Surviving the Sanctions: Inside the tumultuous journey of Penn State football’s senior class
Sam Ficken drilled home the game winner, only to flee the scene.
Penn State's kicker outran his euphoric teammates to the opposite end of Yankee Stadium's makeshift field before allowing himself to be swarmed at the 15-yard line. The celebration would soon make its way to the top of the first-base dugout, where players embraced each other, family, fans — anyone within reach.
Not the climax of a national championship or a Rose Bowl, this was the scene following a mere chip shot to win the Pinstripe Bowl, a minor, late-December matchup.
But for a tight-knit group of players who just 29 months earlier were slammed with sanctions rendering their football program bowl-ineligible through the 2015 season and scholarship-handicapped even longer, Ficken's extra point to defeat Boston College represented much more.
The victory offered an improbable bookend to a four-year stretch for the Nittany Lions' departing senior class that was arguably more turbulent than any other in modern college football history.
Despite post-sanction player transfers, two coaching staff overhauls and increasingly apparent effects of scholarship reductions — the Lions had just 47 recruited scholarship players available in Yankee Stadium — the 2014 seniors helped sustain a program once considered on its death bed.
"We played for each other," said linebacker Mike Hull, a free agent signing with the Miami Dolphins as of this week. "Played for Penn State. We played because we love the game. And nothing was going to stop us from being successful."
This story is about that class, a group of seniors whose years at Penn State will formally come to a close with the university’s spring commencement this weekend.
'It all came crashing down'
Few players even knew who Jerry Sandusky was.
So, after news broke on Nov. 4, 2011, that the former Penn State assistant coach had been indicted for child sex abuse, they didn't understand just how crushing the scandal would be.
"At that time we were in shock because this had been one of the most stable programs, if not the most stable, for the last 40 years up to that point," Hull said.
"And then it all came crashing down."
First, the players heard a man who last coached at Penn State when they were in middle school was facing criminal charges.
Then, the team learned this could jeopardize the job of its revered head coach, Joe Paterno.
Next, players received texts from assistant coaches on the evening of Nov. 9 informing them the unthinkable had happened: Paterno had been fired. A public announcement by the Board of Trustees was made shortly thereafter.
As College Avenue, the main drag in bucolic State College, became flooded with protesting students, coaches mandated that players remain inside and off social media.
Ficken thought about the contrast between what he expected from Penn State and the new reality.
"You sign up to play for Joe. Joe had been here 46 years," he said. "The coaching carousel in college football at the time, where you get a new coach every two or three years … at Penn State, that's not the case. You have the same coach until you graduate."
Paterno had been Penn State's head coach since 1966. The stats that don't fully capture his place at the school: one library in his name, two national championships, five undefeated seasons and 409 wins. Plus, a "grand experiment" of challenging players to succeed both on the football field and in the classroom. His legacy, however, remains a point of contention three years after his death because of the Sandusky case.
The day after his firing, the 84-year-old coach gave one final address to the team.
"He just reminded us why we were all at Penn State, why it was a special place, and that we're always going to have a great brotherhood, always going to be family to one another," Hull said.
"'Just remember the relationships and the bonds that you're creating,' he said."
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley stepped in as interim head coach for the 8-1 Nittany Lions, who struggled to keep the focus on football as the national media settled in on State College during the final stretch of the season.
The perception of the Penn State football program, previously known for what Paterno called "success with honor," spiraled downward as the details of the sex abuse charges against Sandusky continued to emerge. National attention moved toward who might have known about the former assistant coach's crimes and failed to speak up.
All of Penn State got dragged down by that undertow.
"A lady walks by us and says, 'Ew, Penn State? You're child rapists.' And I was like, 'Excuse me?'" said Ficken, recalling a scene during an airport layover. "And she said, 'I can't believe you'd wear that in public.' That didn't go over real well."
Meanwhile, tension within the football program began to build.
