Compounding mistakes cost Tressel his job

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said suspending coach Jim Tressel two games (against Akron and Toledo) would hit the “sweet spot” and appease the NCAA for months of lying, cover-ups and playing ineligible players by the coach. School president Gordon Gee joked that he never considered dismissing Tressel before adding, “I’m just hopeful that the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

At a March 8 press conference they also both provided cover as Tressel lied again. Tressel claimed that in April 2010 he didn’t turn over information that players were dealing memorabilia to a tattoo parlor owner under a federal drug trafficking investigation due to “confidentiality” concerns.

As the evidence mounted against OSU coach Jim Tressel, the inevitable conclusion arrived Monday when he resigned.
(Getty Images)

Tressel’s email account showed that excuse was bogus, he had forwarded the information to people outside the school. Smith and Gee either knew the story was untrue, or should have.

Monday morning the inevitable conclusion arrived. Jim Tressel, the second-most successful coach in Buckeyes history, who delivered a BCS title and utter domination of the Big Ten (and rival Michigan), quit under pressure.

“After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach,” Tressel said in a statement.

You can disagree with the significance of the original mistake by the players: Why can’t you sell your own stuff? There is no debating that a head coach must follow the NCAA rules, a major one being that he must turn over credible information of a violation.

The NCAA has a lot of questionable statutes. Demanding the truth from multimillion dollar employees isn’t one of them.

When Tressel didn’t live up to his responsibilities, it was one of the most significant mistakes in recent memory. This wasn’t a shadowy booster or a rogue agent. This wasn’t a circumstantial case against an assistant coach. This was the head man, caught with an electronic paper trail of email.

In college administrative circles there was little doubt he’d have to go. The good deeds, goodwill and great victories Tressel had brought to Columbus wouldn’t stand a chance against the NCAA’s committee on infractions.

When working on the original March 7 story that Tressel knew of the memorabilia sales, nothing caused my Yahoo! Sports colleague Charles Robinson or I greater pause than the disbelief Tressel could be so reckless. Could a smart man really incinerate his career in such a dumb fashion?

It’s why the entire story was stunning.

It grew even more stunning, however, when Smith and Gee spent the March 8 press conference allowing Tressel to continue to lie, shutting down follow-up questions about the absurdity of his confidentiality excuse and praising the coach for all sorts of unrelated matters (no one was claiming he wasn’t a good man with a commitment to charity work).

The moment called for solemn acknowledgement of a mistake and the promise to the university that the truth would be gathered. Instead it was a pseudo pep rally. My phone was flooded with calls and texts from administrators at other schools and conferences who couldn’t believe what they’d just witnessed.

For Gee and Smith, the unforeseen consequence of their blase handling of the story was that they all but begged the media to conduct the investigation into the program they were unwilling or incapable of doing.

Smith had already done as much back in December when he announced five Buckeyes players would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season, but would receive a controversial reprieve to play in the Sugar Bowl and save the TV ratings for the game.

That day Smith ridiculously declared “this is isolated to these young men, isolated to this particular incident. There are no other violations that exist.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith shares the blame with his blase handling of this story.
(US Presswire)

His proof was a comically brief 11-day investigation; a red flag warning that there had to be more to the story.

What kind of athletic department finds out multiple players are selling stuff to a soon-to-be indicted drug trafficker and conducts a short, shallow investigation?

It was that day that Yahoo! Sports started to look at Ohio State. It was the March 8 press conference that brought in the Columbus Dispatch, an army of bloggers, the school’s student newspaper (when was the last time a program got dinged by the student newspaper?), a host of Ohio media and Sports Illustrated, which was set to publish a major, and presumably damning, story this week that may have been the tipping point.

Either way, it was never going to end. The worst-kept secret in Columbus right now is the housing of certain players, the car deals of certain players, the endless smoke that was engulfing the program.

Tressel made a grave mistake by not nipping this entire story in the bud in April 2010. Violations happen on every campus, it’s how you respond that counts. In this case, the players would’ve missed some games and Ohio State would’ve churned on.

Gee and Smith made a similar error by not getting serious about this first in December and then again in March. Ohio State has done some self-reporting, including Tressel’s emails. It hasn’t nearly been serious enough. Gee is the highest-paid university president in the country. Smith is the highest-paid athletic director. Crisis management isn’t easy, but that’s what they’re each paid around $1.5 million to do.

The NCAA’s original investigation centered exclusively on Tressel’s mistake. As more and more dirt comes out, it can – and likely will – begin a second investigation. It’s a snowball effect and there is no reason to think the media is going to stop looking now.

This is what will be most painful for Ohio State. This is the willful turning of a simple case (the original tip) into a major one (Tressel’s cover up) into potentially a monster (any ensuing violations). It’s a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Former assistant Luke Fickell will coach the 2011 season. Ohio State will conduct a full-time search after that, setting its sights, no doubt, on a top-line coach a program of such power and prestige commands.

The severity of NCAA sanctions and the scope of any further investigation, however, could limit the pool of candidates, one more lasting legacy of this debacle.

Tressel is the first casualty here, and he’s a significant one. He was a huge presence in the Big Ten, delivering a share of seven league titles and the 2002 BCS title. He finishes 106-22 at OSU. His senatorial style and iconic sweater vest will go down in history. There is no lack of former players or community members who will swear by his character and contributions.

None of it was enough to save his job. None of it could keep the floodgates from opening. Everyone knew it except his president and athletic director, who looked at the gathering storm clouds, closed their eyes and wished for a sunny day.

They were the last to admit there were no sweet spots left for Jim Tressel.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 30, 2011