UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Examine the top 10 of college football, and common threads abound. These best teams are BCS-conference schools, historically powerful, and rule-breakers -- NCAA violators that have been caught and punished.
Of the top 10 in the preseason USA Today poll, only Georgia has not dealt with penalties from a major infractions case in the past decade. As Penn State attempts to rise from sanctions levied by the NCAA in July, it can at least take solace that it's in elite company.
Alabama has won two of the past three national championships, even though its athletic department has been on nearly continuous NCAA probation since 1995. Oklahoma's football team has been punished by the NCAA six times and Southern California, which went 18-8 the past two years despite a postseason ban, begins its third year with major scholarship reductions ranked No. 3.
College football's best teams get punished often, and they excel.
"The impact of even harsh penalties is not nearly as great as people think it's going to be," said Jerry Parkinson, a law professor at the University of Wyoming and a member of the NCAA Committee on Infractions from 2000-10. "I'm one of the few folks, it sounds like out there, who really doubts the Penn State penalties are going to have some sort of devastating effect on that program in the long haul."
A few years ago, Syracuse professor of sport management Chad McEvoy read a story about Miami football. The program had been on death's door. The NCAA slapped the school with a postseason ban and multiple years of scholarship losses in 1995, and yet the Hurricanes were thriving. They won nine games a year in three of the next four years post-sanctions and won the national title in 2001.
"I wondered, 'wow, are these penalties really that penal,' " he said.
They weren't, the "death penalty" notwithstanding. He studied 35 teams that were punished for major infractions from 1987-2002. He found their average winning percentage increased from .547 to .566.
From 2002-06, 19 college football teams that had been at the Division I-A level for at least five years received sanctions for major infractions. In the ensuing five years, only seven experienced a decrease in winning percentage.
McEvoy said colleges succeed by learning to manage the problems. For instance, they can stock up on recruits when the penalties end to offset the numbers they had lost.
The sanctions, he said, also aren't too severe in the first place. The NCAA has taken notice of their lack of bite.
"In a sense, I think it is a failure," Parkinson said.
In '08, Parkinson chaired a "penalty subcommittee" of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. They met to hone a few of the penalty bylaws and to consider tougher sanctions.
Though the NCAA has yet to specifically act on the subcommittee's recommendations, Parkinson said the Southern California sanctions of '10 provided a glimpse of a harsher NCAA. The school's football team was banned from the postseason for two years and had its scholarships reduced by 10 each year for three years.