Against the odds, and despite being hamstrung by some of the most onerous sanctions the NCAA ever handed down, the Nittany Lions football team has won back a measure of respect and more than its fair share of games, posting 8-4 and 7-5 seasons under coach Bill O’Brien.
If anything, the job should get easier from here on out, especially after NCAA president Mark Emmert said in September some scholarships would be restored as early as next season, and that the four-year bowl ban could be modified as well. The biggest danger to the program at the moment, in fact, are persistent reports that O’Brien is listening to overtures to return to the NFL, this time as a head coach.
Should it happen, athletic director Dave Joyner’s first rebuilding experience will come in handy.
“When I came over here from the board (of trustees), my goal was not to drive the ship forward,” he said. “It was to keep it from sinking.
“I gathered the staff early on and said, ‘Forget whether what happened was fair. You can’t do a thing about it. And no matter what you think about the guidelines we’re now operating under, deal with what’s been handed you to the best of your abilities ...’”
“In one sense, our mission hadn’t changed: to make this place as good as it can be,” he continued. “But from a practical standpoint, the only way we could convince the NCAA and everybody else looking in we were sincere was to follow through in good faith on every recommendation that crossed my desk.”
Joyner’s task was made easier by the addition of an independent, full-time athletic integrity officer, a first in college sports, and a beefed-up compliance staff that is now second to none. For all that, he never doubted which of his hires would draw the most scrutiny.