SPORTS
09/09/2014 06:06 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Penn State coach grateful for chance at bowl game; proud students celebrate

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State coach James Franklin has been flooded with congratulatory messages about his football team's bowl prospects now that the NCAA has lifted the most severe sanctions to the program for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Not so fast. The Nittany Lions aren't in a bowl yet. But the chance for a late December bowl berth is something that was missing from their early-season hopes.

"Now, there is nothing being held back from them in terms of opportunities," Franklin said Tuesday. "They have the ability to chase their dreams now."

The sanctions were first imposed two years ago, including a four-year post-season ban. The announcement moved the university 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 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."

Former NCAA enforcement officials criticized the easing as potentially setting a precedent for other schools that misbehave.

In addition to post-season 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."

Franklin said Tuesday there are 49 players who could have left when the sanctions hit. They were all given a standing ovation at a team meeting Monday night.

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

Penn State senior linebacker Mike Hull said he was eating lunch with teammates at a Chik-fil-A when they all found out on Twitter. Hull was one of the holdovers who never wavered in his commitment toward the program.

"I'm a Penn State guy at heart," Hull said, adding that he never thought the bowl ban would be lifted.

There was a peaceful, jubilant celebration on campus late Monday night after the lifting was announced. The mob of students chanted former coach Joe Paterno's name and, of course, threw in the popular "We Are" chant.

The rally was much different from 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.

"Last night was an opportunity maybe for that pride and that excitement to explode," Franklin said.

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

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.

Penn State went 15-9 during the first two seasons of the sanctions under coach Bill O'Brien, who was hired to replace Paterno.

Paterno was the winningest coach in major college football history when he was fired not long after Sandusky, his former defensive co-ordinator, 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.

Franklin 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.