When the NCAA handed Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and three fellow offensive starters were five-game suspensions last December for allegedly selling jerseys, championship rings and other memorabilia in 2009, it made specific concessions for the Buckeyes' alleged ignorance of the rules: The university and the Big Ten successfully lobbied to defer the suspensions to the first five games of the 2011 season – allowing Pryor and Co. to play in the Sugar Bowl – because "the student-athletes did not receive adequate rules education during the time period the violations occurred." The know-nothing gambit paid off with each of the offending players playing a critical role in a 31-26 win over Arkansas that sealed a top-five finish for the Buckeyes in the polls and finally snapped an 0-for-9 drought against SEC teams in bowl games.
From the beginning, of course, the players' claims to ignorance were dubious at best, especially considering the year-long lag between the offenses and the reporting, on the heels of an 11-1, Big Ten-championship season. And as of tonight, according to Yahoo! colleagues Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel, it's time to start asking the same questions about their head coach:
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was informed that several Buckeyes players were selling memorabilia more than eight months before the school claims it was made aware of the scheme, a two-month Yahoo! Sports investigation has found.
Tressel received information that players were selling items to Edward Rife – the owner of Fine Line Ink Tattoos in Columbus – as early as April 2010, according to a source. However, neither Ohio State nor the NCAA investigated the transactions or the players' relationship with Rife until December 2010, when the school claims it was informed of the situation by the local United States Attorney's office.
According to a source, a concerned party reached out to Tressel last April, alerting the coach that memorabilia transactions had taken place between Rife and a handful of Buckeyes players, including Pryor. The selling of items violates NCAA eligibility rules. The source said Tressel was troubled by the information, and the coach indicated that he would investigate the matter and take appropriate action.
There's a loaded charge for you: Based on everything we know about the NCAA's intolerance for deception and "promoting an atmosphere of noncompliance," if Tressel (or anyone at OSU) knew about the violations at any point before last season and failed to move on the information, a stern slap on the wrist stands to become a roundhouse to the jaw. Specifically, the "Buckeye Five" – Pryor, running back Boom Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive lineman Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas – could be declared ineligible for the entire 2010 season, all 12 wins they participated in vacated and Ohio State's share of the Big Ten championship stricken from the books. As for Tressel, his contract requires him to submit written notice to his boss, athletic director Gene Smith, and the OSU compliance office if he's aware of a violation or even reasonable suspicion of a violation, under threat of potential termination.
All of which would be rather … extreme. Aside from Joe Paterno and maybe Mack Brown at Texas, no coach in America occupies a safer, more entrenched seat than the Senator. A substantial response would also have to come in spite of two major obstacles in proving Robinson and Wetzel's charges as they stand: a) There's no indication of written documentation that Tressel or Ohio State knew anything before last December, and b) There's only one (anonymous) source in the story saying he did.
Presumably – considering we're working on the word of respected reporters with a pretty good track record when it comes to NCAA scandal – that's a solid source, and presumably there are others leading the reporters to the same conclusion without saying as much outright. Presumably, too, there's more evidence (circumstantial or otherwise) on the way. The implications could be devastating to Tressel's squeaky-clean reputation: As the old saying goes, when the walls start closing in, it's not the crime that haunts you – it's the cover-up. To prove the latter, though, it's going to take documentation or, in the absence of a paper trail, certainly more than one source. Unless it's a hell of a source.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.