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How Penn State reached 'the other side' five years after sanctions

CHICAGO -- Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen and Mike Gesicki weren't formally attached to Penn State football when the NCAA leveled historic sanctions against the program on July 23, 2012.

All three committed to Penn State in 2013 and signed the following February, weeks after an effervescent new coach named James Franklin took over. They don't remember the gloomy predictions for the program immediately after the sanctions came down:

Worse than the death penalty ...

Won't recover until 2020 or 2022, at the earliest ...

May never be the same ...

Five years and one day later, the players arrived at Big Ten media days to represent the defending league champion. Following a shocking run to the conference title, Penn State will enter the 2017 season as a top-10 team and a College Football Playoff candidate.

"They've gotten to the other side," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday.

Faster than anyone expected.

"When you tell me about that [forecast] -- 2020, 2022 -- when I hear that, it epitomizes what Penn State is about," Cabinda told ESPN.com on Monday. "What other university has something like this happen where hundreds of football alumni fly in just to come and talk to the team and tell [players], 'Hey, this is where you need to be.' They're done, their time is over, they don't owe us anything. But they'll take the time, buy a flight, come and talk to every senior, every junior, every sophomore, every freshman, and say, 'Stay here. This is where you need to be.'

"That's powerful, it really is. That shows the resiliency this place has."

On Monday, Delany acknowledged the "difficult, difficult road" Penn State traversed following the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the ensuing NCAA penalties. He said Penn State faced challenges he had never seen in his administrative career -- far beyond a postseason ban and scholarship losses. He praised the school for making changes and complying with requirements set forth. He described Penn State's culture, which NCAA president Mark Emmert eviscerated while announcing the sanctions, as "one of the great ones in the country."

"Maybe the least important [thing] is how good their football team is," Delany said. "But their football team is now healthy."

After an ahead-of-schedule title run, Penn State could be positioned to match or even exceed last year’s performance. The Nittany Lions return arguably college football's most exciting backfield with running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, who will again operate for innovative playcaller Joe Moorhead.

Wide receiver Chris Godwin, king of the 50-50 ball, departed for the NFL, but Penn State should have more depth to go along with the springy Gesicki at tight end. The offensive line, impacted more by the sanctions than any other position group, not merely could be improved but "has a chance to be special," Franklin said Monday. The defense has some potential holes but brings back key pieces like Cabinda at linebacker and Allen at safety.

There's something else, too. As Penn State moves further from the most turbulent stretch in its history, it establishes more stability under Franklin, who signed the entire roster other than the fifth-year players. Franklin inherited Joe Paterno's last recruits as well as the players signed by Bill O'Brien.

"They faced three different coaches and three different mindsets and three different goals," Allen said of his former teammates. "That's like someone that’s been through three religions: [Islam], Christianity and Buddhism. You can't get the same message across. Now that we all understand one message and Coach Franklin's goals, we can teach it to everyone else."

Sitting in a conference room Monday, Allen recalled the criticism he received from people back home when he committed to Penn State. The program was barely a year into the sanctions, and the prospect of playing in a bowl game -- much less the Big Ten championship -- seemed far away.

The path seniors like Allen have taken -- committing to a program with an uncertain future, slogging through two middling seasons, breaking through last fall -- makes it easier for Franklin to motivate.

"They've seen both spectrums," Franklin said. "If you're a kid and you go somewhere and all you've had is success, people patting you on the back, and then you hit the bottom, that's hard to deal with. Where if you've had to earn it, the way we have, you appreciate it more, you respect it more and you can really see both perspectives."

Penn State had to earn wins in close games, a problem early in Franklin's tenure. While Penn State’s 24-21 win over Ohio State -- fueled by a 17-0 surge in the fourth quarter -- provided evidence of what the team could achieve, the swing game came two weeks earlier, with less national fanfare, as Penn State outlasted Minnesota in overtime.

"If we don't come back against Minnesota," Gesicki said, "the Ohio State game, honestly, doesn't have as much meaning."

Penn State won its final five regular-season games by an average of 28.2 points before rallying to beat Wisconsin and win just its first Big Ten championship since 2008 and its fourth since joining the conference.

"After winning this year, we truly realized what Happy Valley is," Cabinda said. "People are going to work with smiles on their faces every day. It really is, no exaggeration, just brighter. Everything's just better. People are happier."

Added Gesicki: "They were just waiting for it to come back."

But the forecast in college football, like in central Pennsylvania, can change in an instant. A Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance solidified success for a program that was not supposed to appear on the national radar for several more years. But the way the Rose Bowl went -- Penn State was down 13, then up 15 following a 28-point third quarter, but allowed 10 points in the final 80 seconds of a 52-49 loss to USC -- left players unfulfilled. Allen said reaching such a stage without winning only makes players want to return more.

The shock value of Penn State's season made the wild swings throughout the fall more pronounced. A repeat in 2017 would be less surprising but more validating, proof that Penn State will be a factor for years to come.

"For who we want to be, the programs we're competing with, they've been having the types of years like we had last year for a number of years," Franklin said. "For us to put another really good year together and be part of the conversation is critical."