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Ohio State takes a hit from the NCAA, but dodges the hammer

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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The NCAA's long-awaited verdict against Ohio State is in, and it amounts to this: The Buckeyes have been officially banned from the postseason in 2012 — bowl games are off-limits, as is the BCS Championship Game — and docked four scholarships over the next three years, in addition to the five scholarships Ohio State had already docked itself over the same span. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions also added an additional year to the two-year probation period OSU had already imposed, extending the "We'll have our eye on you, mister" period through the spring of 2014. And that's that.

So there's no confusion, I'll say this right up front: Comparatively speaking, Ohio State got off light. Where USC should have known last year, Ohio State did know.

When the NCAA found Reggie Bush guilty of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes from a pair of wannabe agents, it dropped a hammer on SC: The Trojans were hit with a two-year bowl ban, docked 30 scholarships over three years and forced to vacate 13 victories from the 2004-05 seasons, including the 2005 Orange Bowl rout over Oklahoma that sealed a national championship. (The Bowl Championship Series subsequently vacated the title.) That case involved one player, an assistant coach who vehemently proclaimed his innocence and third parties who had no connection to USC. It drew the most heavy-handed NCAA sanctions in nearly 25 years.

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The accusations against Ohio State involved at least nine players, the head coach and an Ohio State booster, none of whom denied the charges. (See below.) Not only did the starting quarterback and other Buckeye stars accept cash and prizes from multiple third parties: Coach Jim Tressel knew they had accepted cash and prizes from multiple third parties, and actively covered up the fact for an entire season while they won him another Big Ten championship. (Per the NCAA, Tressel "had at least four different opportunities to report the information, and his failure to do so led to allowing several football student-athletes to compete while ineligible.") Once that game was up last December, Tressel proceeded to cover up the coverup while the same players went on to win the Sugar Bowl.

Today's response was hardly a slap on the wrist. But compared to the book the committee threw at USC for lesser offenses, it is… well, it's a significantly smaller book: A one-year bowl ban as opposed to two, nine suspended scholarships as opposed to thirty. In another year or two, USC's roster will be slashed by a full third of its usual depth. Under Tressel, Ohio State consistently operated well under the NCAA's maximum scholarship caps, anyway — from 2008 to 2010, in fact, the Buckeyes used eleven fewer scholarships on new recruits than they were allowed in those three recruiting classes, with no sanctions in sight.

The double standard is obvious enough. And the reason is just as clear: The NCAA is significantly less concerned with actions that is with reactions.{YSP:MORE}

In USC's case, the Trojans reacted by mounting a defense, arguing they had no reason to know about Bush's largess, vigorously defending running backs coach Todd McNair and consistently claiming the athletic department had met its obligations under NCAA rules. When the sanctions came down, the university immediately launched an appeal.

Ohio State's defense amounted to a much simpler equation: This is not really Ohio State's problem. It's Jim Tressel's. In fact, Ohio State acted — or rather, reacted — like a model citizen in removing the bad apple, and the bad apple's rogue quarterback. Ohio State didn't sit idly by with full knowledge that it was fielding ineligible players. When Ohio State discovered the situation, it fully cooperated with the NCAA in acknowledging its mistakes and taking steps to rectify them, beginning with setting Tressel adrift on the nearest iceberg to emphasize the point: When he's breaking the rules, suddenly the head coach of Ohio State does not represent Ohio State.

It was Tressel who was tipped off to multiple NCAA violations involving Pryor and at least one other player in April 2010. It was Tressel who kept the information from OSU officials for eight months, and for two more months after the university was alerted, even while sharing it with outsiders. It was Tressel who signed a compliance form at the start of the 2010 season denying he had any knowledge of potential violations, while knowingly fielding ineligible players in every game.

See? It was Tressel, not Ohio State. That guy just works here. Make that worked here.

In fact, had the allegations been limited to Tressel's coverup, Ohio State might have escaped additional sanctions in today's verdict altogether. The extra oomph is more likely the result of a "failure to monitor" charge levied in response to improper benefits paid by a booster, Cleveland-area businessman Bob DiGeronimo, who allegedly funneled $14,000 to several players via direct cash payments and inflated paychecks for offseason jobs at a car wash.

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According to Gene Smith, those were all "individual decisions to go off the reservation." Ohio State hasn't failed; individuals have failed. A full accounting of the wayward individuals includes:

• A former head coach who admitted to (and was formally charged with) covering up major NCAA violations by multiple high-profile players for nearly nine months, including the entire 2010 regular season and the 2011 Sugar Bowl, even after said violations became public.

• A starting quarterback who was initially suspended for accepting more than $1,000 in improper benefits, and later forced to leave the team amid reports that he a) Accepted tens of thousands of dollars more in exchange for autographing memorabilia, and b) Had been regularly accepting money from a businessman in his hometown, with whom the head coach kept in frequent contact, for more than two years after they had been specifically warned to cut all financial ties.

• Four other veteran players suspended along with the quarterback for accepting thousands of dollars in improper benefits. Two of those same four players later had their suspensions extended for accepting further improper benefits after having already been suspended for accepting improper benefits.

• Three other players suspended for accepting small cash payments from a booster, via a teammate who had already been suspended for improper benefits.

• A booster formally disassociated from the program for providing said payments.

Say what you will about the blatant hypocrisy of "amateurism" and the raw deals forced on major college athletes and the skeletons still waiting to be found in other schools' closets, and you'd be right on every count. But you're still left with eleven individuals associated with the institution in various capacities — nine players, the head coach and an active booster — implicated in multiple, repeated NCAA violations that, for now, are still supposed to be enforced. Just how many "individuals decisions to go off the reservation" do there have to be before the institution is expected to exert control?

With USC, it was only two. But then, USC never said it was sorry.

Where Tressel's violations are concerned, it's apparently enough that the university sent its beloved coach packing and wiped a few wins involving ineligible players from the books. Professionally, Tressel will continue paying for it courtesy of a five-year "show-cause" penalty, rendering him effectively unemployable in college football throughout that window. (Member schools are technically allowed to hire a coach under a show-cause penalty, but wouldn't dare due to potential sanctions the NCAA could impose as a result.) Tressel is paying the full price.

Ohio State? The block O may be a little bruised, but Ohio State is going to be fine with its new head coach and up-and-coming young quarterback and suddenly hyped recruiting class. For all intents and purposes, the Buckeyes have emerged from their year in the wilderness still looking like Ohio State, Perennial Big Ten Contender, minus what may or may not turn out to be a meaningful bowl game next January — all because certain representatives of the institution cooperated in the NCAA's bureaucratic waggle dance when other representatives of the institution are caught red-handed in their lack of cooperation. Which is thereby absolved. I hope future defendants were taking notes.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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