Several departed players said a heated confrontation with then-interim athletic director David Joyner took place leading up to the school's acceptance of an invitation to the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas over whether to play in the postseason at all. Further, by the time Penn State reached the bowl on Jan. 2, 2012, quarterback Matt McGloin was out of the lineup after suffering a concussion in a locker-room brawl with one of his receivers.
The lackluster 30-14 loss to Houston was the Lions' third defeat in their final four games.
Yet following that disastrous end to the season, as bad as it was, many players believed the worst was behind them.
“We assumed all of our problems were in the rear-view. Nobody [left in the program] had anything to do with what went on,” Hull said of Sandusky’s crimes. “At that point, it never crossed anyone's mind that we'd be sanctioned or have a penalty for a child sex abuse scandal. That didn't cross our minds at all."
But a brief announcement on a mid-July morning would rock the program further.
'What are we doing?'
Mark Emmert's words hardly had time to echo throughout the Lasch Building, Penn State's football headquarters, before the players’ lounge cleared out.
Suddenly, what was once a shared experience became individual — each player finding space to ponder his own future.
"Football will never again be put ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people," Emmert, the NCAA president, said as he outlined a set of unprecedented sanctions against Penn State for the Sandusky scandal.
A $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban, and 40-scholarship reduction across four seasons was just the beginning.
Most pressing, players could transfer and play elsewhere immediately.
“The people they were hurting had nothing to do with what went on in our program. But I was more so worried about what was going to happen with the team, with my future, ” said defensive end Deion Barnes, a redshirt freshman at the time. “I didn’t know if half the team was going to leave and I’d have to leave.”
As Emmert's words sunk in, and bursts of cursing from the players subsided, a difficult decision loomed as they wandered to their respective apartments.
Ficken said he and about 10 of his classmates, then freshmen, gathered to talk through their decision processes.
"We said, 'What are we doing?'" Ficken said. "'We like this school, and this is a good place, but we want to win still.'”
For many, it was their toughest day as a Nittany Lion.
"When we heard what the penalties were, and people started saying Penn State was going to be a I-AA program, or a Division II-type program after this, it really hurt," Hull said. "I was pretty upset. And throughout my whole journey, I think that time and the few weeks before camp leading up to the season were probably the hardest few weeks of my life."
Players were bombarded with offers to play at other programs, and the recruitment process for many was essentially reopened. Bill O'Brien, set to enter his first season as a head coach at any level, faced the unique challenge of having to recruit his own team to return to a program under sanctions The Associated Press called, "a slow death penalty." Like the AP, the rest of the mainstream media frequently compared the punishment to the harsh sanctions imposed on Southern Methodist in the 1980s, when it was forced to shut down for more than a full season.
"I don't think this point is made enough about those days: We were concerned about even being able to field a team," O'Brien said in a phone interview last week. "Because everyone in that locker room could have transferred."
The outside offers for more experienced players came from top-tier programs, such as Southern California, Oklahoma and Texas (the getaways for three starting upperclassmen: running back Silas Redd, receiver Justin Brown and kicker Anthony Fera, respectively).
However, the temptation for younger players to leave, given the escalating impact the sanctions were expected to have throughout their careers, was in many ways even greater.
"We knew that those guys were going to have the longest road. For us as seniors in 2012, we understood that it was easier for us to say, 'Let's stick it out one more year together,'" said Michael Mauti, now a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. "We knew these guys would have three more years where they'd have to deal with it, and live it and be around it."
O'Brien said the re-recruitment process began by retaining the 2012 class. But the next task proved more complex.
"Then it was, 'Well, what if all those juniors and sophomores transfer? What the hell are we going to do then?'" he said. "[So] we gave them a vision for our program. We were able to say, 'Look, this is not good. We're not going to sit up here and tell you this is a bowl of cherries. But we can tell you if we can stick together, this is going to be the start of something special.'"
Hull, then a redshirt sophomore behind three future NFL linebackers on the depth chart, was the epitome of the player Penn State could not afford to lose.
He strongly considered transferring to Pittsburgh, even visiting the Panthers' facility during the time frame O'Brien allowed players to weigh their options.
