Try for a moment to remove whatever school-colored glasses you might own and consider the following questions:
– If Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Alex Smith had been found guilty of breaking NCAA rules, what would you think of former Utah and Florida coach Urban Meyer?
– If Ricky Williams, Vince Young and Colt McCoy had all been penalized for running afoul of the NCAA, what would you think of Texas coach Mack Brown?
– If college sports’ governing body had forced LaRon Landry, Rolando McClain and Mark Ingram to miss games for their transgressions, what would you think of former LSU and current Alabama coach Nick Saban?
You probably didn’t have to think too hard about the answer. If the three highest profile players of a big-time coach’s career all got dinged by the NCAA, you would think that coach might be dirty. So why, after Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor all faced NCAA sanctions, did people still think Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was squeaky clean? Why, after Tressel admitted in March that he played ineligible players and lied to the NCAA about it, did people still rush to his defense, claiming him an otherwise perfect coach who made one little mistake?
Because Tressel, Ohio State and a compliant media — yes, I’m just as guilty as the other two parties — sold that narrative so well.
He was The Senator. The light in the darkness. The one who didn’t have to stoop as low as his peers. Even Tressel’s choice of signature garment screamed piety. A sweater vest says, “I’ll have your daughter home by nine, sir.” A sweater vest says, “I’ll be in the first pew in church on Sunday.” A sweater vest says, “I’ll abide by my contract and the rules that govern my profession.”
The Ohio State portion of Tressel’s story came to an end Monday. Ohio State officials could argue that some of the transgressions described were beyond the coach’s control, and they would be correct. But Ohio State has shifted the narrative in recent months. They want you to think this is all a Jim Tressel problem and not an Ohio State problem. A Jim Tressel problem means Ohio State needs a new coach. An Ohio State problem means brutal NCAA sanctions that could cripple the program for years.
Tressel was packaged and sold as a paragon of virtue in a college football universe teeming with schemers and bloodsuckers. As long as he beat Michigan and won the Big Ten, most people seemed more than happy to swallow that narrative. Does it make Tressel a bad person because he didn’t live up to the impossibly lofty image created for him? Absolutely not. Tressel gives more to charity in a month than most will give in their lives. He has helped hundreds of players navigate the gap between childhood and adulthood. He has violated no state or federal laws.
Tressel did, however, make a poor choice of NCAA rules to break. An accomplished former coach once told me that the NCAA only considers two violations unforgivable: Getting caught buying a player and getting caught lying to the NCAA. Tressel is guilty of the second, and coaches who get caught lying to the NCAA rarely keep their jobs. Is Tressel the only coach who lied to the NCAA in the past year? Of course not. Nor was Alabama the only program to buy a player in the recruiting class of 2000. But guess what Tressel and the Alabama staff that bought Albert Means have in common? They got caught.
Former Buckeyes walk-on Chris Cicero tried to do his program a solid in April 2010 when he sent Tressel the e-mails about players trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos at the Fine Line Ink tattoo parlor. Those e-mails ultimately unraveled the carefully crafted narrative. Sad as it sounds, Cicero would have saved the Buckeyes a lot of grief had he loved his school a little less and forgotten to press “send.”
Of all the tools a coach has at his disposal — schematic brilliance, the ability to inspire loyalty, a knack for winning over the best recruits — the most important is plausible deniability. Unsavory things must be taken care of in every high-profile program, but it’s the job of low-level staffers to ensure none of the nastiness ever reaches the head coach’s desk. A graduate assistant who hears about players taking discounts from a local business is supposed make it go away quietly and not leave a paper trail.
What infuriates Ohio State fans most is that other head coaches have sailed along with no personal punishment or a mere wrist slap. Those fans fail to understand that those coaches wore the armor of plausible deniability. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has had Final Four appearances vacated at UMass and Memphis, yet the NCAA never convicted Calipari of any wrongdoing. However when Marcus Camby got that money or Derrick Rose got that SAT score, someone else did it. Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun got hit with a three-game suspension earlier this year for failing to monitor the men on his staff in a case involving an agent funneling money to former UConn recruit Nate Miles. Why didn’t Calhoun get hammered the way Tressel might? All the NCAA could prove was that Calhoun’s staffers did it. Those guys lost their jobs. Calhoun had plausible deniability.
