In what may be the perfect summation of college football today, former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was celebrated Saturday during the Buckeyes' 26-21 victory over Michigan even though it was his breaking of NCAA rules that led to the program's current postseason ban. That sanction cost 12-0 Ohio State a spot in the Big Ten title game and perhaps a shot at a national championship.
If you'd think being responsible for such a mess would keep a person from the stadium, let alone being lifted in the air to the roaring delight of over 100,000 fans in attendance, well, you don't understand college football.
Nothing makes sense except this: losing is about the only thing that creates boos and pretty much nothing you can do will make you less popular than the NCAA rulebook.
Tressel was fired in May 2011, the fallout of a scandal in which the chief violation was his failure to report to his own bosses and the NCAA a reliable tip that some of his players were trading memorabilia for tattoos at a local parlor. The NCAA determined that eight players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were involved, receiving some $14,000 in cash and tattoos.
Parts of the trade was somewhat comical – since many of the tattoos were of Buckeye symbols, the players were essentially trading old school commemorative trinkets for new school commemorative ink. Still, it was a clear and obvious violation of NCAA rules, which prohibit athletes for trading on their fame and receiving so called "extra benefits." Tressel was alerted in April 2010 via email from a local attorney about the memorabilia sales.
As a long-time college coach, with a clear clause in his contract to turn over such information to the Ohio State compliance department and the athletic director, Tressel's next step was indisputable. Instead he did nothing and chose to let the players continue competing. In essence, the Buckeyes used players that would've otherwise been ineligible during the 2010 season, where they advanced to the Sugar Bowl.
"Had we known what [Tressel] knew, we would not have played those young men," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said last year.
Tressel's inaction was eventually uncovered and first reported by Yahoo! Sports in March 2011. He was initially suspended two games and fined. Then it was upped to five and then following further accusations and investigations, he was fired on Memorial Day.
Ohio State enacted a number of self-sanctions, including vacating the 2010 season. The NCAA later added a "show cause" penalty to Tressel, which makes him difficult to employ again as a coach, and hit the program with a one-year postseason ban.
That ban is this season. First-year coach Urban Meyer promptly led the Buckeyes to a perfect season, just the sixth in school history. That would've been enough to earn Ohio State a spot in next week's Big Ten championship game and perhaps a spot in the BCS title game in January. Only Notre Dame is also unbeaten. Ohio State is ranked fourth in the AP due to the perceived weakness of the Big Ten, but who knows how voters and computers would've viewed the Bucks without the specter of the ban.
Perfect seasons and national title chances are rare and fleeting, yet there appears to be little animosity toward Tressel.
He was at Ohio Stadium on Saturday as part of a ceremony to honor the Buckeyes' 2002 BCS title team. Players from that team lifted him in the air while the crowd cheered the former coach, who now works as an administrator at the University of Akron.
Of course, Maurice Clarett, the star running back from that team who also caused the Buckeyes NCAA trouble, was also present.
You can scold Ohio State fans for misplaced priorities but the reality is few fan bases would have reacted any differently. Tressel is still remembered for his soft-spoken nature, motivational speeches and winning ways. Many Buckeye fans believe the case was overblown.
And just about everywhere the NCAA suffers from a lack of credibility. Its rulebook is almost universally mocked. Even the most blatant violators believe they are victims. It's just how it works.
So there on a day when Ohio State's season was ending two games before it should, and one of those fleeting chances to play for a national championship was lost, the man most responsible for the sanctions was cheered by fans.
It makes no sense … except it does.
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