COLUMBUS, Ohio – As spring football practice begins at Ohio State on Thursday, Jim Tressel is trying to make it business as usual for one of the nation’s winningest programs of the last decade.
It’s anything but.
Tressel will coach spring practice and through preseason camp this summer, but he’ll be absent from the sideline the first five games of 2011, serving a suspension for not sharing what he knew about an NCAA investigation into players selling merchandise. Among the players also suspended the first five games will be quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who will be limited in his final spring practice while continuing to recover from foot surgery.
“For me, it’s always been 24 (hours a day), seven (days a week),” Tressel said. “I know I have to prepare for it to be 24-6.”
This is uncharted territory for the Buckeyes, who have won like crazy with minimal distractions and setbacks since Tressel took over in 2001 and Ohio State won the national championship in 2002. The Buckeyes have won three outright Big Ten titles since, shared three more and played in two more national title games. They’ve won BCS bowl games in each of the last two years.
As the first of 15 spring practices begin, the Buckeyes work towards preparing for early season games at Miami (Fla.) and vs. Michigan State without their quarterback, returning running back, big-play receiver and head coach, who also calls the plays. From here on out, Tressel will also have to deal with fixing and protecting the reputation he’s built and benefited from in becoming one of the game’s best recruiters.
Tressel has admitted to making mistakes and now must convince both current and future players — as well as dealing with rival recruiters and nationwide skeptics — that Ohio State Football will remain successful and clean going forward.
“I go to day-to-day,” Tressel said. “I’m sure there’s a varied stigma that anyone has about anyone. I’m sure there are variety of opinions about how anyone does their job. What’s important is we do the best job we can.”
Of swirling rumors that he would lose his job — either by being being removed or resigning — Tressel said such thoughts have not even crossed his mind.
Ohio State announced Wednesday that Luke Fickell has been promoted to assistant head coach and will serve as interim head coach during Tressel’s suspension. Fickell, the Buckeyes’ linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, is an Ohio State alum and a Columbus native.
“No little storm, no big storm, is going to be able to affect what we’ve done,” Fickell said.
“I have tremendous confidence that Luke will take care of things just as they should be,” Tressel said.
Pryor, running back Dan “Boom” Herron, offensive tackle Mike Adams, wide receiver DeVier Posey and defensive end Solomon Thomas were suspended five games by the NCAA after it was learned they had sold Ohio State championship rings, game gear, and the gold pants they were awarded for victories over Michigan to a Columbus tattoo parlor owner for cash and discounts on tattoos.
The original penalty for the players selling the merchandise came just before Christmas, though all players involved were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl in early January. The university originally announced a two-game suspension and $250,000 fine for Tressel when he admitted having knowledge of the investigation.
Tressel later asked the university to increase his penalty to five games, matching the players’ suspension. Because the investigation is ongoing, Tressel couldn’t comment specifically on it Wednesday.
“It’s obviously been a difficult past couple months,” Tressel said. “Certainly in this situation the mistakes I have made have been very disappointing. Again, I am sorry for that.
“Our kids that chose to come here know about Ohio State. The kids have had family adversities, athletic adversities, and I think we’ll all learn from it. Would you rather not have this teachable moment? Sure. But our young people will grow from this.”
Tressel said the suspended players, besides Pryor, will get their normal reps in spring practice and said he’s been impressed with their leadership through winter workouts. The coaching he’s always done will continue, too.
“The teaching and the things that go on, on a day-to-day basis, have not changed and will not change that I’m aware of,” Tressel said.
Things are certainly different in Columbus. How different? And what else, including further NCAA penalty, might be ahead?
Stay tuned. Many people, Tressel included, are anxious to find out.