CHICAGO — For Penn State players, it’s a tough thing to ignore. For the seniors, specifically? Just the possibility of playing in a bowl game is something to get excited about.
Just how likely that is for 2014 is anyone’s guess as Penn State awaits the latest round of recommendations from former Sen. George Mitchell to the NCAA.
For now, James Franklin has made an effort to not have his Nittany Lions get their hopes up. The Penn State coach was at the Hilton Chicago for Big Ten media days Monday and took the stage shortly after it was revealed that five Pennsylvania congressmen had sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, asking him to further repeal the sanctions against Penn State.
“The impact of these sanctions directly contradicts your organization’s supposed goal of promoting education for student-athletes,” the letter said.
For his part, Franklin has tried to keep the attention away from things he and his team can’t control.
“My focus is on what to call on third down against Central Florida,” Franklin said. “Obviously that’s floating out there and we’ll see what happens.
“But I spend very little time thinking or talking about those things because I don’t want to be disappointed. I don’t want our players to be disappointed. I focus on what we know, and right now it’s very black and white. So we focus on that.”
For players like running back Bill Belton, kicker Sam Ficken and linebacker Mike Hull — all of whom accompanied Franklin to Chicago and are entering their final college seasons — that’s no easy task.
“How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?” Belton said when presented the hypothetical of getting to play in the postseason this year. “How would you react? Would you be excited?
“I’m just saying — if you were a kid in the program, it would be exciting. That’s all.”
Hull said Franklin has addressed the team “two or three times” to make sure players aren’t mentally circling bowl dates on the calendar.
Belton and Hull are part of the handful of current Penn State players who got to travel to the TicketCity Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. But it wasn’t much of a novelty for the Lions, who were just weeks removed from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the firing of Joe Paterno and the experience of several higher-profile bowls pass over them.
The Lions have been hoping for another chance ever since last September. That’s when Mitchell, the independent monitor assessing the changes Penn State has made in the wake of the scandal, recommended reducing the sanctions in the form of restored scholarships. The NCAA agreed.
As a result, Penn State was able to sign a full recruiting class this past February with a maximum of 75 total scholarships instead of the 65 that was scheduled to be the limit from 2014-17.
Penn State is currently set to return to the full 85-scholarship allotment for the 2016 season.
At the time, Mitchell said he expected that further reductions could come in the future given continued compliance from Penn State.
The letter drafted by five Pennsylvania representatives on Friday — Charles Dent, Mike Doyle, Jim Gerlach, Mike Kelly and Glenn Thompson — asked Emmert to restore the rest of the scholarships now as well as erase the $60 million fine imposed on the school. It did not specifically mention the postseason ban, nor the wins that were vacated between 1998-2011.
As of Monday evening, the NCAA had issued no formal response to the letter, which is the latest in a series sent by state lawmakers to college athletics’ governing body.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he was not aware of the correspondence but said he would support any further recommendations made by Mitchell.
“We’ve worked very closely with Senator Mitchell and have fully supported the direct recommendations as this has played out,” Delany said. “I hope that progress continues to be made and that the NCAA would look possibly on any requests that are requested by senator Mitchell.
“We will definitely follow his lead on it and I look forward to getting a copy of their letter and learning more about it.”
The Big Ten imposed penalties concurrent with the NCAA sanctions on Penn State in July 2012, namely withholding the school’s share of the conference’s revenues from bowl games.
Regardless of what happens over the next few months with the situation, the Lions are happy to hear that people outside the program are speaking up for them.
“It feels good,” Hull said. “It was kind of a bad situation that (the players) were put in. We really didn’t have anything to do with it. … We all felt kind of slighted by everything that happened. We really had no control of the situation. Pretty harsh penalties.
“But we’re putting it behind us and looking forward to the season. … Whether we go to a bowl game or not, it doesn’t really matter. We’re going to give our hearts every single game.”