Will Penn State suffer SMU's fate?

In the early 1980s, SMU won 45 of 51 games in five years. It has had three winning seasons since its famed suspension. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

DALLAS -- For just a few minutes Tuesday morning, Gate 3 at Gerald J. Ford Stadium was ajar. It created a short window for a peek inside SMU's football home. The stadium was quiet and empty, just as you'd suspect on a late-July morning.

It has been 24 years since it was just this quiet and empty during the football season, since the NCAA handed down the so-called "death penalty" on the program. It was a successful program -- the Mustangs had gone 45-5-1 in the first five years of the 1980s -- but it was also a program teeming with corruption, built by bucks and bullying.

A lot of time has passed, sure, but there are always reminders of that dark and damning time on the north side of Big D. Some reminders are starker than others.

Penn State on Monday was given an "unprecedented" catalog of punitive swats from the NCAA, a leveling that hasn't been seen, really, since what happened here, even if the sickening crimes at Happy Valley were far, far different than the football-related offenses at SMU.

As we currently sit, there is no real way to know what the long-term effects, or even those in the shorter run, will be at Penn State. But we could have an idea. By looking at SMU, even if it isn't a perfect comparison, it might just provide some perspective on what's to come at PSU.

While Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien, in an unimaginably difficult spot, has said the Penn State sentence is better than the SMU death penalty -- "We're still playing," he told reporters Tuesday -- others believe the penalties might have a very similar impact to what has happened in Dallas.

Tom Rossley is uniquely qualified to make the connection. He was the offensive coordinator at SMU in 1989, its first year back after the shutdown.

That first season back, the Mustangs made the decision to play with only freshmen. That was probably a mistake, said Rossley, now 65 and retired in the Texas Hill Country. The team was then playing in the Southwest Conference -- Texas, Texas A&M and Notre Dame were among the opponents that first season.

"We ran out of strength," Rossley said. "We couldn't stay with them." He added there were an inordinate number of injuries, many requiring surgery, because so many young players were being put into use when they were too small, too inexperienced.

While Penn State will not be left with solely freshmen, the 2013 and 2014 rosters could potentially resemble a similar disaster.

That hinges, to some degree, on O'Brien and his staff's ability to retain the current players -- the younger players, more specifically. While some veterans have pledged to stay, the young talent is the key to this whole challenge for O'Brien, several coaches agreed this week. (Of course, most of those coaches would probably accept a call from a willing-to-transfer PSU player.)

There's not a lot you can sell. [The players] can read just like everybody else. [The Penn State coaches] are going to have to do a heck of a sales job.

-- Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville

Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville took over the Ole Miss head-coaching job in 1995, just after the school received four years' probation, a punishment that included a loss of 24 total scholarships (as well as a one-year TV ban, which PSU avoided).
Among the offenses for the Rebs? High schoolers were reportedly taken to strip clubs by boosters. Unlike Penn State or SMU, it's not as if Ole Miss had won at an exceedingly high level before being brought to justice. But like Penn State, Oxford is isolated enough to support a football-as-god culture.

It turned out that Tuberville, down six scholarships a year for his four years at Ole Miss, did a nice job in a difficult place to win. He was 25-20 with a bowl win in 1997 before he left for Auburn. That started, he said, by walking in the door and immediately re-recruiting the current players, much like O'Brien has been doing this week.

"There's not a lot you can sell," Tuberville said Monday, referring to Penn State. "[The players] can read just like everybody else. [The coaches] are going to have to do a heck of a sales job."

So what can they sell?

Tuberville and other coaches said the value of an education -- something that the player theoretically considered out of high school -- is the central point. "I always ask them, 'What would you do if you were hurt and your playing career was taken away?'" Tuberville said. "'Would you be happy?' This isn't that different."

Only it is. Because of the graphic nature of Jerry Sandusky's sins, there's a stain on the school. That, one veteran BCS-level coach said, might actually work to keep some players at Penn State. He suggested some older players might stay to play for the honor of Joe Paterno's now-obliterated legacy. Others, he said, might play for the victims of the heinous child abuse.

That could be enough to hold together a core of the veteran leadership, as evidenced by the players' show of support on Wednesday, but what about the younger players? What about the freshmen, those arriving and the redshirts? Surely some will land elsewhere.

With the departing players, plus the fact it will be restricted to 65 total scholarships beginning next season, Penn State could bear more resemblance to an FCS school -- an FCS school playing in the Big Ten.

