INDIANAPOLIS – Mark Emmert kicked ass and took names Monday. He also took bowl games, scholarships, tens of millions of dollars, hundreds of victories and any last illusion of purity away from Penn State.
After atomizing a program that used to operate under the self-congratulatory motto of "Success With Honor," the man who had just swung the biggest hammer in NCAA presidential history sat down with Yahoo! Sports for an exclusive interview in the association's headquarters. He said Penn State could have been hit harder.
Emmert told Y! Sports that a multi-year suspension of the football program was "vigorously discussed" with members of the Division I Board of Directors. Ultimately, Penn State's willingness to take its medicine – commissioning, accepting and making public the damaging Freeh Commission report, and accepting massive NCAA penalties without due process – helped save the school from a complete shutdown of football for a season or longer, Emmert said.
"The resolve demonstrated by Penn State to get past this was very important in people's minds," he said.
Based on the damning contents of the school's own Freeh report and not an NCAA investigation, Penn State leaders signed an unprecedented "consent decree" that basically forfeited the school's right to appeal the crippling sanctions – a four-year postseason ban, four years of scholarship reductions and a $60 million fine intended to transfer football profit to funding victims of child sexual abuse. Emmert indicated that although Penn State went along, school officials were far from thrilled with the severity of the sanctions.
What if the school had not consented, and instead fought the NCAA?
"The board agreed we'd move forward anyway," Emmert said. "Probably with harsher penalties."
Consider this: NCAA vice president David Berst, a veteran of collegiate crime and punishment who personally announced Southern Methodist's so-called "death penalty" in 1987, labeled the Penn State sanctions "as severe as any I can recall." Now imagine them being worse.
This is the new reality ushered in Monday: Two college athletic institutions saw their images recast. Penn State football's clean NCAA record, trumpeted for decades under Joe Paterno, is now officially tarnished. And a governing body often lampooned in recent years for being out of touch and too lenient now has renewed potency.
First, Penn State. Paterno, who died at age 85 in January, once was quoted as saying he didn't want to retire "and leave college football to the likes of Barry Switzer and Jackie Sherrill," identifying two scofflaws whose programs wound up on probation. Now Paterno's name joins theirs on the NCAA rap sheet. That was back when the Penn State superiority complex seemed legit.
Given what transpired from 2001 onward in State College, Pa., it's unfortunate that Switzer and Sherrill retired and left college football to Joe Paterno.
His is a fall from grace unlike any in collegiate history. Until last November, he was St. Joe, the most virtuous coach in American sports. Today he's considered by many the vilest of coaching villains. The black-and-white caricatures of Paterno ignore plenty of gray in between, but the epitaph is unforgiving.
The final, posthumous indignities came Sunday when the school removed his statue, and Monday when the NCAA removed 111 victories from his record-setting career total of 409.
That moves Paterno back to 298 and behind Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant and others to 12th on the all-time wins lists. Don't think that doesn't matter – the fact that Paterno refused to retire at a rational age hints at how he felt about his career victory total and place in the record books.
Vacating victories back to '98 also shows that the NCAA was going for the jugular. That's when former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was first alleged to have violated a child – but even then, law enforcement declined to charge him with a crime based on a lack of evidence. What was Paterno supposed to do at that point, fire him on account of innuendo?
It would have made more sense to vacate victories starting in 2001, when the second Sandusky incident came to light and the school (and Paterno) obviously failed to do the right thing. Especially if the penalties truly were for the school's inaction and not Sandusky's criminal actions. But the NCAA was certainly not going to err on the side of leniency when it came to Paterno.
"The thinking was, the sequence of behavior that led to this outcome begins there ," Emmert said. "So that's the appropriate benchmark."
Now, the NCAA's recast image. We can debate whether it had any business penalizing Penn State – I believe it was a matter more suited to the criminal and civil courts, though it is difficult to summon much sympathy for the school. What cannot be debated is the willingness and newfound agility of the ossified NCAA to make punishment happen – even if it takes a complete disregard of the association's established procedures.
"I think the resolve of the executive committee and of the Division I board was stated very powerfully in this case," Emmert said. "That resoluteness is very important."
So is the creation of a penalty that can actually do some good beyond simply putting the hurt on the offending school. That's where the redistribution of $60 million in Penn State money from football revenue to charitable organizations that help victims of child sexual abuse is a positive development. It's an enormous injection of cash for a worthy cause, and it will not come out of the coffers of the school's non-revenue sports.
If there was a good reason for the NCAA to involve itself, that was it.
It also was important for the governing body to follow up on last year's Emmert-led effort to coalesce university leaders behind a concerted push to improve the image of college sports. There was a lot of talk last August about tougher penalties and higher academic standards. A few months later, Penn State blew up.
On Nov. 17 Emmert sent a letter to Penn State indicating that the NCAA would be following events and could weigh in with penalties. The governing body agreed to wait for release of the Freeh report – the school's internal investigation – before going forward, but the NCAA was apprised along the way of what the report would contain.
When the report was made public July 12, the NCAA had all the ammunition it needed to proceed. Emmert began a series of conversations with the Division I board over the following days, and also informed Penn State that the NCAA was working on a penalty structure.
Emmert sent potential sanction options to the board for its feedback late last week. By Saturday he was ready to convene, via the web, a full meeting of the executive committee. The penalties were finalized that day and sent to Penn State, with the announcement of a press conference to discuss the penalties sent out Sunday.
Monday, the hammer fell. Presented with the first major litmus test of the new era, the NCAA response was emphatic.
Said Oregon State president Ed Ray, a member of the Division I board, "The message is, the presidents and chancellors are in charge."
More to the point: Mark Emmert is in charge. The fresh Nittany Lion skin on his wall shows he's in charge like no NCAA president before him.
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