The moment Tressel responded to a Cicero e-mail — thereby acknowledging its receipt — he stripped himself of his armor. From that moment, he was exposed. He could have reported the e-mail to his superiors, who would have passed it along to the NCAA. That probably would have gotten quarterback Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey, the 2010 Buckeyes listed in the e-mail, suspended for four games. That was the penalty for Georgia receiver A.J. Green, who was penalized in 2010 for selling an autographed jersey.
That might have been the end. With the players suspended, maybe no one would have dug deeper to find out Buckeyes have been getting hooked up for years at tattoo parlors. Tressel almost certainly would still be Ohio State’s coach. Tressel chose another option, though. He had a team that appeared capable of competing for the national title. (Looking back, only a bad first and third quarter in Madison, Wis., kept the Buckeyes from playing for the title.) So Tressel rolled the dice and didn’t tell his superiors about the e-mails. The moment Pryor or Posey set foot on the field during a game, Tressel would commit a major NCAA violation. When Tressel signed an NCAA form in September attesting that he didn’t know of any violations, he told a lie. When NCAA investigators came to ask about the memorabilia swapping at the tattoo parlor, Tressel didn’t confess he’d known. Lie No. 2. If those lies came to light, Tressel’s actions wouldn’t match his narrative.
Narratives also are critical in an NCAA infractions case, especially when a school is self-reporting violations. There is a certain alchemy to designing a self-report that acknowledges wrongdoing but minimizes punishment, while still seeming transparent enough to discourage any deeper digging. When the U.S. Department of Justice alerted Ohio State officials that player-only memorabilia had turned up in a raid of the home of Fine Line owner Edward Rife, the compliance department investigated. It then told the NCAA in its self-report that the case was limited to these players and this memorabilia.
“There are no other NCAA violations around this case,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on Dec. 23. “We’re very fortunate we do not have a systemic problem in our program. This is isolated to these young men, isolated to this particular incident. There are no other violations that exist.”
Less than two months later, someone in the department discovered the e-mails between Cicero and Tressel. If it ever emerged that Smith or anyone in the athletic administration knew of the e-mails and didn’t report them, they could be charged with the same unethical conduct violation as Tressel, and the Committee on Infractions almost certainly would blast the program for a lack of institutional control. So Ohio State also self-reported Tressel’s lies.
This is when Ohio State shifted the narrative. Despite an outward show of support for Tressel — including the “I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me” quote that has made Ohio State president Gordon Gee a laughingstock in the ivory tower world — Ohio State’s administration has done everything it can to make sure the NCAA and everyone else knows this is a Jim Tressel problem and not an Ohio State problem. Officials self-reported a violation of Bylaw 10.1 (unethical conduct) knowing full well that they essentially had declared Tressel guilty of one of the NCAA’s mortal sins. The behind-the-scenes media strategy also suggests a desire to put distance between Tressel and the program. Oops, it appears we accidentally forgot last month to release these e-mails that prove Tressel forwarded the information to Pryor’s shady handler.
Why would Ohio State do this to one of its most successful employees? Because Tressel can be replaced. No one person is bigger than the program. Only one person came close to being bigger than the program, and Ohio State fired Woody Hayes the morning after he punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman.
It is much easier to hire a new coach than it is to dig out from the rubble of scholarship sanctions and postseason bans. If the NCAA believes this is a Jim Tressel problem, all Ohio State must do is cut ties and move on to more Big Ten titles. If the NCAA believes this is an Ohio State problem, the situation gets much, much messier.
Has Ohio State shifted the narrative well enough? The Sporting News published a story Friday that shows Ohio State compliance director Doug Archie can’t keep his story straight about how many times he has spoken with the Buckeyes’ favorite car dealer. Just because the NCAA hasn’t accused Ohio State of a failure to monitor or the dreaded lack of institutional control doesn’t mean those charges are off the table. The enforcement staff could cancel Ohio State’s August hearing before the Committee on Infractions, add more accusations and reschedule the hearing for a later date. Any new accusations probably would attack the program instead of the coach.
By accepting Tressel’s resignation Monday, it’s clear Ohio State will try to spin a narrative that turns the new revelations into a Jim Tressel problem and stops the bleeding at the August hearing. So months after his employer revealed the lies that shattered a reputation that didn’t quite fit the facts, Tressel proved just how much he loves Ohio State. Monday, Tressel made the ultimate declaration of loyalty to the school he served so well by making all of Ohio State’s problems his own.