Back on Sept. 1, when brutal NCAA sanctions were ringing in their ears and the Nittany Lions were losing to Ohio’s Bobcats, no worthy football program would have traded places with Penn State.
They were the collegiate black sheep, and the future appeared dire.
Now comes Nov. 1, and in two months the outlook has done a flip-flop. Penn State has survived the initial challenge, ripping through Illinois 35-7 and standing 3-1 in the Big Ten with Purdue on the docket Saturday. Illinois has lost 10 straight conference games, with Ohio State a 24-point favorite to make it 11. The despair surrounding the UI has reached the point where it is fair to ask: Who has the best football prospects in the next three, five or seven years, Penn State or Illinois?
If it makes you stop and think, that reveals a lot by itself. If you favor Penn State’s future, then you’re saying Illinois has fallen below the school receiving the most severe football sanctions since SMU’s death penalty.
Before digging into the comparisons, let’s review the Nittany Lions’ long-range penalties. First, the athletic department projected income of $108 million to operate 31 sports (12 more than Illinois).
The school is obliged to pay a $60 million fine, which is approximately the revenue from one football season and will be paid at the rate of $12 million for five years. In addition, the Nittany Lions won’t receive anticipated bowl income of $13 million during a four-year period in which they can’t attend.
Illinois, with a budget in excess of $70 million, will receive bowl money, but the likelihood of attending postseason play in the near future is doubtful.
On the competitive side, Penn State must reduce scholarships from 85 to 65 and, for four years beginning in 2014, can’t go beyond 65.
Let’s consider the relative attractiveness of the two programs.
Penn State’s budget will remain over $100 million, donors still pitching in at a high level, and October home games with Northwestern and Ohio State drew 95,769 and 107,818, the latter 1,246 beyond capacity. That’s more than double what Illinois has announced so far, and there are serious concerns as to how many will brave the November weather for the next home game against Minnesota.
In Happy Valley, with Jerry Sandusky tucked away in prison, there is a feeling of closure on that terrible episode, and it has become “us against the world” as they resist the shackles and battle through a trying period. They KNOW they’ll be back. At Illinois, a despondent fandom is gripped with a feeling of hopelessness as the Big Ten losing streak moves into double figures. With Indiana now ahead in the standings, there are few positive prognostications as to when it will end.
Penn State has already given Bill O’Brien a contract extension, and he remains a strong candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Many Penn State followers believe he is an upgrade to an aging Joe Paterno. At Illinois, cool heads believe Tim Beckman deserves more time even as debates rage over whether — assuming no more wins — he should be retained beyond this season.
O’Brien has another stout defensive squad and a knack for coaching quarterbacks. As scholarships are reduced, the talent is bound to slip. But this is a program that has dominated the rich Pennsylvania territory for decades and, however far it falls, it’ll come charging back. Penn State is and will remain a national story. The prospective recruits in 2014 will realize that they can attend a bowl in 2016. The Illini are being consistently out-recruited for top in-state players, would take another hit if Beckman is ultimately released, and could conceivably be no more capable of qualifying five years from now than Penn State.
Let’s just say that the grim, eight-year projections for Penn State in August aren’t as grim today. There is an SEC culture there that won’t let them die. That’s the way it is with certain programs, and some Illinoisans would trade places with them tomorrow.
— Two hurtful fumbles have caused Beckman to remove Tommy Davis as Illini punter returner. Terry Hawthorne and Darius Millines are competing for the job.
— Running back Josh Ferguson is expected to practice this week after missing most of Saturday’s loss to Indiana. Safety Steve Hull appears questionable at this point due to repeated shoulder problems.
— Junior tackle Akeem Spence, queried about his draft status, said: “It’s up in the air. Me and my dad will see where I stand at the end of the season.” On team morale, Spence said: “I’m not pointing fingers. It’s OK but not great because guys aren’t happy losing. We’re still trying to figure out why we’re making those mistakes, one guy here and another guy there.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.