NEW YORK -- NCAA president Mark Emmert praised Penn State's success in football this season and said the university's response to historic NCAA sanctions five years ago expedited the program's recovery.
Speaking Wednesday at the Learfield Sports Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, Emmert called Penn State's season "spectacular" and said the team's run to a Big Ten championship is "great for those young men and that fan base."
Penn State went 11-2 and won its first conference title since 1994. The Nittany Lions finished No. 5 in the final selection committee rankings and will play USC in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual.
In July 2011, Emmert imposed unprecedented penalties on Penn State after the school's child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Penn State received a four-year bowl ban, massive scholarship losses, five years' probation and a $60 million fine, in addition to the loss of bowl revenue. The NCAA later reduced the postseason and scholarship penalties after Penn State complied with reforms outlined by an independent athletics integrity monitor.
"Because the campus addressed all of their issues so aggressively, that allowed the [NCAA] board of governors to back down from the scholarship sanctions and the postseason sanctions," Emmert said. "They, as a university, had their annual reviews come in. The board looked at it and said, 'Wow, that's great progress. That's way ahead of schedule.' So that was terrific.
"It was very, very helpful in allowing the team to get back on track, and that's great."
Some considered the NCAA's penalties on Penn State to be worse than the so-called "death penalty," and initial forecasts pegged Penn State to experience a prolonged decline on the football field.
"People occasionally will say, 'Well, those sanctions were meant to cripple the university,'" Emmert said. "That's not true at all. Never was. I've always said and always believed Penn State is, first and foremost, a great university, because it is. Secondly, it's got wonderful sports traditions. How can you not be pleased they're playing very good football?"
Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano, a staunch supporter of former coach Joe Paterno, wasn't happy with Emmert's comments, calling the NCAA president "a joke."
"Mark Emmert is a sanctimonious hypocrite," Lubrano said. "Joe Paterno had more integrity in his little finger than Emmert has in his entire body. The NCAA got what they wanted from Louie Freeh. We shouldn't be surprised that Freeh sighted institutional control issues in his fact-free 'report.' The NCAA sent [former enforcement director] Julie Roe and others to train Freeh's 'investigators' with respect to institutional control violations."
Emmert addressed a variety of topics Wednesday:
• Emmert called the College Football Playoff "fabulously successful" but said his preference is to increase the field to eight teams so every Power 5 conference champion can participate.
"I'm kind of old-school about that, I guess," he said. "It would be really fun to have a model where those five champions all got a crack at moving forward. I don't know what that looks like."
Asked of this year's selections, Emmert, the former president at the University of Washington, joked: "Well, they got one right."
• Emmert didn't address current NCAA investigations like the ones at Ole Miss and North Carolina, but he did recognize the drawn-out process of such probes.
"Everybody gets frustrated when they go on so long," he said. "At the same time, you have to recognize the system is designed to provide lots of opportunities for the universities and any individuals involved to prepare information and conduct investigations collaboratively. We go in and sit down with the university and say, 'Let's together explore this and determine what the facts are.' The investigatory process isn't what a lot of people think, that my staff showing up saying, 'OK, now we're going to sneak around and get you.' It's quite the opposite."
• As the NCAA's Division I Council plans major recruiting forms to college football, Emmert said he wants high school athletes to have increased information about schools before making their college decisions. He doesn't have a preference on changing the recruiting calendar but advocates "any changes [that] can reduce the intensity of that process, which is really extreme sometimes for the high school students and for the coaches and their families."
• Emmert praised the Big 12 decision not to expand its membership. "It's a good thing for college sports," he said. "The last round [of realignment] was very disruptive, and it had a negative impact on so many schools and lots of personal relationships. It was hard, and I'm glad we didn't have to go through that again."
• Emmert said Monday's ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that college athletes are not employees of their colleges or the NCAA provides "greater clarity" on the amateurism debate. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by two University of Pennsylvania track athletes against the school and the NCAA, arguing that student-athletes are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and are entitled to minimum wage.
• Emmert didn't comment about the sex-assault scandal involving Baylor, but said of the university's decisions to separate with football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and president Ken Starr "was a demonstration that the board obviously took this matter very seriously."