When the sanctions against Penn State came down on Monday, readers asked me whether or not I thought they were enough. In particular, folks wanted to know if I thought Penn State should have gotten the so-called “death penalty.” I’m a little ambivalent about that question, as I wrote about here. One thing I can say for sure. I think that the sanctions that Penn State received may turn out to be worse than the death penalty.
The death penalty has only been issued one time in the history of college football, and it was the SMU Mustangs that had to endure it. It’s been 25 years since the NCAA terminated SMU’s program for a year, and the Mustangs still haven’t recovered. The death penalty came to SMU in 1987, and they weren’t able to put together another winning season until 2009—some 22 year after the sanction. Even today, SMU is nowhere near the team they were back in the early 80’s.
How do the sanctions against Penn State measure-up against the death penalty that SMU received? In college football, recruiting is everything. If you can recruit blue chip prospects, then you can win football games and compete at the elite level. If you cannot recruit, then you cannot win. At SMU, the “death penalty” effectively shut down SMU’s recruiting for two years. At Penn State, the sanctions effectively shut down recruiting for the next four years.
In addition, the scholarships have been so diminished that Penn State has effectively been reduced to a Division II program. Penn State will be a team of walk-ons in very short order. In 1989, SMU was so diminished that their inferior talent allowed the University of Houston to score 95 points against them in one game. You can expect to see similar spectacles in the coming years as Penn State will have to continue playing in the Big 10 after their talent dries up. It’s not going to be pretty.
If it’s all about recruiting, then Penn State has a long road ahead of them. SMU has shown us that. And that is why Penn State’s penalty may turn out to be worse than SMU’s.
In 2010, ESPN produced a documentary about SMU and the death penalty. It’s fascinating to watch. If you want to see what happens when a team is no longer able to recruit, watch this video. It’s titled “Pony Excess,” and you can watch the whole thing below.