NCAA, finally, makes a good call

Just 10 days ago – during his radio show on Thursday, Sept. 19 – Bill O’Brien was addressing his team’s scholarship reduction to 15 per year, and he allowed himself a chance to dream.

“Those are the rules with which we play under,” he said that night. “I believe if we had 25 scholarships to give, we’d be unbelievable, and we’ll get back to that. It just won’t be for a few years.”

Maybe O’Brien was teasing his audience with some wishful thinking.

Or maybe he knew that since former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a nationally respected heavyweight appointed by Penn State as its athletics integrity monitor, was close to getting some of the sanctions reduced.

Or maybe he was just pleasantly surprised, like the rest of us.

Either way, the NCAA’s announcement on Tuesday morning that it will gradually restore Penn State’s scholarship total by five next year (to 75) and to a full complement of 85 by 2016 is the best off-the-field news the Nittany Nation has received since O’Brien was introduced in January of 2012.

O’Brien has already proven he can coach effectively with a smaller roster, but there’s no question that having to operate with 65 scholarships from 2014 through 2018 would create a steady erosion that even Vince Lombardi could not handle.

This welcome news shows the NCAA, universally maligned for its heavy-handed penalties, is keeping an open mind and responding to the diligent work Penn State has done in addressing the recommendations of the Freeh Report.

Further, the NCAA’s sudden flexibility helps protect the health of the current Nittany Lions. When starters have to play special teams just to help keep the game competitive, they face added physical risks.

So it’s nice to see the NCAA is acting in the best interest of the student-athlete. Isn’t that a novel approach?

Since PSU President Rodney Erickson and Athletic Director Dave Joyner have been bashed repeatedly, they deserve some credit – along with Mitchell, certainly – for swiftly responding to the NCAA’s challenge.

Maybe this unexpected development will help keep O’Brien around longer. It’s one less fight of the many he’s had to encounter.

It accelerates the leveling of the playing field and will allow O’Brien and his staff needed flexibility in recruiting.

O’Brien said Tuesday the previous limitations precluded taking more than one player per position in each recruiting class.

When O’Brien got here, there were 17 offensive linemen on scholarship. “Unheard of,” he said at the time.

The reason was the former staff either kept making evaluation mistakes at the position or couldn’t develop it – or both – so it kept bringing in new pieces. That happens, and when you have 85 available grants, you can afford an occasional misfire.

Asked whether the NCAA would consider lifting or shortening the bowl ban or restoring the 112 wins it vacated – which was a total overreach in penalizing so many players who had nothing to do with the Sandusky scandal – Mitchell said, “It’s premature to speculate.”

Let’s hope Tuesday is just the first step, but regardless, it’s good news.

A significant wrong is being righted – and it will benefit a current Penn State football program that has unfairly paid a price for crimes it didn’t commit.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or