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Friday, July 27, 2012

Penn State sanctions could erase Paterno's on-field impact

Penn State this week got slapped across the face with some of the harshest sanctions in the history of college athletics. In college football, only SMU can really appreciate what Penn State is about to experience. While the rest of the world debates whether or not the punishment is appropriate, I focus on predicting what impact these sanctions might actually have on the Penn State football program.

Briefly, Penn State has been fined millions of dollars, its players have been given the amateur equivalent of free agency, it has been banned from bowl games and will suffer under severe scholarship limitations for the next several years - that is on top of the informal cost of being associated with and harboring a serial pedophile.  Penn State football is undoubtedly in trouble for the foreseeable future. 

Three decades ago, SMU just couldn't stop cheating and, as a result, the football program was banned from competing for two years. While we can debate the relative impact of these sanctions--SMU's death penalty and Penn State's zombie penalty--comparing the two cases gives us a framework for predicting the impact of Paterno's Fallacy.

Ten year and historical averages (hybrid ratings)
In the chart above, the squiggly lines are running ten year hybrid rating averages for SMU and Penn State. (I use ten year averages because they better represent the state of a program than single season results.) The impact of the Death Penalty (and SMU's cheating) are clear in the massive drop between the ten year average to 1986 and the ten year average from 1989. While we cannot predict where SMU would have been without the penalties, the gap between SMU's performance over the last 25 years and its historical average (light blue) is massive.

If the Penn State sanctions have a similar impact on that program, we would predict a drop in the long run average hybrid rating from about .65 to .38 (light red). To put that in perspective, Penn State has not had a season that bad since 1932, and they would be averaging that level of ineptitude for a quarter century.

But Penn State will be allowed to play this season and the program is more robust than SMU's (and SMU was the victim of a major conference realignment), so Penn State should not fall as far. But even if Penn State only suffers half as much as SMU, the results will be catastrophic. They could then expect to win about half their games for the next quarter century. This would set the program back 75 years, when Paterno was a ten year old boy, and effectively erase his work to build the program. From that perspective, taking down the statue only makes sense.

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