A Lesson in Loyalty: Penn State Football “Free Agency” Ends Today

Of all the NCAA sanctions, perhaps the most potentially consequential — at least on paper — was the transfer exemption that allowed any Penn State player to transfer to another school without losing a year of eligibility. That “free agency” ends today on the NCAA-imposed August 1 deadline.

The deadline passes without a sound from the Nittany Lions, who on the whole, have remained in lockstep since the initial small wave of players left when the sanctions were imposed  last summer.

But what about the pundits?

If a Penn State underclassman had a good game, the media would speculate on which school they would transfer to after the season. Even members of Penn State’s local beat perpetrated the mass exodus theory after every game, incessantly pressing Bill O’Brien on the issue.

“There’s nothing we can do about the NCAA,” O’Brien said at the time. “All we can do is play under the rules they say to play under. But this group of kids in that locker room right now are a high-character group of kids that have come together. It’s one win and hopefully we can build on it.”

It was a trivial move even for the NCAA, which purports to hold the ideal of amateurism above all else. Suddenly, Penn State players were no longer amateurs — they were moving targets that slimy coaches across the country like Lane Kiffin and Les Miles hoped to get their paws on.

In reality Penn State lost less than ten players initially, and only a few would have made any difference in the 2012 season. RB Silas Redd, the biggest name transfer at the time, described his switch to USC as a “business decision.” As things turned out, Redd would finish a dismal regular season at USC with 817 yards while inexperienced Penn State RB Zach Zwinak notched a 1,000 yard season.

Sure, Penn State lost QB Rob Bolden too, but all that did was pave the way for Matt McGloin to write one of the most impressive walk on-to-star stories in recent history. WR Justin Brown left for Oklahoma, but his 879 yards and 6 touchdowns were not missed, as Penn State’s Allen Robinson stepped up with a 1,018 yard, 11 touchdown performance.

The loss of kicker/punter Anthony Fera ended up hurting the 2012 team the most, but his transfer was hardly related to football. He took the free transfer opportunity to move back home to Texas to be with his mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The handful of other players that left made little or no impact on their respective teams in 2012. Several other players, like QB Steven Bench, used the opportunity to transfer to other schools not because of the sanctions but because of personal status with the team.

Even though the free agent penalty didn’t hurt Penn State as much as the NCAA had hoped, it was the most patently absurd of all the sanctions. Who can forget Illinois coach Tim Beckman parading his coaches into Happy Valley and leaving after a week with only hapless offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki, who has since transferred a second time.

“Again, I stated what we believed in, what the NCAA allowed us to do. We were contacted previously, prior to any of this stuff happening, by a young man,” Beckman said the time. “We pursued it; we did not go and chase him.”

In the end, Beckman’s unabashed violation of an unwritten conference code may have just planted that initial seed that led to the inspirational 2012 season.

“I heard other coaches were waiting outside Nittany apartments, waiting outside of classrooms, waiting outside of the Lasch building,” linebacker Michael Mauti said at Big Ten Media Days that year. “If you’re going to sit here and wish our program well and then recruit and try to pull the legs out from under us, and take our kids, then I got a problem with that, and if you’re a competitor, then you got a problem with that too.”

“It’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke. There are no rules. There’s been coaches hounding our players. 10-12 calls a day, on our campus, outside of our apartments, outside of our classrooms — to me, it just doesn’t seem right. I got a problem with that. We want to go to war with people who want to go to war with us.”

But it’s over now. Penn State won this round. Let’s hope we win the next one, too.

About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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