"They're not going to be good," one Big 12 coach said of the Lions. "If you have 65 players who aren't very good, you're not going to be very good." And even if they can maintain some upper-crust recruits, a roster of this size is extraordinarily vulnerable to injuries. The idea of quality depth is all but eliminated.

But will Penn State sink to SMU lows? Maybe not. The Mustangs won two games in 1989, one in 1990 and one in 1991. They gave up 95 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense to Houston, and Heisman Trophy-winning QB Andre Ware, in that first season back.

SMU has had three winning seasons since the penalties were levied, and two of those were in the past three years under current coach June Jones. (Jones, through an SMU spokesman, declined an interview this week to ESPN.com. The school is still working to distance itself from the scandal and its fallout.)

Rossley, promoted to head coach in 1991, was the conference's co-coach of the year in 1992 -- after a 5-6 season. It was a losing year but it provided pride, given where the program had been.
When he arrived, SMU's coaches were not allowed to go off campus to recruit. They had to beg high school kids to visit via the telephone, long before texting or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else would have made that easier.

"We asked them to be a part of something special that's never been done in college football," Rossley said. "We'd always be remembered as that first group. ... That was our sell. It was a tough sell."

Rossley reminded me that the Ponies defeated Houston in 1992, three years removed from the 74-point thrashing. He said members of that particular team remain close, closer than players from many -- and probably all -- of his other teams over the years.

"They're a unique group," he said. "They really crossed some big hurdles and had a lot to be proud of."

It's a different but similar deal this season at USC, where the Trojans are again eligible for postseason play after the settling of the Reggie Bush fallout. It hasn't settled completely, though. Even if USC is a preseason favorite for 2012-13 in some books, Lane Kiffin knows his team is not constructed with the same depth as the SEC mainstays, Alabama and LSU. An injury at a key position, and the Trojans will be extremely young and inexperienced.

Kiffin groused this spring that he'd love to have the 10 scholarship players he is without because of the NCAA sanctions for depth and to build for the future. That figures to only become truer in the next couple years, relative to when the scholarship reduction began on the recruiting trail. The Trojans have had to be more intentional about who they are selecting. If they miss with a recruit, on character or football evaluations, they will be depleted more than they are already.

The longer-term effects will be interesting to gauge at USC, as well as Penn State. SMU is again a worthwhile case study. When the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996, SMU did not receive an invite to the Big 12. Phil Bennett, who would take over the program in 2002, said it's fair to wonder if the school would have been able to go along if it had not cheated and been busted. He said its location in Dallas, a major media market, and strong academic reputation would have been boosts for the newly forming league.

Instead, SMU went to the WAC. Because of that, Bennett theorized that recruits from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and Texas were less interested in SMU. Their families could see them play a lot easier in the Big 12, compared to the regular trips to California -- and Hawaii -- for SMU in the WAC. And the academics worked against the school. Schools such as San Jose State and Fresno State could get virtually anyone in.

Because of that, Bennett had to work with SMU's admissions office. That, he said, was the biggest challenge of his job, even 15 years removed from the death penalty. After the decision, every coach worked, sometimes fruitlessly, to regain the trust of the faculty.

Football had been smeared, something O'Brien and Penn State will surely encounter for years to come.

"They thought football, and athletics generally, had way too much power," Bennett said. "They were gunshy. That's probably the best way to put it. They were wonderful people -- I can say that with certainty -- but they'd been burned. You could tell."

The idea of a winning tradition is something to consider in each of the three cases. SMU had it going in the 1980s, and it had prior heyday with Doak Walker in the 1940s, but Penn State and Southern Cal lap it in terms of history. But Penn State also took the most pronounced hit of the three, distinctly illustrated by Sunday morning's yanking of the Paterno statue.

One coach said this week to think, too, about the cornerstones on which Paterno built Penn State: tradition and honor. Those would seem to be instantly discredited, although the extent is difficult to measure. O'Brien has indicated in statements and interviews that he will still sell the winning history and what Paterno did on the field, but will it fall on deaf ears?

Some in the business are wondering if this leaves Penn State as merely a highly isolated state school, a tough draw for kids from even larger regional hubs such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Who right now would willingly go to the middle of nowhere to play with no payoff -- and probably a lot of strife.

There's a high likelihood that the Lions will be beaten down this fall, just as much mentally as physically. Rossley offered this advice to O'Brien and his assistants: "Keep it fun. Find a way to keep it fun. Try to keep the atmosphere light and positive. You can't be 'Woe is me.'