When they met to decide the national championship nearly a decade ago, Miami and Ohio State were ranked No. 1 and No. 2.
If a poll measured weight of NCAA scandals, the same numbers might apply today.
Free tattoos on one side, free food on the other, that’s how it all started. Memorabilia sales in Columbus, cover charges in Coral Gables. Things that seemed relatively unimportant at the time to those involved now hang like a dark cloud over the Buckeyes and Hurricanes.
On Saturday night, the teams will hit each other.
Sometime soon, the NCAA will likely hit them both.
Welcome to what may as well be called the Ineligi-bowl.
”It does kind of take away from it,” Miami quarterback Jacory Harris said. ”That’s all you see, the suspensions here, the suspensions there and it kind of takes away from the actual game and the players and the fans and basically the history of this game. There’s a lot of other things that are involved in this game rather than suspensions. You’ve got (2002) when they beat us and last year they beat us. There’s a lot of things we want to go out … and play for.”
Nobody’s talking about resurrected memories of that still-hotly debated Miami-Ohio State national championship game this week and the infamous penalty flag that the Hurricanes say robbed them of what should have been their sixth title, or the sloppy game the Buckeyes won relatively easily at home last season.
Instead, all the buzz over Saturday’s game in Miami is about players who are ineligible now, and the penalties likely forthcoming from the NCAA. In this era of scandal – eight major football programs have gotten into hot water in the last 18 months or so – Ohio State and Miami may be getting the most attention.
Yet both sides insist they don’t want it to dampen this game.
”Our young guys, they’ve been through this time and time again,” Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell said Tuesday. ”There’s always going to be distractions here in Columbus, Ohio, just like in Miami of Florida. Whether it’s off the field stuff, it’s stuff in this locker room, whether it’s stuff in their personal life, it’s handling those things that is what really ends up defining your team.”
Harris is one of five Miami players returning from one-game suspensions this weekend after they were found to have taken extra benefits from former booster Nevin Shapiro, a convicted and now imprisoned Ponzi scheme architect. Harris said last week that he made mistakes, but offered no specifics other than saying the rules were broken three years ago.
Three other Miami players will remain sidelined until next month for more serious violations, also involving Shapiro, all during their recruiting periods. Shapiro has said he gave 72 Miami players and recruits money and gifts over an eight-year span, and the university and the NCAA are combining on a widespread investigation of the athletic department’s actions, policies and compliance practices.
”It’s two completely different situations,” Ohio State defensive back Tyler Moeller said, when asked to compare the scandals that hit the Hurricanes and Buckeyes. ”Both things are wrong. Rules are rules, no matter if one’s worse than the other, you’re still breaking a rule.”
Ohio State will have four players sitting out the game with the Hurricanes on Saturday because of NCAA-ordered suspensions, including three who started a year ago and a key backup. The four are in the midst of five-game bans for trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos – deals that forced the resignation of coach Jim Tressel and months of scrutiny around the entire athletic program since. Former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor also is gone, with his five-game college ban essentially following him to the NFL and the Oakland Raiders.
The Buckeyes got a little good news on Tuesday when the NCAA reinstated three players from a completely separate case – they were suspended for accepting $200 for appearing at a charity event in February. They sat out the first two games, but now are cleared to play against Miami.
The Hurricanes say they’re not thinking about anything but the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes say they’re not thinking about anything but the Hurricanes.
So each is finding shelter from scandal in each other.
”We’ve both had some missteps here that we’re trying to overcome, but that’s not going to erase that tradition,” Miami coach Al Golden said. ”That’s not going to erase all the great players that have played here. That’s not going to erase what the institutions mean and certainly not going to diminish what it means to our fans and to our alumni and football fans in the city of Miami and South Florida. Our job is to go out there and play hard, play with passion.”
Ohio State will be without running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive lineman Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas until next month because of their roles in the scandal.
Fickell and Golden are in a similar situation: New coaches dealing with things that happened before they were in charge.
”I don’t imagine he’s got a whole lot of time to spend on worrying about what’s going on here at Ohio State, and I really don’t have a whole lot of time to sit down and think about what’s going on there,” Fickell said. ”Obviously we have to take care of our own programs and hopefully here in the off season we can make share some ideas on how you go about handling some of those situations.”
Miami is closer to becoming whole again. Besides Harris, linebacker Sean Spence – the team’s top defensive player – returns this week, as does defensive linemen Adewale Ojomo and Marcus Forston and receiver-returner Travis Benjamin. All got one-game suspensions and had to make donations averaging about $250 to charity, but are now back in good graces.
”It was a big relief,” Spence said. ”A big weight came off my shoulders. I was happy it was one game. I have the rest of my season to play now. We came together as a team and it helped us bond. Being around the guys, watching film, cracking jokes, laughing, you don’t think about it as much. I need to apologize to our fans, our university, my coaches, my teammates. They’ve gone through a lot. And I’m glad it’s over.”
That is, over for now.
The NCAA likely won’t be done looking into both schools for many more months. Ohio State has already self-imposed some penalties, like vacating games from last season, returning bowl money and going on probation. Late last week, Miami finalized changes to its sideline-access policy, which now essentially will keep boosters and even administrators off the Hurricanes’ side of the field on game days.
The reality remains, however, that the worst hits may be yet to come.
Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds