Sep 9, 7:40 PM EDT

Penn State coach grateful for bowl chance


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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- At Penn State, bowl games and packed stadiums under Joe Paterno yielded to scandal, suffering and sanctions at the abuses of Jerry Sandusky.

But the Happy Valley faithful and its resolute players who stuck with the program though its bleakest era can finally start to feel whole again.

The Penn State fans who lock arms and bellow "We Are" can finish the slogan: Bowl eligible. Back on track. Competing for a Big 10 title.

Not quite catchy, but good enough for devotees in a town where "Honor Joe" signs still dot windows throughout downtown in reverence to the legendary coach.

The NCAA levied the blistering sanctions two years ago, including a four-year postseason ban. It softened that Monday, taking Penn State a step farther away from the fallout from Sandusky, a former assistant coach convicted of sexual abuse of 10 boys, including acts at university facilities.

Tom Kline, a lawyer who negotiated a settlement with Penn State for one of the eight victims who testified against Sandusky at trial, said Tuesday it made sense to ease the penalties, given the university's reforms and other actions.

"I believe that the university should be able to move forward positively, based on everything they have done," Kline said. "Lifting the sanctions is something that is earned, deserved and is a correct decision."

It was certainly welcomed by a good chunk of the Nittany Lions' roster, who had every opportunity to escape without punishment when the sanctions were handed down.

"I just love Penn State," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "I love the school, love everything about it. I'm just a Penn State guy at heart."

Hull is one of 39 holdovers from the summer of 2012 still with the program. Another 10 recruits as part of the incoming class, including franchise quarterback Christian Hackenberg, kept Penn State together for two competitve seasons under former coach Bill O'Brien.

With sanctions lifted, a marker that Penn State is now a normal football school again, first-year coach James Franklin asked those 49 players who survived a cascade of controversy to stand at the front of the room for a standing ovation at an emotional team meeting on Monday night.

"We are all in debt to them," Franklin said Tuesday. "We're going to play for them because they were here for this program and this university when we needed them most."

In addition to postseason play, Penn State also will be allowed to have the full complement of football scholarships in 2015.

"It will have an impact on this class," Franklin said. "I don't know if it will be as big an impact as some people think."

Students celebrated peacefully on campus late Monday night after the lifting was announced, chanted Paterno's name and the popular "We Are" slogan.

The jubilant rally was much different than the violent reactions seen 2 1/2 years ago when disgruntled students learned Paterno was fired.

Good times - and big games - are back at Penn State.

"There is enthusiasm and there is excitement and there is tremendous pride in this school and part of the healing that's taking place and moving forward," Franklin said. "I think this is part of it."

Some of the 40 scholarships the program was originally docked were restored earlier than expected a year ago.

The university still must pay a $60 million fine, vacate 111 wins that came under Paterno, plus another victory under interim coach Tom Bradley, and the school will remain under monitoring.

"It's never as clean as everybody thinks it is," Franklin said.

Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1980s, said rolling back the sanctions gives the appearance of the NCAA acknowledging it might have overreached by getting involved with the Sandusky scandal.

"My first blush is I don't know how it could be perceived differently," he said. "`I'd be very curious to dive into (the NCAA's) rationale."

The Nittany Lions (2-0) play Saturday at Rutgers. If the Nittany Lions win the East division, they will be eligible to play in the Big Ten championship game.

Paterno was the winningest coach in major college football history when he was fired not long after Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, was charged in November 2011. Paterno died in January 2012 and lost his record when the NCAA vacated those 111 victories.

O'Brien left for the Houston Texans of the NFL after last season and Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt to take his place.

Paterno still looms in every nook at State College. There's a pizza shop named "409" - the number of games Paterno won before some wins were vacated - and a prominent plaque on Beaver Stadium where listed benefactors donated in recognition of "Joe Paterno's Outstanding Career as Penn State's Head Football Coach."

Also still vacated: the site of Paterno's statue, where no trace of the bronzed tribute remains.

Some hiccups remain. The scandal badly tarnished what had been one of college sports' most respected programs, led to charges of a criminal cover-up against former university administrators Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley - whose cases are still pending.

"I'm saddened by the fact that the NCAA has returned only a portion of the penalties they had no legal authority to impose in the first place," PSU trustee Anthony Lubrano said. "By the way, I haven't seen them return our reputation."

That job is Franklin's. He can move the program forward by recruiting, and winning.

He said no one at Penn State ever told him during his job offer that the sanctions would be eliminated.

"That carrot was never dangled in front of me, that carrot was never dangled in front of recruits," he said. "It was very black and white. These are what the sanctions say right now. This is what we're living with and we're moving forward."

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Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania contributed to this report.

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