April 25, 2011
I'm sure there were still a few hopelessly scarlet-and-gray-eyed Ohio State loyalists counting on the oncoming hurricane of NCAA sanctions swerving away from Columbus at the last second, and there probably will be to the end. For everyone else, though, the NCAA's formal notice of allegations of major violations was only the first sign of storm clouds on the horizon that had been visible on the radar for weeks: The question isn't whether there's going to be damage for coach Jim Tressel's apparent deception about playing multiple ineligible players for the entire 2010 season, but how much.
Even if the NCAA sentencing process was consistent, objective and sound, there's not exactly an extensive record of relevant case law to answer that question. By my count, there have been about half-a-dozen cases of sanctions against a major football program for playing ineligible players since 2001: Wisconsin in 2001, Cal in 2002, Oklahoma in 2006, Florida State in 2009, Alabama in 2009 and of course, USC in 2010, the symbolic end of a decade of wrist-slapping and somnambulance. Based on those cases, and even taking into account Ohio State's token self-flagellation, sanctions could fall into any of four stages, or all of them:
• Stage One: Vacated Wins.
Football Precedent: California, Oklahoma*, Alabama, Florida State, USC.
Based on the existing cases, it was already a bit of a mystery even before the Sugar Bowl why Ohio State's regular season wins weren't stricken from the record in the first place: All five ineligible players participated in all 12 games while ineligible, the same infraction that retroactively cost the Bears, Sooners, Crimson Tide, Seminoles and Trojans nearly 60 victories between them over nine seasons. Now that the Buckeyes' case explicitly involves "a coach or high-ranking school administrator," as outlined in the Committee on Infractions' guidelines for vacating wins, it's hard to see how the committee can be talked out of striking down at least the 11 regular season wins in 2010 and OSU's share of the Big Ten championship. (Note: Vacated wins are not forfeits; technically, the game just disappears from the books like it never happened.)
• Stage Two: Scholarship Penalties.
Football Precedent: Wisconsin, California, Florida State, USC.
Last summer's verdict against USC redefined the standard for "heavy" scholarship losses: The Trojans were docked 30 schollies overall — 10 per year for each of the 2011-13 recruiting classes — twice as harsh as anything levied for any infraction over the previous decade, and in response to the misdeed of one player, former Heisman winner Reggie Bush. That was such a punitive departure from the previous record (and remains more likely to be scaled back than any other aspect of USC's ongoing appeal) that it's impossible to predict where the Buckeyes will fall on the scale, but the best guess if they face scholarship restrictions at all would be a reduction of 10 to 15 total over two or three years.
• Stage Three: Bowl Ban.
Football Precedent: California, USC.
The NCAA went a full eight years between bowl bans against Alabama (for major recruiting violations, not playing ineligible players) and Cal in 2002 and USC in 2010, which could mean another one-time, punitive revival reserved exclusively for the Trojans. But if ever there was a scenario that screamed for a bowl ban, Ohio State is it: Tressel's duplicity in December was specifically in service of winning the Sugar Bowl, and he made the NCAA an unwitting accomplice to that goal by restoring the offending players' eligibility for that game. If they're feeling especially eye-for-an-eye, the committee has more than enough to keep the Buckeyes home for at least one year.
• Stage Four: Show-Cause Penalty.
Football Precedent: USC.
The show-cause penalty — an order restricting any NCAA member school from hiring a blacklisted coach for a specific period of time without explicit permission from the Infractions Committee — has existed almost exclusively as a last resort against rogue basketball coaches: See notorious offenders Kelvin Sampson (Oklahoma and Indiana), Dave Bliss (Baylor) and Clem Haskins (Minnesota), for starters, and probably Bruce Pearl if Tennessee hadn't fired him last month. I can only find two show-cause orders applied to football coaches, both of them position coaches — Oklahoma State's Willie Anderson in 1989 and USC's Todd McNair, who was forced out last year and is personally appealing the NCAA's ruling that he knew or should have known about Reggie Bush's largesse in 2005 — both of whom were directly involved in facilitating or covering up major, high-profile illegal benefits cases.
Obviously, Jim Tressel is directly involved in facilitating or covering up a major, high-profile illegal benefits case. He can also be construed as a repeat offender: Before Terrelle Pryor and his classmates, there was Troy Smith; before Troy Smith, there was Maurice Clarett; before Maurice Clarett, there was Tressel's star quarterback at Youngstown State, Ray Isaac. Tressel was able to successful distance himself from each of those cases, but they demonstrate a pattern that undermines any appeal to an honest, one-time lapse of judgment. The NCAA clearly didn't enjoy the bullet it took for allowing the offending Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl, and if we've learned anything about the way the association operates, it's that the perceived cover-up is always worse than the crime. A complete collapse on the field would make Tressel's exit easier; barring that, a show-cause penalty — or resignation in anticipation of one — is his most likely way out.
The thing to note about Stage Four, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, is that there is no Stage Five — at least not since SMU was dealt the death penalty in 1987. That decision remains the atomic bomb of college sports, deployed once to unexpected devastation against a non-traditional power, never to be seriously deployed again except as an idle threat. That's not going to happen, guaranteed.
But that's about all you can say isn't going to happen, for sure. The NCAA's enforcement model is to encourage schools to turn themselves in and cooperate in investigations — it doesn't have nearly the resources to be proactive itself all over the country — and therefore to necessarily unleash its wrath on anything with a whiff of deception. As limp as it often seems now, the NCAA facing an evasive membership might as well just be a checking account for the basketball tournament. If it can't crack down on a coach who knowingly, admittedly fielded ineligible players without alerting anyone who might tell him "No," then what's the point?