Initially, before coach Jim Tressel was outed for essentially lying to his bosses and the NCAA, it looked like Ohio State was getting off kind of easy. In exchange for OSU's cooperation, the NCAA was willing to play good cop. It could have suspended five ineligible players who allegedly sold and/or bartered memorabilia to a local tattoo shop for the Sugar Bowl, but it didn't. It could have declared all five players retroactively ineligible and stricken all eleven Buckeye wins in 2010 from the books, along with their share of the Big Ten title, but it didn't. It could have gone after Ohio State the way it went after USC, in search of bowl bans and significant scholarship losses, but it didn't. In the wake of the sledgehammer that fell on the Trojans last summer, the punishment for Ohio State — a straightforward five-game suspension for four of the offending players to start the 2011 season, games the Buckeyes are likely to win, anyway — seemed minimal, perfunctory. Which is one of the reasons it made so many people so angry, or confused, or both.
That, of course, was before Tressel's long-running, deliberate coverup of the violations saw the light of day, and before it became clear that the NCAA — and possibly the higher-ups at Ohio State themselves — had been misled by one of the most respected men in the profession. What cooperation will buy you in leniency, deception will buy in retribution, and the NCAA began to extract its pound of flesh Friday with an official notice of allegations to the university.
It makes three allegations of "potential major violations," specifically:
• That, between November 2008 and May 2010, multiple student-athletes received preferential treatment and "sold institutionally issued athletics awards, apparel and equipment to Edward Rife, owner of a local tattoo parlor," adding up to more than $13,000 in cash, free tattoos, a loan and a discount on a used car one of the players bought from Rife.
• Under the same heading, that Tressel "knew or should have known" that at least two players had made inappropriate transactions with Rife, per a credible email tipster, but "he failed to report information to athletics administration and, as a result, permitted football student-athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics competition while ineligible."
• That, as reported by the university, Tressel "failed to deport himself in accordance with the honest and integrity normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics as required by NCAA legislation and violated ethical-conduct legislation" by failing to report emails alerting him to violations, withholding the information for months, allowing possibly ineligible players to play for the entire season and "falsely attest[ing] that he reported to the institution any knowledge of NCAA violations" when he signed a compliance form last September.
Per standard procedure, Ohio State has 90 days to reply to the allegations by substantially agreeing or disagreeing with the findings (with copious documentation either way), after which it will appear in front of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which will hand down a verdict and sentencing, which will then be appealed, etc. The NCAA is moving fast on this, for the NCAA, but it almost certainly isn't going to get around to additional sanctions before the start of the season in September, and — assuming Ohio State appeals anything that threatens to inflict real pain — certainly won't get around to enforcement until well into 2012. The scenario for 2011 is the same: Tressel and four offensive starters remain sidelined for the first five games, and will return in mid-October with another Big Ten championship squarely in their sights. A full recruiting class will sign on next February.
Beyond that, though, whatever spoils the Buckeyes take in 2011 may be their last in a long while: Vacated wins, a postseason ban and possible scholarship restrictions are very much on the table, as is Tressel's job, arguably the safest seat in college football at the start of the year. It certainly doesn't help the case that Tressel seems to have informed everyone except Ohio State or the NCAA about what he knew as early as last April: New documents obtained by the Columbus Dispatch show that Tressel — in addition to his extended correspondence with tipster Christopher Cicero and quarterback Terrelle Pryor's hometown "mentor" back in Pennsylvania, which we already knew — Tressel also called an FBI agent within days of Cicero's first email alerting him to players' involvement in a federal drug investigation. Altogether, Tressel sent dozens of emails, phone calls and text messages to Cicero and the "mentor," Ted Sarniak, whom he called within hours of Cicero's first email.
Among the people Tressel appears to have had no contact with about the violations, according to the records: Athletic director Gene Smith, OSU president Gordon Gee or anyone in the Ohio State compliance office. I'm just guessing, but that doesn't seem like the kind of commitment to "confidentiality" that's going to hold up in front of the Infractions Committee. Not this time.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.