College Sports: Can Kentucky's Resurrection from Probation Provide a Path for Penn St.?

Can Penn St. learn from Kentucky's example back in 1990?

Yesterday, Harvey Araton of the New York Times published a very interesting essay which Wild Weasel linked in a FanPost, and I thought it deserved a bit more commentary and front page treatment. The article is about how Kentucky's experience back in 1990 might inform Penn St.'s recovery from the crippling sanctions placed on them by the NCAA.

Essentially, the article suggests that Penn St. could use Kentucky's recipe for success, which was first to convince the players they had to treat every game as if it were the NCAA Tournament championship, and second to recruit players willing to redshirt and wait a few years to help return the team to glory.

The third part of that recipe, which Araton mentions but perhaps should have emphasized more, is that Kentucky did everything it could do to create an atmosphere of "You can't miss this!" excitement around the program at the time. Due to the TV ban, which UK largely circumvented by showing the games on a delayed basis (now banned by a rule change, I believe), the Wildcats changed from the slower, traditional style favored by Eddie Sutton to the fast-pace, run-and-gun pressing style that Pitino had innovated at the time.

The article mentions, but downplays to some degree, the fact that football and basketball are very different in the number of players required to compete. That's one thing, really, that can't be understated. As far as roster impact, the Penn St. scholarship restrictions are far more punitive and longer-term than those at Kentucky.

In order to successfully implement a Kentucky-like resurgence strategy, Penn St. must do these things, among others:

  • Convince players from year two on that they can wind up playing in the post-season their junior and senior years if they take a redshirt season;
  • Convince players to change their approach to the game of football. Rick Pitino did this with a previously unheard-of program of physical conditioning. Penn St. has to find a similar tactic, physical, mental, or a combination of the two that works for football;
  • Convince the fans to show up in droves to football games, and participate in the events surrounding the game. Penn St. is hampered by money issues that Kentucky was not, so they are going to need help from alumni to make sure that every Penn St. home game is a can't miss, all-day, talk-about-it-till-next-Friday event, and volunteers are going to have to help motivate travel to road venues. That shouldn't be too difficult considering the passion the state has for their football team;
  • Be innovative in their approach to football. Rick Pitino doesn't coach the same game as he did at Kentucky anymore, but he needed that up-tempo, frenetic style to bring the excitement necessary to fill Rupp Arena even when he had a really bad team in 1990;
  • Recruit the heck out of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania kids going to State College will excite the fans, and if they can emphasize a local product more and find a way to produce quality football, the path to recovery could be much shorter than the decade predicted. Kentucky was very successful with this approach, and as the team got better, better players started coming. It's also much cheaper to recruit in state and with the money sanctions, Penn St. is going to find funding recruiting far from home difficult.

I'm sure there are lots of other things that can be done, but Bill O'Brien and his staff have to not only think outside the box, they have to throw the box in the garbage can and burn it, just like Kentucky did. Can it work with football like it did with Basketball at UK? I really don't know -- my opinion is that it will be much more difficult.

I find this quote from Rick Pitino particularly telling:

"When I first got to Kentucky I was an outsider, and I didn’t understand how deep the wounds were and what it meant to those people," he said. "I had tears in my eyes watching those jerseys [of the Unforgettables] go up there, and I think that’s when I finally got it."

Penn St. could wind up, ironically, coming out of this with a football culture even more powerful than it was before the scandal, at least from a fan perspective, much like Kentucky did. Internal loyalty is the only coin of this new Penn St. realm, and the NCAA, with all the best intentions, may wind up producing the exact opposite of what it purports to desire as far as sports emphasis goes.

Whatever the case, the Kentucky recovery does give Penn St. a road map of sorts, or at minimum, shows what can be done with a passionate following and innovative thinking.

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