By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
(AP) - The mere suggestion that NCAA sanctions against Penn State were worse than receiving the so-called death penalty were enough to make first-year coach Bill O'Brien raise his voice a notch.
"No. We are playing football," O'Brien said forcefully during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We open our season on Sept. 1 in front of 108,000 strong against Ohio University. We're playing football and we're on TV. We get to practice. We get to get better as football players, and get to do it for Penn State."
The NCAA crushed Penn State with scholarship reductions that could be felt for much of this decade and a bowl ban over the next four seasons. But it stopped short of handing down the death penalty, forcing the school to shut down the program the way it did to SMU in 1987.
It is fair to wonder if Penn State football will ever be what it once was: a perennial Top 20 program that routinely contended for Big Ten championships and occasionally national titles.
But to suggest that Penn State's punishment is comparable to or worse than SMU's is to forget just how difficult it has been for the Mustangs to recover. And make no mistake, 25 years later, SMU football is still recovering.
"Until you've completely killed a program, it's hard to understand all that it takes for a program to operate on a day-to-day basis," said Andy Bergfeld, a receiver on SMU's 1989 team, its first after the death penalty.
"The fact that SMU had to start completely from scratch _ they went from playing in Texas Stadium to converting their 1920 home stadium into a place we could play our home games _ it was very, very difficult. I think Penn State, when all the dust settles, will have a lot better chance to recover more quickly."
As difficult as it will be for Penn State to deal with having no more than 65 scholarship players for four years (their opponents will have 85) it's a whole lot better than having no scholarship players at all.
SMU's program was shuttered by the NCAA for one year because it was a repeat offender found to be systematically paying players and that high-ranking university officials knew about the payments.
The NCAA allowed SMU players to transfer without restrictions after the punishment was handed down, just as it is doing with Penn State players. With no chance of playing until at least 1988, just about all of the Mustangs left.
"It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team," said Mitchell Glieber, who was a redshirt freshman on SMU's 1986 team, the last one before the sanctions. "If you had aspirations of playing football beyond college there was no choice."
As of Tuesday, Penn State has not lost a current player. No doubt defections will come, and O'Brien has said that right now keeping his team together is his top priority.
Glieber felt that professional football was probably not in his future back in the late `80s, so he stuck it out at SMU, along with a handful of other players, mostly former walk-ons.
SMU canceled the 1988 season as well, though it was allowed to hire a coach _ former Green Bay Packers great and Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, an SMU alum, was brought in _ and the team began practicing.
"The caliber of talent between the pre-death penalty and the post-death penalty were absolutely night and day," said Glieber, who is now the vice president of marketing for the Texas State Fair. "In the first few weeks of practice I was just in disbelief about the level of players we had out there."
SMU also had scholarship limits placed on the program by the NCAA and the school had responded to the scandal by drastically raising the academic standards for athletes, Glieber said.
Glieber looked at the team SMU was hoping to compete with Southwest Conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M and thought: "Can this group of guys stay healthy and continue to field a team week to week?"
"It was pretty bleak looking to be honest with you."
SMU, remarkably, won two games its first season back. But the program was a wreck. When the Southwest Conference broke up, many of the top programs from that league ended up in the Big 12. SMU was cast aside.
It is not unreasonable to think that the Big Ten, with multimillion dollar television contracts to fulfill that require 12 teams, would not have held a spot for Penn State if it had been given the death penalty.