Ohio State embarks on another used-car drama: A brief history

If Ohio State fans were left in a kind of shellshock by the series of events that led to formal accusations of NCAA rules violations landing on OSU's doorstep last month, well, maybe that's for the best. With the potential consequences already looming over the program's head, maybe today's revelation that the university has decide to open an investigation into used-car purchases by dozens of Buckeye athletes at two Columbus car dealers comes too late to inflict any further pain. For fans who were already bracing for the worst, bad news at this point only makes it more likely that they're going to be right.

As for the new business — why cars, and why now? Oh, no reason, in particular: The OSU compliance department (like all compliance departments) says it keeps close tabs on athletes' vehicles, and compliance head Doug Archie told the Columbus Dispatch he's seen "nothing to believe a violation has occurred." But considering what we do know about the Buckeyes' rides over the years, it's not hard to see why the NCAA is asking to see the books while it's in the neighborhood:

In 2004, former running back Maurice Clarett told ESPN Magazine that Tressel arranged loaner cars for him, among other benefits. (Ohio State painted the charge as petty vengeance for Clarett's messy exit from the team after being declared academically ineligible in 2003.) In the same story, another exiled player, linebacker Marco Cooper (who was booted from the team following his second arrest for drug possession in 2002) claimed he was able to borrow cars from local dealerships in exchange for signed memorabilia — a much more credible charge in retrospect, for obvious reasons.

Three times between October 2008 and March 2010, quarterback Terrelle Pryor was cited for traffic violations while driving SUVs owned by a local car salesman, Aaron Kniffin, or a lot where Kniffin worked. In two of those instances (both in March 2010), Pryor was driving a 2009 Dodge registered to Auto Direct of Columbus, which reportedly told Ohio State the vehicle was a standard loaner it was allowing Pryor to drive while his own car was in the shop for repairs, the same as it offers to all its customers.

In 2008, Pryor was pulled over in a 2004 GMC Denali registered to Kniffin (who then worked at a different dealership), and later explained that he was merely taking the vehicle for an extended test drive — all the way to his hometown in Pennsylvania, more than 200 miles away — because he was considering buying it and wanted his family's opinion. (He didn't buy it.) When the citations were originally reported in January, Archie said OSU wasn't aware of the 2008 incident but promised to investigate it.{YSP:MORE}

Aaron Kniffin's name shows up again in the latest report, as the common thread between both of the (otherwise unaffiliated) Columbus dealerships now being investigated: He's worked for both within the window under scrutiny. Jeff Mauk, owner of Jack Maxton Chevrolet, estimated that he's sold "40 to 50" vehicles to Buckeye athletes over the last five or six years, but denied any of them had received discounts or preferential treatment. (Records for one of those cars, a Chrysler with less than 20,000 miles sold to former defensive lineman Thaddeus Griffin in 2009, lists the sale price as $0. Gibson told the Dispatch he paid for the car and is still paying for the car; Mauk insisted "I don't give cars for free.") Kniffin told the Dispatch that he's sold cars to "at least four dozen" Ohio State athletes and relatives, and that compliance staffers directed players to him, a charge Archie denies.

Kniffin (who claims he's not a Buckeye fan) was removed from the players' pass list in 2008 because of an OSU rule prohibiting athletes from giving tickets to people they do business with. Prior to that, he and his boss, Auto Direct owner Jason Goss, attended seven football games as guests of players, including the 2008 BCS Championship Game and the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.

So that's the history: Incriminating, but (as far as we know) strictly circumstantial.

For the immediate future, though, it's another 40 to 50 more coals added to the increasingly intense fire under Jim Tressel's chair. And not only Tressel's. The coach may be solely responsible — or at least seems willing to accept sole responsibility — for the overbearing NCAA heat following his nine-month campaign of silence and deception to cover up violations that threatened the eligibility of multiple starters. But if the scope of the allegations continues to expand — if the new investigation uncovers yet another flank of widespread, systematic improper benefits involving multiple players over several years — the less plausible it will be to pin it all on an otherwise good coach who backed himself into a corner with one bad decision, and the more it looks like a broad lack of control that indicts the entire athletic department.

That might be worse from a blame/punishment standpoint than the potential consequences when the spotlight was focused almost entirely on Tressel, but it won't be any harder to live down or recover from. It's just a few more inches of water in the boat.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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