"I went into coach O'Brien's office and told him that I was leaving to go to Pitt," Hull said. "And he said, 'Sleep on it.' All my roommates were back at my place and I told them I was leaving. They were like, 'You can't leave. We started this together. We got to finish it together.'"
Hull heeded O'Brien's advice, and ultimately his roommates’ as well. By the time the linebacker walked into his coach's office the following morning, his heart had changed.
"At the end of the day, I just couldn't leave Penn State. I loved it too much," Hull said. "I made such great bonds and relationships with my teammates and I wanted to be loyal to my word whenever I committed there and carry on the tradition. And fortunately, most of us stayed. Only a handful left."
At least two other players were driving to visit Michigan State before they, too, had second thoughts and turned around. All told, only nine players would transfer in the wake of the sanctions. Of scholarship players with three or more years of eligibility remaining, only two left.
Having moved past the initial recovery stage and into training camp — the point when O'Brien said players had to decide whether they were going to transfer or not — the focus finally narrowed. Even, Ficken recalled, as photographers hopped fences to try and get shots of the team during practice.
"Football was a safe haven. That was where you didn't have to deal with any of that other crap,” he said. “And that was relieving, because a lot of crap was going on."
'That year, we had each other'
It's Sept. 8, 2012 in Virginia’s Scott Stadium, and Ficken takes the field with the game clock winding down, Penn State trailing, 17-16. He's already missed three field goals and an extra point, but before him stands an opportunity for redemption.
There's no way I'm going to go one-for-five, he thinks to himself as the rain begins to fall.
But indeed, following a shaky hold he shanks the ball left, ensuring that Penn State begins the first season of the post-Paterno era with an 0-2 record — something that happened only four times in Paterno’s long head coaching career.
"One of (Virginia's) D-Lineman ran into me, pushed me, and he goes, 'You should just quit, p----!'" Ficken said, recalling the moment when he picked himself off the slick turf. "That was a real slap in the face."
Ficken wasn't even supposed to see the field that year.
Fera, the second-team All-Big Ten kicker in 2011, had the starting job locked — until the sanctions reopened the door for the Houston product to transfer without penalty, a personal blessing for a son whose mother was stricken by illness.
"[Fera] called me and said, 'Hey, I'm down in Texas. I just want you to be aware of the situation. I'm probably leaning toward leaving,'" Ficken recalled over coffee at Irving's, a cafe on College Avenue. "'So if that's the case, you're the guy. You need to be ready.'"
Ficken was expecting to redshirt his sophomore year and had therefore gotten few kicking reps in practice at that point in the summer of 2012. Nonetheless, he accepted the responsibility of being "the guy" -- a role that became much more taxing following the collapse at Virginia, as an emotional fanbase began blatantly channeling its displeasure in his direction.
"Other than going to class, going to football practice, I didn't really do a whole of other things for about two, three months,” Ficken said. “I'd get cussed out on the bus, I got death threats in the mail, I got death threats over email.”
Yet, despite the impact of the sanctions already showing — leading to what Ficken called the "irrelevant card" being thrown around by columnists nationwide — Penn State started winning.
The Nittany Lions rifled off five straight victories, including a vengeful 35-7 dismantling of Illinois. Illini coach Tim Beckman had become notorious for attempting to poach Penn State's players on-campus following the sanctions. After a 35-23 loss to then-No. 7 Ohio State and a controversial defeat at Nebraska, where the officials disallowed an apparent winning Lions touchdown, Penn State wound up with a 7-4 record heading into an emotional Senior Day against Wisconsin.
The Lions outlasted the favored Badgers, 24-21, in an overtime victory many players still consider the best memory of their careers ("We had no business being in that game," Hull said). Ficken’s 37-yard field goal, his 10th straight make to end the season, fittingly spelled the difference, sending the 2012 senior class off with a win.
While administrators and fans lent their support, players gave most of the credit for a respectable season to O’Brien -- and each other.
