March 11, 2011
I'm a shade-of-gray kind of guy, not the sort to jump at playing judge or jury, much less executioner. In Jim Tressel's case, there are enough people grasping for those roles already, even if they don't happen to work in Ohio State's administration building. At this point, the case against Tressel pretty much speaks for itself.
He knew he had potentially ineligible players on his roster for months prior to the season, and did nothing. He knew he was putting potentially ineligible players on the field during the season, and did nothing. Eventually, the rest of the world knew he had put ineligible players on the field, and he still did nothing to indicate what he had known all along. In fact, it was worse than nothing: He signed a compliance form in September (falsely) affirming to the university that he had no knowledge of any potential NCAA violations. He told reporters when the story of players' illicit memorabilia sales to a local tattoo parlor broke just before Christmas that he had no prior knowledge before the university was informed in early December by federal agents investigating the shop. It wasn't until OSU counsel found the e-mails on Tressel's computer in January that he was forced to confess. There's no gray there: It was a deliberate cover-up.
All of which paints Tressel as cynical, dishonest and manipulative. But the worst part of the story, the moment when one of the most respected men in the profession really begins to look a truly naked, self-interested villain, is the moment he decides to keep going — to bite his tongue, bury his doubts, and join the lobby to defer the offending players' suspensions to the 2011 season to keep them on the field against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
By the time he made that decision, his silence had already made the transition from "lapse of judgment" to "act of bad faith." He was no longer hoping that no one would find out about the players' connection to the federal probe, or that the accusations against the players wouldn't amount to anything, or that his tipster was just wrong. The tipster was right. The charges against the players amounted to clear violations of NCAA rules. Their subsequent suspensions were guaranteed to make headline news across the country. The jig was up.
But not only did Tressel maintain his silence to the NCAA. Not only did he lie to reporters. Not only did he not cut his losses and take his medicine, like a humbled man who had already gotten away with something. Instead, he actively pushed the envelope to keep the ineligible players — now officially ruled ineligible by the NCAA — on the field. Like an inside man in a robbery watching his accomplices being led away in handcuffs, bailing them out of jail and coming back for the rest of the money anyway. (And then publicly lecturing them about their crime.) Ohio State treated winning the Sugar Bowl like an end to itself, a big score, and risked everything — or at least the first half of the 2011 season — to get it.
And it worked. It was a big score, made possible by the same sketchy cast that led the run to a Big Ten championship in the regular season. Terrelle Pryor had arguably the game of his career, accounting for 336 total yards, two touchdown passes, no turnovers and a series of clutch scrambles that kept the clock moving — and Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett on the bench — as Arkansas' comeback effort picked up momentum in the fourth quarter. Boom Herron churned out 87 yards and a touchdown on the ground. DeVier Posey brought down three catches for 70 yards, including an acrobatic touchdown grab from Pryor that extended OSU's early lead to 28-7 before the half. Mike Adams played every down at left tackle. Even the most obscure member of the "Buckeye Five," backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, came up with the play of the night, a game-clinching interception of Mallett in the final minute that bailed out the punt team for allowing a crucial block only seconds before.
All five played their roles, and the Buckeyes — along with the Big Ten and the Sugar Bowl — got the night they wanted: Ohio State's longstanding SEC jinx in bowl games was broken, the conference's dismal performance on Jan. 1 was partially absolved, and the tense final quarter made for great television. OSU also got the season it wanted: Twelve wins for only the third time in school history, another top-five finish in the polls and a marquee win to carry into the offseason.
The NCAA took so much heat for allowing those five players on the field in the first place that new president Mark Emmert's felt compelled to issue a statement of defense before the game, based on the notion that the players "were not aware there was a violation" when they committed it. That explanation was dubious from the beginning; the NCAA seemed complicit in manipulating its own rules for the convenience of an offender — letting the inmates run the asylum. One of the reasons it was willing to accept that conclusion was Ohio State's apparent cooperation in policing itself. Obviously, it was doing nothing of the sort: In retrospect, Tressel's duplicity makes the association look like precisely the toothless fool its critics like to claim it is. The asylum got played — and by the quiet guy in the sweatervest, of all people.
There's no doubt, from Ohio State or anywhere else, that Tressel's silence violated a major bylaw, one that's gotten almost every other coach in every sport who's violated it over the last five years fired in short order. Given Tressel's glorified track record and president Gordon Gee's apparent indifference earlier this week, there's still not much chance of OSU taking its penance that far. But the NCAA, having been made into a mockery, almost can't go far enough — vacating the entire 2010 season and extending Tressel's suspension from two games to five to match his players' seems like a minimum. If it was my call, I might also vote to sideline coach and players for the entire 2011 season.
But if ever there was a scenario that screamed for a bowl ban, this is it: Tressel's duplicity in December was specifically in service of winning a bowl game, and if nothing else, the NCAA — his unwitting accomplice — should respond by specifically denying him that privilege for at least one year. If that seems a little eye-for-an-eye, fine. Assuming the association is actually interested in enforcing its rules, it obviously can't continue to turn the other cheek.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.