Three years ago Thursday, Penn State football players gathered for the meeting some feared might begin their program's end.
On July 23, 2012, the NCAA announced its historic set of sanctions that President Mark Emmert insisted would "ensure that Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry." Inside the Lasch Building, the university's football facility, there was panic.
"I thought it was the end of Penn State football," former defensive tackle Pete Massaro told author John U. Bacon for his book "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football."
Three years later, Penn State is preparing for the 2015 season without sanctions, scholarship restrictions or names on its jerseys. Coach James Franklin uses the word "culture," which Emmert used pejoratively, freely and emphatically to describe Penn State football. And the NCAA, whose executive committee flexed its crisis-management muscle so forcefully in 2012, now faces lawsuits and a revived reform bill in Congress.
The end of Penn State football never arrived. Though outside forces still pull the program in conflicting directions, Penn State didn't merely survive the sanctions. In some ways, it thrived.
"Through it all," assistant coach and former Penn State wide receiver Terry Smith said last week, "they never had a losing season."
In announcing the 2012 sanctions, which it called a necessary response to Penn State's handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the NCAA made its purpose clear. "What some refer to as the death penalty," college sports' governing body said in a statement, "was not severe enough."
The NCAA sought to slash the football team's competitiveness by reducing its recruiting classes to 15 players (from a maximum of 25) and its roster of scholarship players to 65 (from a maximum of 85) over four years. Few thought Penn State could compete in major college football with those numbers.
"I think they're looking at a nine- or 10-year hiatus," Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' former vice president of player personnel who helped create the NFL scouting combine, said at the time.
Further, the NCAA weakened Penn State's 2012 roster by making the team bowl-ineligible for four years and allowing players to transfer freely for more than a full year. Bill O'Brien, the team's former coach, called the transfer ruling the most penal because it had the potential to gut his first roster. In the end, nine players transferred.
Ultimately, the most significant sanction was a $60 million fine, which the NCAA planned to distribute to child-abuse prevention organizations nationwide. Instead, it led to the sanctions' unraveling.
The fine became part of a dispute between the NCAA and Pennsylvania lawmakers who wanted to keep the money in-state. Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, and former state Treasurer Rob McCord sued the NCAA to maintain control of the money, and their lawsuit became a test case of the consent decree's legality.
After restoring some of Penn State's scholarships in 2013 and bowl-eligibility in 2014, the NCAA repealed the consent decree this year as part of a settlement of the Corman lawsuit. The Lions never played a season with a 65-scholarship football team, missed just two years of bowl games and had their 112 vacated victories restored.
Legal challenges: Meanwhile, the NCAA was forced to engage in three legal challenges — including one with former head coach Joe Paterno's estate that is ongoing — that withered its reputation. The Corman lawsuit produced thousands of pages of documents, emails and depositions that Corman alleged provided a trail of collaboration between the NCAA and Louis Freeh's ostensibly independent investigation.
As Franklin sold a promising Penn State future to recruits, Lehigh Valley congressman Charlie Dent in June revived his 2013 NCAA reform bill with the backing of four fellow members of Congress. In announcing the bill, Dent and his colleagues described the NCAA as an "evil cabal," a "corporate colossus" and a "national disgrace."
Symbol restored: Then last week, Franklin restored one of Penn State's most important symbols: the nameless jerseys that spanned the program's 125-history before 2012. He called it another step in the "healing process."
To tell the players, Franklin invited prominent members of Penn State's Football Letterman's Club to discuss that legacy. It was reminiscent of O'Brien's decision to invite every letterman to Penn State in August 2012 to persuade players to stay.
Franklin's decision also furthered a public thaw about discussing Penn State's past, including the late Joe Paterno. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, at some point, the university will recognize the Paterno family's contributions to Penn State.
She also said that, since arriving at the school, she has not seen the problems with Penn State's athletic "culture" described by the NCAA and the Freeh Report. And after the Pinstripe Bowl victory, Franklin told the crowd remaining at Yankee Stadium, "You want to talk about culture? Look around. This is culture."
Conflict remains: Still, some conflict remains. In a 2013 survey of more than 14,000 members of the Penn State community, nearly 60 percent of the university's faculty agreed or "strongly agreed" with the statement that "the Penn State culture places too much emphasis on football." About 39 percent of staff members, and 36.5 percent of undergraduate students, responded similarly.
And this past spring, a group of alumni-elected trustees sued the university over several issues, including access to documents regarding the Freeh Report. Penn State President Eric Barron responded with a letter in which he called the trustees' actions "outrageous" and "completely unnecessary."
In the past three years, Penn State has installed an inventory of offices, councils and procedures, as required by its 2012 Athletics Integrity Agreement, to address department conduct and standards. Among them are an ethics and compliance council, a privacy council, a youth programs council, a compliance training committee and an ethics committee.
According to the most recent Athletics Integrity monitor's report, more than 15,000 university employees and volunteers have undergone "reporting child abuse training" this year. Some Penn State campuses have employed mobile FBI fingerprinting units to make employee background checks.
Sanctions era over: Further, according to the latest AIM report, Penn State likely no longer will require an outside monitor past September. Aside from paying the remainder of the $60 million fine — now dedicated to a statewide fund to prevent child abuse — Penn State's sanctions era is over.
Such a swift resolution was inconceivable three years ago. Had the sanctions lasted for their original duration, Penn State would be in just the second of four seasons with 65 scholarship players. Competitively, the 2015 season could have been the floor.
Instead, Franklin and his staff have a young roster filling with players they recruited, a leveling field with opponents and clear skies to embrace their history. As a result, removing the names from Penn State's jerseys offered Franklin a chance to embrace both the past and future.
"A good portion of our fans dug their heels in and fought when times got tough," Franklin said, "and there were some people that distanced themselves. What you hope is that, maybe, this is another example to pull those people back in and bring our family back together that's been fractured.
"Since we arrived, that's what we've been trying to do: Rebuild the family and bring the family back together."