I was going to write about Penn State but since EJ beat me to it (just below), let me add a few cents on the only time the NCAA has ever used the death penalty. That would be in regard to Southern Methodist University, after repeated violations of recruiting rules in what was a wild period of college football in the old, now-defunct Southwest Conference.
My local paper ran an editorial this morning arguing for the death penalty. I hope each of the board members watch Pony Exce$$, a film based on a better book by David Whitford (which says a lot because the film is very good -- indeed, there is a 2-hour version that beats the shorter one ESPN occasionally still shows.) It's notable because the author and the filmmaker, both of whom I think began thinking SMU deserved the death penalty, end up ruing that it was ever created. It does just what it says: it kills a program dead. SMU went two decades with terrible teams until reaching a bowl game in 2009. (I teach a sports econ class, and Pony Exce$$ is part of one lecture.)
How dead? How many Ricochet readers even know which conference SMU plays in, or who their mascot is? That's how dead they were.
Will the same fate befall Penn State? Maybe so; the punishments handed down are severe. Most of their good players are now off looking for other schools, just as SMU players did 25 years ago, just after their team received the death penalty. The situations seem different because of what the violations were in the two cases. And because it had such a horrible effect on SMU, I don't think the NCAA could pull the trigger again (Penn State is also more connected as a "traditional power" than SMU was in the 1980s.) Not to apologize for them -- they are every bit as execrable an organization as the commentary on EJ's post portrays them. But don't doubt for a moment that the impact of the SMU penalties didn't weigh on the NCAA today.