In a very surprising move, the NCAA has announced that it will gradually restore scholarships to the Penn State football program, essentially admitting that the sanctions placed on the university more than a year ago were too harsh.
The Nittany Lions' punishment, which was arguably Mark Emmert's most distinctive move as NCAA president, was handed down after it was determined that the school perpetuated a “football first” culture that enabled serial child sexual abuse to occur by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
But due to the school's “continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity,” beginning next academic year (2014-15) the NCAA Executive Committee will restore five scholarships to the football team. The amount will continue to increase by five each year until the program reaches 85 total football scholarships in 2016-17.
This news is a huge boost for head coach Bill O'Brien, who has done a very good job on the recruiting trail despite being in a brutally tough position to bring high-quality players into the program. While the team's postseason ban and large fine remain in place, the Executive Committee will consider additional reductions depending on Penn State's progress.
The question now becomes whether this particular decision sets a precedent for future reduction of sanctions in other programs because of good behavior. Perhaps not because keep in mind that the NCAA took the unprecedented action of not going through the Committee on Infractions (as typically is the case) when handing down the punishment to PSU. Meanwhile, Miami (FL) still awaits a decision regarding its NCAA fate.
It should be noted that the release did not mention the possibility of reinstating any of longtime head coach Joe Paterno's victories that were taken away.
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.