Penn State is back in the bowl business.
The NCAA on Monday lifted the on-the-field sanctions placed on the Penn State football team for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, including immediately eliminating the postseason ban that had two more seasons left and restoring scholarships next season.
Penn State was halfway through a four-year postseason ban handed down during the summer of 2012. The NCAA rescinded some of the scholarship sanctions last year.
In a news release, the NCAA said that in addition to the postseason ban being lifted, Penn State will be allowed to have the full complement of football scholarships in 2015.
The school still must pay a $60 million fine, 111 wins under Joe Paterno plus one under Tom Bradley remain vacated and the school will remain under monitoring.
The decision by the NCAA's Executive Committee followed a recommendation by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, whose second annual report as Penn State's athletics integrity monitor concluded the university was in compliance with a 2012 agreement and consent decree.
"Senator Mitchell's report and recommendations, along with the actions taken by the NCAA today, are a recognition of the hard work of many over the past two years to make Penn State a stronger institution," said Penn State President Eric Barron. "This is welcome news for the university community, particularly for our current and future student-athletes."
Mitchell said the school had made progress toward implementing a new human resources system, "fostering an ethical culture" and improving security at its sports facilities.
"While each of these projects will require sustained effort, the work remains on track, and Penn State's commitment to completing these projects is apparent," wrote Mitchell. He said his own five-year oversight role, scheduled to continue to 2017, may end earlier as a result of the progress that has been made.
Mitchell said his recommendation was focused on aspects of the penalties that affect student-athletes, many of whom stayed at Penn State despite the ability to transfer without penalty.
"Many Penn State football players demonstrated loyalty by remaining at their university for two years without the prospect of playing in a postseason game," Mitchell wrote. "In light of Penn State's responsiveness to its obligations and the many improvements it has instituted, I believe these student-athletes should have the opportunity to play in the post-season should they earn it on the field this year."
His 58-page report said incidents involving the football team this year included two student-athletes who allegedly refused to leave a fraternity party when asked, alleged harassment of a parking officer who ticketed illegally parked mopeds, and the son of a team official practicing at a school facility in violation of university rules.
In State College, junior kinesiology major Daniel Zambanini said seeing the news on a television screen gave him a moment of shock.
"The sanctions kind of held the Sandusky scandal like it was a big black cloud that hung over the university because every year, every time they mentioned Penn State, they mentioned the sanctions," Zambanini said.
He said removal of the postseason ban "just takes that weight off our shoulders and you can kind of just be Penn State once more."
Security risk analysis major Dylan O'Brien, a senior, said that after the last three years, a trip to a bowl game sounded appealing.
"It was a pretty dark time because it was only a couple months after we started school" as freshmen, O'Brien said. "A lot of people had second thoughts about being here but a lot of people stuck through it."
"Penn State's commitment to the integrity of its athletics department and its progress toward meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree are clear," said Northern Arizona President Rita Hartung Cheng, who chaired Monday's Executive Committee meeting. "We thank Senator Mitchell for his meticulous and exhaustive work over the past two years."
The penalties against Penn State were unprecedented in many ways and not well-received by many in college sports because of that. While the NCAA cited lack of institutional control, Penn State's missteps had nothing to do with competition and the areas that usually fall under the NCAA's jurisdiction.
"The biggest problem I had was the effect on the student athletes in the program," said former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1980s, including on the SMU football case that led to the program being given the death penalty. "They (Penn State's players) weren't involved in a program that was cheating against their rivals and now all of sudden they're not able to participate in postseason. That to me was the most challenging part of it."
The NCAA cutting the penalties down is also unusual. Beebe and Mike Gillerano, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1970s and '80s, said they were concerned the latest move would set another precedent.
"So what happens now when one of your old schools," Gillerano said, referring to Beebe's time in the Big 12, "gets wacked? 'OK, we'll take that penalty with the understanding that we will be model citizens and we will expect the treatment that Penn State got.'"
On Friday, the NCAA said in a Pennsylvania state court filing that it is willing to let the state government control the $60 million fine Penn State is paying under the consent decree. The NCAA wants the judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the state treasurer and the state senator who represents the State College area, seeking to enforce a 2013 state law that requires the money remain in the state.
If the judge agrees, the NCAA said it also will move to end a federal lawsuit against Gov. Tom Corbett and others that challenges that same law. In that case, the judge is waiting for the parties to update her after putting the matter on hold for a month so they can work on a possible settlement.
Penn State went 15-9 during the first two seasons of the sanctions under coach Bill O'Brien, who was hired to replace the late Paterno, who was fired not long after Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, was charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Paterno died in 2012.
O'Brien left for the Houston Texans of the NFL after last season and James Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt to take his place.
Penn State is 2-0 this season. If the Nittany Lions win the East division, they will be eligible to play in the Big Ten championship game.
"We are very appreciative of the opportunities the NCAA and Big Ten have provided with today's announcement," Franklin said. "This team plays for each other. We play for Penn State, our families, the former players, our students, alumni, fans and the community. We are so proud to represent Penn State and the Big Ten Conference and are working hard to prepare for our Big Ten opener at Rutgers."