The NCAA said Tuesday that it will reduce the unprecedented sanctions against Penn State's football program by gradually restoring scholarships starting next season. Officials did not rule out future modifications, such as reducing the four-year postseason ban.
The announcement comes 14 months after NCAA president Mark Emmert levied the historic penalties in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Penn State had faced a cap of 65 scholarships starting in 2014, but instead will have 75 scholarships in 2014, 80 in 2015 and the full allotment of 85 in 2016.
"The executive committee's decision to restore football scholarship opportunities for more student-athletes at Penn State is an important recognition of the university's progress -- and one I know it was pleased to make," Emmert said.
The scholarship reduction was widely believed to be the most significant sanction. Penn State vacated wins from 1998 to 2011, was hit with a $60 million fine, and banned from the postseason from 2012 to 2015.
Coach Bill O'Brien and his staff could sign no more than 15 recruits for four years starting in 2012. As a result of the reduction, he now can sign 20 in 2014-15 and 25 the season after. O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon that he still needed time to readjust his recruiting strategy, but even when he does formulate a new one, he doesn't plan to publicly share it.
"Obviously we're able to sign some more guys and have a roster of 75 scholarship players next year," he said. "So things will change, and we'll see how things go.
"We're happy right now for our players. ... They're a resilient bunch of kids."
Emmert insisted the reductions didn't come because the original sanctions were deemed too severe, but because of the good-faith efforts by Penn State. Former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, who led the university's investigation of the scandal, had outlined 119 recommendations in his report for the school to implement.
"Penn State has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to fulfilling the requirements of the athletics integrity commitment," said George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who as athletics integrity officer has monitored the university's adherence to the sanctions. "The amount of time, energy and resources devoted to these efforts have been notable."
Sandusky, convicted in July 2012 on 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys, is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence.
Mitchell, who had recommended the reduction of sanctions to the NCAA, earlier this month completed his first report as the school's integrity monitor, and said Penn State was nearing completion of Freeh's recommendations.
Among the changes Penn State has implemented are more background checks, further employee training, and records retention.
"This action taken today by the NCAA, following its review of the positive report issued this month by Sen. George Mitchell, recognizes the significant efforts over the past year to make Penn State a safer, strong institution," Penn State president Rodney Erickson said Tuesday.
NCAA officials said it was premature to speculate on whether other penalties -- such as the postseason ban -- could be reduced, although they did not rule it out.
Emmert told ESPN's Joe Schad that it's "not in anyone's mind" that Penn State could be declared bowl eligible this season. But he did say more reductions could be considered in August or September 2014.
During a conference call, Emmert deflected questions on whether Penn State still had a culture problem, and deferred to Mitchell.
"Penn State has undertaken a major effort on the issue of culture," Mitchell said.
ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad contributed to this report.