What's left for Penn State?

NCAA sanctions leave uncertain future for prospects considering PSU

Originally Published: July 23, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- A darkening sky loomed on Sunday above Christian Hackenberg, the 6-foot-4 specimen of a high school senior and picture of what defines a great quarterback prospect.

Hackenberg, out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, starred here at the Elite 11 finals among 25 of the nation's best at his position.

He is the No. 1-rated quarterback in the ESPN 150, the No. 16 player overall. And he's committed to sign a letter of intent in February with Penn State.

For now, that is.

In the wake of Monday's announcement that Penn State faces a four-year postseason ban and must forfeit 40 scholarships over four years, it's hard to imagine that a quarterback with Hackenberg's options -- or any player with choices -- would willingly walk into State College.

This tragedy extends well past football, of course, but its collateral impact eventually brings us back to the game. A toxic football culture caused things to spiral horribly at Penn State. And when the devastation clears, we hope football can again help to define Penn State, although in a method much different from what we know today.

In the meantime, they will continue to play. And to play, Penn State must recruit.

Hackenberg, as the sun set on this five-day event, talked with a growing sense of concern about Penn State.

"I want to be there," Hackenberg said, but with less conviction than just five days prior.

But at what cost?

The house is coming down after the worst scandal in the history of college athletics. Don't expect many recruits to stay around and collect the rubble.

Scholarship reductions and postseason bans, even when minor in comparison to Penn State's sentence, bring massive ramifications. If the lack of depth doesn't get you, the downtrodden atmosphere does. If it's not the negative publicity, it's the simple inability to play on an even field with your competition.

Take a look:

• Clemson lost 10 scholarships per season over a two-year probation for violations that occurred under coach Danny Ford from 1977 to 1982. Following a 30-2-2 record over three years, the Tigers went 7-4 in 1984 and 6-6 in 1985 . They were back on probation in 1990, but with no major sanctions, and finished 5-6 twice over a three-year stretch in the aftermath.

• In the granddaddy of all scandals until now, the NCAA slammed SMU with the death penalty in 1986 for a multitude of recruiting-related violations. It did not play in 1987 or 1988 and could not offer scholarships until 1991. The penalties devastated the program. SMU posted just one winning season in 20 years before a pair of eight-win finishes in the past three years, and even that remains a far cry from the school's 41-5 stretch from 1981 to 1985.

• Miami lost seven scholarships in 1995, then 24 more over the next two years for academic fraud and payments to players in a scandal that dated to 1989. The result: a 5-6 season in 1997 under Butch Davis in the midst of a five-year period without a 10-win season. From 1983 to 1994, before the sanctions hit, the Hurricanes won 10 games or more 10 times.

• Alabama was banned from the postseason in 1995 and later lost 21 scholarships after a scandal that surrounded premier recruit Albert Means. The Crimson Tide went 4-7 in 1997, the start of an 11-year stretch in which they posted a 74-61 record and burned through four coaches before Nick Saban restored order.

• And then there's USC, the latest to get nailed by the NCAA. As punishment in 2010 for the scandal that revolved around Reggie Bush's bonanza of violations, the program lost 30 scholarships spread over three seasons. This is the second year, and USC remains above water -- in possession of the No. 1-rated recruiting class with five months to go until signing day.

But for Lane Kiffin and the Trojans, the hardest time awaits, when the lack of role players who fill out a signing class contributes to a thin roster and the inability to cover inevitable recruiting misses and injuries.

Penn State must deal with all that and more.

Hackenberg wore his Penn State ball cap on Sunday afternoon, saying he was anxious about the announcement but relieved to hear word now and not after some exhaustive NCAA investigation in months or years.

Asked if anything short of the death penalty might sway him from Penn State, Hackenberg said he was hoping to avoid a "dramatic bowl ban."

Four years. Dramatic enough?

Christian's father, Erick Hackenberg, talked to fellow parents and coaches on Sunday -- anyone who wanted to listen, really -- at Redondo Union High School. He had plenty to discuss.

"There are times where you know you need to cut bait instead of keep fishing," Erick Hackenberg said before the final day of competition in California began.

"A lot of people would walk away from it. That's not us. You don't want to walk into the firing line, but this is example of a time where you don't base your decision off the immediate reaction."

It's sad in many ways for Christian Hackenberg because he wanted to lead Penn State into a new era and refuse to run from a difficult situation. He's got a new era, all right, though maybe not what Hackenberg had in mind.

This is a difficult situation and then some. If Hackenberg, with his boarding school-instilled discipline, chooses to tough it out and make a statement by staying at Penn State, he is, perhaps, sentencing himself to an impossible climb. How many recruits can he persuade to come with him?

How much of the current team stays?

A quarterback needs offensive linemen and receivers to win. And a defense. ESPN 150 defensive tackle Greg Webb of Erial, N.J., defected over the weekend from Penn State's class to North Carolina, and cornerback Ross Douglas decommitted after the sanctions were announced and is visiting other schools, including Penn State's designated cross-division Big Ten rival, Nebraska.

Likely, the exodus has only begun. And of the uncommitted prospects whom first-year coach Bill O'Brien had not yet sold on the Nittany Lions, who picks Penn State now?

When hope fades, recruiting gets difficult. If you can't recruit, you don't win.

As Christian Hackenberg can attest, the sky is darkening. A furious storm looks set to bury all in its path.