From the moment the NCAA's official notice of allegations landed on its doorstep in April, Ohio State had one card to play in its defense, and one card only: Blame Jim Tressel.
The university couldn't deny the charges, but it could put them all on one man, and set that man adrift on the nearest iceberg. It was Tressel who was tipped off to multiple NCAA violations involving quarterback Terrelle Pryor and at least one other player in April 2010. It was Tressel who kept the information from OSU officials for eight months, and for two more months after the university was alerted in December, even while sharing it with outsiders. It was Tressel who signed a compliance form at the start of the 2010 season denying he had any knowledge of potential violations, while knowingly fielding ineligible players in every game. And ultimately, it was Tressel who paid for it with his job.
Ohio State suffered, too, if you consider a handful of suspensions, one year of probation and a dozen vacated wins suffering. But the university had taken severe action against the guilty party, and bet that it would be enough to keep more severe, USC-level sanctions at bay.
Today, according to the Columbus Dispatch, the NCAA gave the first indication that that bet may be paying off:
The NCAA has notified Ohio State University that it will not face charges of failing to appropriately monitor its football team as part of a memorabilia-sales scandal that brought down former Coach Jim Tressel.
The NCAA has not uncovered any new, unreported violations during its investigation and agrees with Ohio State that Tressel was the only university official aware of violations by his players and that he failed to report them.
"Other than (two redacted player names) and (Ted) Sarniak, there is no indication that Tressel provided or discussed the information he received ... with anyone else, particularly athletics administrators," the NCAA reported in an enforcement staff case summary.
That doesn't mean Ohio State is out of the woods: It must still appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in August on the original charges that a) At least six players accepted more than $13,000 in the form of cash, free tattoos, a loan and a discount on a used car from a local tattoo dealer, and b) Tressel "violated ethical-conduct legislation" by intentionally covering up the improper benefits. Both allegations have brought heavy-handed responses from the infractions committee in the past.
But it does mean that OSU has successfully eluded the two most dreaded charges at the NCAA's disposal, "Failure to Monitor" and "Lack of Institutional Control." It won't face further consequences for allegations that Terrelle Pryor and possibly dozens of other players accepted preferential treatment from car dealerships and other local businesses. It won't be forced to answer for the allegation that Pryor pocketed tens of thousands of dollars throughout his college career by selling his signature to a local memorabilia dealer. Unlike USC in the Reggie Bush Affair, Ohio State won't be called to answer for lax oversight or fostering a permissive environment; in fact, the NCAA's response applauded the OSU compliance department for its efforts to educate players of NCAA rules, track university-issued awards, shut down websites selling unauthorized memorabilia and, yes, follow up on tips it received.
In other words, it means that the odds the Buckeyes will face the sting of scholarship losses or a bowl ban have just plummeted. Ditto for the odds that it will face any other significant consequences beyond what it's already inflicted upon itself. In other words, the NCAA appears to be friendly to the university's argument that there is a bright line between the actions of Ohio State as a program and the actions of the man who was paid millions to oversee that program for a decade.
It's not Ohio State's coverup. It's Jim Tressel's. In fact, Ohio State acted — or rather, reacted — like a model citizen in removing the bad apple. (And the bad apple's rogue quarterback.) Is it really possible for the people in charge to have that little interest in enforcing their own rules, as long as the paperwork is in order?
I'll wait until the Committee on Infractions has actually rendered a verdict (probably sometime during the upcoming season) before I answer that. But it's beginning to look like a much murkier answer than almost anyone outside of Columbus, Ohio, has imagined before this afternoon. When the committee hit USC with a two-year bowl ban and heavy scholarship losses last summer, it was signaling the end if almost a decade of persistent head-turning from the reality of the offenses. Reggie Bush's six-figure partnership with two wannabe agents was a real violation of the NCAA's amateurism standards, and it was treated like it. USC's star player did the crime, USC is doing the time.
The Ohio State and USC cases are similar in the sense that they both involve a star accepting a lot of money from shady characters on the fringes of the program, but the the case against OSU is on a different level. Where USC's violations (as chronicled by the NCAA's final verdict) involved a single player, Ohio State's involve at least six. Where USC consistently disputed that anyone affiliated with the program knew what was going on with Bush — as well as the sketchy evidence the NCAA used to reach that conclusion — the paper trail leading from Jim Tressel's hard drive is an indisputable smoking gun. Which he intentionally concealed as the offending players led the Buckeyes to another conference championship. Ohio State's star player(s) and its head coach did the crime, and no one denies it. Tressel's silence after being tipped to the investigation is the definition of a program failing to cooperate. He's the head coach: He is the program.
Recently, the committee seems to be driving home the message that it's less interested in actions than reactions. It's already taken a bit out of Georgia Tech for Tech's institutional failure to react with the requisite breathlessness when its best player may or may not have accepted the staggering equivalent of $312 in free clothing. And if the initial reaction is an intentional, long-running failure to act over much greater sums, distributed to even more players? Apparently that's where it starts to get tricky.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.