"At the end of the day, they support you and they support you. But you're not going out to play with them," running back Bill Belton said. "You're playing with the 105 guys in the locker room. So in my opinion, we had each other. And that's all that mattered that year."
The one that got away
A former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O’Brien was clear about one thing from the day he arrived at Penn State in January 2012: I won’t be here forever.
"He sat us down and told us, face-to-face, that it's his dream to coach in the NFL," Ficken said, recalling O'Brien's first team meeting. "He said, 'Someday, I'm going to be there. Whether it's in four years, whether it's in 10 years, I don't know. But I'm going to get there. Because that's my dream.' And we respected him for telling us that."
O’Brien, who graduated from Brown University -- Paterno’s alma mater -- said he doesn't remember initially giving an indication of how long he'd be at Penn State, "because I really didn't know."
But he stressed that he would be honest when players asked him individually what his future plans were.
"I would always joke about the fact that I was never going to be there 46 years, 61 years. That was the most incredible run, by coach Paterno, ever. The guy won 409 games. That will never be done again. I promise you," O'Brien said. "It was always, 'Let's do this year, and then we'll see what happens next year.'"
Following his first season in State College, O’Brien interviewed with the Cleveland Browns. The lure of the NFL, combined with the added challenge of coaching a team with increasing scholarship reductions, had many Penn State fans anxious the well-respected leader would be one and done, leaving the program once again in disarray.
But O’Brien returned for a second run in Happy Valley.
“He told us he would stick with us [past] that first year, because he asked us to stick with him,” 2014 senior safety Ryan Keiser said, referring to the post-sanction period. “After that first year, he never made that promise that he would stay longer.”
In 2013, O’Brien oversaw another winning season, finishing at 7-5. A few games into that year, the NCAA began reducing Penn State’s scholarship limitations — leaving the door open for future modifications to the sanctions due to “continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity.”
On the field, the season was highlighted by the start of quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s highly anticipated career, an exhilarating four-overtime victory over Michigan and another season-ending upset of Wisconsin.
“I can tell you flat-out that they took offense that they were 24-point underdogs,” the typically stoic O’Brien said with a grin following the 31-24 win in Madison. “... One thing that these kids understand is it doesn’t matter, one bit, what you think relative to that football team.”
The news conference turned out to be O’Brien’s last at Penn State.
Hours before the 2014 New Year was rung in, news broke that O’Brien was, indeed, leaving to follow his dream, becoming head coach of the Houston Texans.
For a team that had bonded tightly with its plain-speaking coach, another change was developing.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson was named the interim head coach — becoming the fourth coach for the rising seniors, including interims, to that point — and the carousel swung around once more.
“Getting a new coach, you're like, 'All right, fresh start,'" Belton said. "Then you get one season under him, you get another season under him, and you kind of get comfortable with the way things are going. ... [Then] it was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' If I had it my way, I would have loved to play for one coach for four years.”
Here comes Franklin
It’s Jan. 11, 2014, and James Franklin swings open the doors to the Lasch Building meeting room to address his team for the first time.
It doesn’t take long, though, for the ex-Vanderbilt coach known for his success as an engaging recruiter in the SEC to sense some resistance from the crowd.
“There was no doubt a wall up from the players. They had been through so many challenges. I was the fifth head coach in 27 months,” said Franklin, who himself had made 10 previous stops in two decades of coaching. “They just invested in a program and head coach, that head coach leaves, there's hurt feelings and you're the new guy coming in.”
Franklin, who grew up in Pennsylvania, realized his high-octane personality was what he calls a “dramatic change” from that of Paterno and O’Brien.
So, for the players, it took some getting used to.
"I just remember how much energy he brought in the room. I didn't know if it was fake energy or if he was going to be like that every day,” Hull said. “It was almost overwhelming. Just being honest, I didn't know if he was a fraud or not.”
But Hull said his perception of Franklin became much more favorable after spring ball when he saw Franklin “really brings that energy every day.”
Keiser said he thought it also was clear from the start that Franklin didn’t have any plans to go elsewhere. That was reassuring.
