GRAPEVINE, Texas -- As the NCAA Division I athletic directors poured out of a hotel conference room on Tuesday to catch flights home from their meetings here, a gathering predicated on change was met with news of a significant move from the NCAA. The ADs learned that the organization had agreed to reduce the scholarship restrictions imposed against Penn State in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
"I think it's great," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, "because [the penalties] were excessive."
The decision marks a major victory for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who had been politicking behind the scenes about the unfairness of the Penn State sanctions. Delany held a view shared by many in college sports that crimes committed by Sandusky and former administrators should be tried through the legal system, not the NCAA's justice system. The decision also comes at a time of extreme unpopularity for NCAA president Mark Emmert, a factor Delany inevitably leveraged in getting some scholarships restored.
"Jim Delany is a terrific commissioner," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said with a smile as he got into a cab.
Joyner ducked out of the athletic director meetings here at around 10 a.m., although few knew exactly why he disappeared.
"It's an important day," he told SI.com. "A very, very important day. It's a very important day for us at Penn State and particularly for our student-athletes. It's really something that will help them to be more successful."
On Tuesday, the NCAA announced that five initial scholarships will be restored to the Nittany Lions football team beginning next year, with the number increasing in years to come. The NCAA will also "consider additional mitigation of the postseason ban in the future depending on Penn State's continued progress," according to the organization's release.
Penn State is currently banned from participating in a bowl through the 2015 season as part of the unprecedented NCAA penalties levied against the school in July 2012. Those sanctions included restricting Penn State to 65 total scholarship players -- down from the normal total of 85 -- from 2014 through '17.
With the NCAA's announcement, Penn State will be at 75 scholarships in 2014-15, 80 scholarships in 2015-16 and the full allotment of 85 scholarships in 2016-17 and 2017-18. The NCAA left the window open for further adjustments.
The impact on Penn State's football program will be significant, as the scholarship sanctions will still hinder the team, but won't handcuff it through 2020, which the original penalties would have done. This decision also could also be key to keeping coach Bill O'Brien in State College, as O'Brien was in talks with several NFL teams last winter.
Joyner said O'Brien has insisted to him that he is committed to Penn State. Joyner also admits that this ruling makes O'Brien's job easier.
"It certainly makes it easier to compete and to be able to devote his time to the student-athletes that we have there and the more that we're going to be able to bring," Joyner said. "It certainly changes a little bit of the paradigm of his day-to-day activities, which has to be gratifying to him."
The announcement on Tuesday was not universally embraced. Though the move is a credit to the manner in which Penn State's athletic department has moved forward in an effort to restore integrity, the NCAA's decision to rescind penalties made some people grimace.
"I'd love to have some scholarships back," said USC athletic director Pat Haden, whose team is dealing with significant NCAA sanctions dating back to Pete Carroll's tenure as head coach.
While the news likely comes as a shock to the college sports world at large, it had been discussed in the Big Ten for months. Though it won't immediately restore Penn State to its former status as a gridiron powerhouse, it does help revive one of the league's most important brands.
"Our league commissioner talked to all of us and our presidents," Alvarez said. "We all obviously felt the same way that [the penalties] were excessive. We felt that Penn State, they've done everything that was asked of them and it should be revisited."
Alvarez added: "It really should help them. They are one of the brands in our league. If it helps them, it sure helps our league. They really didn't break any NCAA rules."
The NCAA's decision to reverse course marks an important day for the future of Penn State football.
"I wouldn't use the word victory," Joyner said. "There's some feelings of good that we've been able to help and restore some things quicker than anticipated by the athletic department and the university's adherence to doing things as they've been laid out to us."