HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Penn State will gradually get back football scholarships taken away over the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, the NCAA announced Tuesday, crediting the university for making significant improvements to its athletics programs.
Five scholarships will be restored next year and 15 more will be phased in until the school reaches the limit of 85 in 2016-17, a season earlier than the school had agreed to, college sports' governing body said. The NCAA said the unanimous decision by its executive committee was based on the recommendation of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who has been serving as Penn State's athletics integrity monitor.
''This action provides an opportunity to recognize Penn State's significant momentum, while also providing additional opportunities for student-athletes,'' said Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch, chair of the NCAA's Division I board of directors, which endorsed the decision.
The penalties came amid heavy criticism of university leaders' response to complaints about Sandusky. Penn State and the NCAA agreed to the penalties by entering into a consent decree more than a year ago, shortly after Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse. They also require the school to pay a $60 million fine and serve a four-year ban on postseason play. The NCAA also eliminated 112 wins by the football program.
Penn State president Rodney Erickson called the restoration of scholarships particularly welcome news for student-athletes who want to attend Penn State.
''As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to improving all our policies, procedures and actions,'' Erickson said.
The NCAA said it also may reduce the postseason play ban, depending on the university's future progress. Mitchell said it was premature to say which other sanctions might be changed.
''This was a positive response to positive action, and as to the future, we'll have to make judgments in the future,'' Mitchell told reporters in a conference call. He said the decision was particularly warranted by the actions of Erickson and other university leaders ''in the face of considerable opposition within the Penn State community.''
''Over time, their actions led to a circumstance where it became clear to me that their response was positive in the face of difficult circumstances,'' Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he recommended the restoration of scholarships, but the specific elements were decided by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference.
''It is the mechanism most directly targeted to students, student-athletes,'' Mitchell said. ''I felt it was an appropriate place to provide the relief.''
Earlier this month, Mitchell issued a report on the first year of his service as monitor, crediting Penn State for notable progress that included implementation of 119 recommendations made last summer by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who directed the school's investigation into the scandal.
The family of former coach Joe Paterno issued a statement calling the decision welcome news. Paterno died from lung cancer in January 2012, weeks after the arrest of Sandusky on abuse charges and two administrators on allegations of a criminal cover-up. A lawsuit by his surviving family members and others against the NCAA is pending in county court near State College.
Sandusky is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence for sexual abuse of 10 boys, including incidents inside Penn State athletics facilities. A state appeals court recently heard oral argument in his quest for a new trial.
The Nittany Lions are 3-1 and do not play this week. In response to the NCAA announcement, coach Bill O'Brien said his staff was pleased for the players, who, he said, have ''proven themselves to be a resilient group of young men who are able to look ahead, focus and overcome adversity.''