesday to beef about vacated wins and legacies — things that are trivial by comparison and can be addressed just as easily (and probably more effectively) a week, a month or a year from now — risked shifting the focus from where it belonged.

Which was on the new hope given to the current players, staff, stalwart fans and supportive student body — the people who did not bail on Penn State football, even when it would have been easy to do so. Many former Nittany Lions, some who played in the 111 vacated victories, will tell you the very same thing.

So will the current head coach.

“I think it's a good day for all those people,” O'Brien said.

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