Franklin, sitting comfortably in what’s become a well-kept office space more than a year after his arrival in State College, said the key to transitioning from outsider to respected leader was three-fold: “trust, conversation and consistency.”
In the end, the team once again rallied around its new coach, with the 2014 seniors leading the way.
“That class sticking together, just buying into whatever staff that comes in there. We all had one goal of winning,” Barnes said. “That’s what got us through everything. Whatever obstacle that came, we stuck together.”
‘This is culture’
The frenzied Pinstripe celebration drifted toward midfield, where the Lions held aloft the victor’s trophy and donned beanies for a bowl game they weren’t even eligible for a few months before.
After Hackenberg was named the Pinstripe Bowl MVP, Franklin proudly addressed the blue-and-white faithful in chilly Yankee Stadium.
“I want to thank the seniors that stayed with this program when we needed them the most,” Franklin said, adding that they kept the Penn State family together.
“You want to talk about culture? Look around. This is culture.”
Two weeks into the 2014 season, the NCAA had lifted Penn State’s bowl ban and announced a return of all the scholarships that had been removed by the following season, citing the university’s “significant progress toward ensuring its Athletics Department functions with integrity.”
As they had when Paterno was fired, students once again took the streets following the announcement, this time in celebration. Some students were “lifted” above the crowd on mattresses, others chowed cereal out of bowls.
The only issue was whether a scholarship-depleted Penn State team would gain enough wins to earn a bowl invitation.
A four-game winning streak to start the season — including a season opener in Dublin, Ireland, against Central Florida that ended with a game-winning 36-yard field goal from Ficken — gave way to a four-game losing streak that would put Penn State’s bowl eligibility in question. But a 30-13 victory over Temple, the Lions’ sixth of the season, clinched the coveted extra game.
Unexpected losses to Maryland and Illinois revealed the escalating consequences of scholarship reductions, particularly along a thin and inexperienced offensive line. But Penn State also took eventual national champion Ohio State into double overtime before falling, 31-24.
“There's only a few games you can see the difference, talent and numbers-wise. For the most part, there's no difference,” Belton said. “You can go out there and play with 11 guys on offense and defense … you go out there and play for one another, don't be surprised if that team wins."
Hull, once halfway out the door to Pitt, became the anchor of Penn State’s second-best defense in the country. He finished his senior season with 134 tackles and was named the Big Ten Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year.
Looking back, Hull maintains that the wrong people were penalized by the sanctions. Yet the decision to stay, he says, was well worth it.
"We were through so much as a team and I had created such good relationships with my teammates, especially my senior class, so to end on a winning note and springboard the program into the future, that means a lot for me,” Hull said. “And as seniors, because we love Penn State, we wanted to get it back where it should be."
Ficken finished his senior season 24-of-29 on field goals, a second-team All-Big Ten honoree with three game-winning kicks in his career.
At the Pinstripe Bowl, Ficken enjoyed the privilege of using Derek Jeter’s locker, after ceremoniously ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange the day prior. On Sunday, he’ll walk across the stage at Smeal College of Business’ graduation with a finance degree. Next week, he’ll join the Kansas City Chiefs at minicamp.
Outside this year’s Blue-White spring game in State College, Ficken was universally cheered and solicited for autographs, a far cry from the public ridicule he received following the 2012 Virginia game. Then Ficken watched from the sideline as Franklin’s rising 2015 squad took the Beaver Stadium field for the first time.
O'Brien said with the promise of the current roster under James Franklin, "they can win the national championship next year."
"You'll always look back to those three teams, when they win a national championship, and those teams should always be honored," O'Brien said. "Because they kept our program together when we could have gone really south."
Ficken said he hopes his class’s commitment helped save Penn State football.
"I fully expect them to be top-five, top-10, in the next few years. And hopefully we had something to do with that,” Ficken said. “It's gratifying to see that it's getting back to where it was when we got here, really.”
“And luckily, I got to see it all.”
(John Stuetz is a senior in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. This article also appeared May 8, 2015 in Bleacher Report.)