Fourteen months after pinning the sheriff star on his chest and locking up Penn State, Mark Emmert is looking a little saddle sore from his sojourn into frontier justice.
He won't admit it, of course. Nobody at the NCAA will acknowledge that Emmert's grandstand move in July 2012 to slam the Nittany Lions for the sins of Jerry Sandusky was a vast overreach.
But they don't have to admit anything. Actions speak louder than words, and the embattled president of the most controversial institution in sports just had the biggest decision of his tenure significantly softened Tuesday morning.
At the recommendation of Sen. George Mitchell, who for the past year has acted as an independent athletics integrity monitor at Penn State, the NCAA dialed back its harsh scholarship restrictions on the football program. Coach Bill O'Brien will have five more scholarships to award in February 2014 than were previously at his disposal, and will be restored to a full 25-scholarship class in 2015 and a full 85-scholarship roster in 2016.
Also, the NCAA will consider lifting the school's four-year bowl ban, one year of which already has been served. It wouldn't surprise me if next year's team is allowed to go bowling, two years earlier than scheduled.
That's huge news for Penn State, which now has a chance to survive this dark period without complete decimation of its ability to recruit and compete.
But it's also significant news that the NCAA has rapidly amended its biggest ruling since giving SMU football the death penalty in the 1980s. Call it what you will, but I will call it this: tacit admission that what it did to Penn State was too much, too far outside the association's protocol and too damaging to a school that has rid itself of everyone associated with the Sandusky scandal.
When the Penn State penalties came down on July 23, 2012, Emmert told Yahoo Sports that he and members of the NCAA Board of Directors "vigorously discussed" the possibility of shutting down the football program for a year or more. They stopped short of that, but Emmert noted the "resoluteness" of NCAA leadership to administer massive sanctions.
"I think the resolve of the executive committee and of the Division I board was stated very powerfully in this case," Emmert said at the time.
Fourteen months later, "powerful resolve" has given way to a do-over of sorts.
It is true there always was an agreement in place that the Big Ten and NCAA would review Penn State's progress in remaking its culture and reconsider the sanctions. But that reconsideration was supposed to happen in September 2014, not 2013.
At Mitchell's suggestion, the process was accelerated by a year. It's great that Penn State has made such rapid strides in a broad area of mandated changes, and it's great that the NCAA is willing to reward those changes.
But it also shows that the penalties – and the process – were flawed to begin with.
(Some of the most conspiracy-minded might think that the acceleration of this infractions rollback owes more to legal issues than simply doing the right thing. A hearing in the Joe Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA is scheduled for Oct. 29, and it's fair to wonder whether a besieged entity already being sued by Ed O'Bannon et al., in another major case is engaged in civil damage control.)
The Sandusky scandal was always a criminal and civil case, not an NCAA rules case. It belonged to law enforcement and the courts, and both have been quite busy for nearly two years dealing with the fallout. And there is more to come: three former Penn State administrators are scheduled to stand trial in the spring for their alleged roles in allowing Sandusky to molest children unchecked.
The crimes of the former defensive coordinator, and the lax supervision of him by his superiors, were horrific – but they didn't fit anywhere in the NCAA's voluminous rulebook. The entire affair was, in spirit and substance, too big for a governing body of sports to handle.
But Emmert and the Board of Directors couldn't resist the opportunity to make a muscle-flexing, show-stopping judgment of their own. Everyone wanted in on Penn State, to make a statement and make a stand, and the NCAA was near the front of the line.
While it would have been difficult to watch post-scandal Penn State football conducting business as usual – albeit without fired icon Joe Paterno, and with deep stain on a previously pristine reputation – the NCAA should never have involved itself in punishing the school. It should never have tossed aside its own crime-and-punishment model to adopt the Freeh Report as an unquestioned mechanism for blasting the program. It should never have pressured Penn State into a consent decree saying it would not appeal the heavy sanctions.
That's not how the NCAA has ever worked, and this was not an area in which it should have worked. And now we're seeing the tacit admission of that. Mark Emmert is still in charge in Indianapolis. But I'd bet his days riding the range and exacting frontier justice are over.