- Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN Senior Writer
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If Penn State had not accepted the package of NCAA sanctions announced Monday, the Nittany Lions faced a historic death penalty of four years, university president Rodney Erickson told "Outside the Lines" on Wednesday afternoon.
In a separate interview, NCAA president Mark Emmert confirmed that a core group of NCAA school presidents had agreed early last week that an appropriate punishment was no Penn State football for four years.
Emmert told Erickson in a phone conversation on July 17 that a majority of the NCAA's leadership wanted to levy the four-year penalty because of Penn State's leaders' roles in covering up the child sexual abuse of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
"Well, that's a pretty tough number to swallow," Erickson said he recalled thinking when told of the four-year possibility by Emmert. "It's unprecedented. It's a blow to the gut; there's no doubt about that ... I couldn't agree to that at all."
Almost immediately after that conversation, intensive discussions between Penn State and the NCAA began in earnest, Erickson said. Penn State lobbied for the NCAA to take the death penalty off the table, and the NCAA described a series of other sanctions, both "punitive and corrective" in nature.
The discussions were so secretive that most members of Penn State's embattled Board of Trustees had no idea they were happening, several trustees said.
Indeed, the trustees had thought Erickson was officially responding to a Nov. 17 letter of questions from the NCAA. In the interview on Wednesday, Erickson said the letter was set aside last week as the discussions between Penn State and the NCAA intensified.
Erickson said if Penn State did not agree to the sanctions, a formal investigation would have begun and the university could have faced a multiyear death penalty, as well as "other sanctions," including a financial penalty far greater than $60 million.
"There were figures that were thrown around that were quite large," he said.
After five days of intense discussions last week, Erickson and Emmert agreed last Sunday to the historic punishment of a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, significant loss of scholarships and the vacating of 14 years of 112 Penn State victories, causing Joe Paterno to fall from first to eighth on the Division I all-time coaches' win list.
The punishment was for the role played by four Penn State leaders -- Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz -- to conceal Sandusky's child sexual abuse for more than 10 years, as described in the university-commissioned Freeh report.
Erickson's comments were made Wednesday afternoon, shortly before he met with Penn State's Board of Trustees about the terms of the consent decree he signed with the NCAA.
Several trustees said they are furious the board was not given a chance to vote on the agreement, which they say is bad for Penn State. But after meeting Wednesday night, the board said it understands Erickson's decision.
"The Board finds the punitive sanctions difficult and the process with the NCAA unfortunate," the board said in a statement. "But as we understand it, the alternatives were worse as confirmed by NCAA President Mark Emmert's recent statement that Penn State was likely facing a multi-year death sentence. The University and Board resolve to move forward together to recognize the historical excellence in Penn State's academic and athletic programs."
Erickson said his insistence that Penn State must avoid the death penalty was driven in large part with worry over the devastating economic impact of no Saturday afternoon football in central Pennsylvania and the words of newly hired coach Bill O'Brien.
O'Brien said in an interview Wednesday that he told Erickson, "I want to play football and I want to play football on television."
"Both of those things are possible under the sanctions," Erickson said Wednesday. "I think it is not only best for our football program but best for our entire set of sports and intercollegiate athletes to be able to continue on and have the opportunity to play in that stadium and participate."
Erickson said he disagrees with the criticism that the NCAA sanctions are worse than the death penalty.
"I think the death penalty would have been far, far worse for the program and the university over the long run," he said.
While it had been known that Penn State faced a possible multiyear death penalty, the level of NCAA support for a four-year death penalty and the import given to that threat by Erickson and other Penn State leaders were not previously known.
Erickson signed a consent decree that accepted full responsibility for the facts and conclusions of the 267-page Freeh report, a seven-month investigation by the firm of former FBI director Louis Freeh. His investigators interviewed more than 430 witnesses and reviewed more than 3.5 million documents.
The decree states the evidence against Penn State "presents an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education and, most disturbingly, the values of human decency."
The university's discussions with the NCAA last week were so secretive that most trustee members had no idea they were going on, even as late as last Sunday when Erickson and Emmert said the consent decree's terms were finalized.
Some trustees said they hoped the dismantling of Paterno's statue would send a positive message to the NCAA when it considered sanctions. Little did those trustees know, Erickson already had agreed in principle by last Saturday on the "punitive and corrective" sanctions.
Before the Board of Trustees' meeting on Wednesday night, some members said they were considering a bid to overturn the consent decree in court because they don't believe Erickson had the authority to sign it. Erickson consulted with board chairwoman Karen Peetz, acting AD Dave Joyner and several other unnamed members of the board's executive committee, he said Wednesday.
Two trustees said most of the board's members did not find out about the terms of the agreement until Monday morning.
"This is the most significant decision in the history of Penn State, and we didn't know," one trustee said. "The financial impact of this decision could run as high as $500 million, and we didn't know anything about it.
"The Freeh report criticized us for not being in the loop on the Sandusky matter, and we were totally out of the loop on this. What happened to the transparency that we were promised?"
Another trustee said there is a growing movement among some trustees to attempt to challenge the consent decree in court.
"They've destroyed the school, as far as I'm concerned," this trustee said. "Think of the innocent players hurt by this. They had nothing to do with this and they have to pay the price."
On Wednesday, Erickson said he had consulted with Peetz, the board chairwoman, and the university's outside counsel, about whether he had the authority to negotiate and approve the agreement with the NCAA.
"We felt that I had the authority to engage in that consent decree," Erickson said.
Don Van Natta Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DVNJr.
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