Reflecting On Penn State’s NCAA Sanctions & Recovery Ten Years Later

Summer 2012 was a fun time for most of the country. Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete at the London Games, “The Dark Knights Rises” was released in theaters, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was on top of the charts. The dog days of summer were enjoyable for many, but it was the complete opposite in Happy Valley.

The Penn State community was still trying to wrap its head around the horrific Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The former defensive coordinator was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse on June 22, 2012. Exactly one month later, the Joe Paterno statue was removed from its spot on Porter Road beside Beaver Stadium. Then, one day later on July 23, 2012, the NCAA shook Penn State and the college football world by imposing what felt like deadly sanctions on Penn State football.

At the time, it felt like you couldn’t turn into a sports talk show without hearing about the NCAA sanctions, especially after they were announced. A four-year postseason ban, vacation of wins since 1998, players being able to transfer with no penalty, reduction of scholarships…it felt like Penn State would never recover. Ten years later, I couldn’t be prouder of how it did.

As only an 11-year-old at the time, Penn State football was my life. So much so, that I was known as “Mr. Penn State” at my Long Island elementary school because of how hard I cheered for the blue and white. I remember exactly where I was when I watched NCAA President Mark Emmert drop the punishment on live television, and I’ll never forget the knot I had in my stomach at that moment.

I didn’t even know how to react. For weeks, I didn’t know if Penn State football would ever be the same if the NCAA stepped in. Finally, all my worst fears that culminated over the entire summer came to life at that moment. Even without the sanctions, Penn State’s reputation was tarnished. It felt unbearable, gut-wrenching, and unfair. But, that didn’t stop Penn State and fans around the country from doing their best to return to national prominence.

Everyone knew Penn State had a long road back to recovery, and nobody knew when or if it would ever be back. But, the first move Penn State made is not talked about enough on its road to recovery — hiring Bill O’Brien in January 2012. I don’t think Penn State is back where it is today without the stability O’Brien gave the program. In a truly unprecedented time, O’Brien was everything Penn State needed and more. He brought the perfect mix of keeping tradition while embracing new, modern times. Most of all, he gave the team and Penn State fans around the country a reason to keep believing in the Nittany Lions, and that should never be forgotten.

There are many more moments in Penn State’s four-year recovery that you can point to that were the most influential. You can say it was the blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown against No. 2 Ohio State, winning the 2016 Big Ten Championship, the NCAA scaling back its sanctions in 2014, or even winning the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl. But to me, the most important moment was two days after the sanctions were announced.

Former Penn State running back Michael Zordich and linebacker Michael Mauti, along with the entire team behind them, came out and told the world they were not going to let one man tear down that program. That statement lit a fire under me and most Penn State fans around the country. They promised Penn State fans they would give them everything they had during the 2012 season, and they over-delivered on that promise.

Finishing that season with an 8-4 record was miraculous and did more for Penn State besides just notching another winning season in the record books. That season gave Nittany Nation hope and finally gave Penn Staters around the globe, including myself, a reason to cheer, something we desperately needed for a long time. If you want to go deeper into what that season meant for Penn State, the “Saving The Roar” film that came out in September 2021 is worth the watch.

Still, many people still think it was just Bill O’Brien, James Franklin, Saquon Barkley, or Trace McSorley that bought Penn State back to where it is now, but they can’t be more wrong. It was all of us –everyone. Every student, fan, student-athlete, coach, parent, staff member helped bring Penn State back.

Every person that packed into Beaver Stadium when nobody thought Penn State was going to win a single game in 2012, every fan that shouted, “We Are!” when seeing other Penn Staters throughout the country, and every person that still wore the blue and white with pride when it was easy to feel anything but that is the reason why Penn State got out better than ever.

I think that four-year journey, especially the first two seasons post-sanctions, is where the “We Are” in “We Are Penn State” was fully embodied. We did it together. “We Are” isn’t just our catchphrase, and it’s not something that we just cheer during football games. It’s truly a reflection of the Penn State community. During that time, every Penn Stater united like nothing I’ve ever seen. To this day, that’s what makes me proud to be a Penn Stater more than anything, and I think that’s where my love for the blue and white was really born.

Some fans around the nation may think about those four seasons from 2012 to 2015 and remember the agony of rooting for a team that had zero chance of competing for a championship. At the time, I was one of those people. But now, I look back on those years and can’t feel anything but extreme pride in being a Nittany Lion. The football program could have ceased to exist as we know it, but every Penn Stater stepped up and cheered on the Nittany Lions with pride.

So, this season, if you’re arguing over whether or not James Franklin is a good head coach or if Drew Allar should start over Sean Clifford, take a step back and think about where we were ten years ago. I assure you, it will put things into perspective.

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About the Author

Frankie Marzano

Frankie is a senior accounting and economics major from Long Island, NY. You can probably recognize him as the typical Italian-American with slicked back black hair. He is an avid fan of the New York Rangers and Mets, along with every Penn State Athletics team. Follow him on Twitter @frankiemarzano for obnoxious amounts of Rangers and Penn State content or email him at [email protected].

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