Smith’s role calls selection process into question

In a confluence of circumstance as appropriate as it is perverse, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith will be front and center on Selection Sunday.

This being the inaugural year of the NCAA’s new $10.8 billion deal to televise its allegedly amateur, month-long, betting extravaganza — aka “the NCAAs” — Smith’s position as chairman of the Men’s Basketball Committee is a really big deal. The Dean of Selection, as it were, must be a man of impeccable character and judgment, without any conflicted allegiances, real or merely perceived.

And therein lies the problem. Gene Smith is an integral part of a system that, well, stinks. Unless you’re a Buckeyes fan, chances are you don’t know much, if anything, about the guy. But you may recognize him from the other day.

He’s the latest apologist for a coach who got caught. Of course, it wasn’t just any coach. It was Jim Tressel, winner of seven Big Ten titles and a national championship. And they weren’t just any rules. Tressel was informed last April that at least two of his players — including the star quarterback — were selling memorabilia to the subject of a federal drug investigation.

The coach emailed back, “I will get on it ASAP.”

It’s worth mentioning here that Tressel often wears a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet.

Me? I don’t know what Jesus would do.

But I know what Tressel did: Nothing.

And I also know what Gene Smith did: next to nothing.

Tressel has been a head coach since 1986. And he wants you to believe that he knew nothing about the rules, his responsibilities or the protocol in a case such as this.

“Quite honestly,” said Tressel. “I was scared.”

Beware of anyone who begins a sentence with “quite honestly…” It usually means they’re lying.

So what does the AD/Men’s Basketball Committee Chairman do? He ratifies what is, at best, nonsense. In a measure meant to appease the NCAA, he gets with the university president and decides to suspend Tressel for two games next season — Akron and Toledo, I kid you not — and fine him $250,000 of his $3.5 million annual salary.

And according to Gene Smith, that’s that. Case closed. "Wherever we end up at the end of the day, Jim Tressel is our football coach," he said.

No way is he getting fired. “This case, in my view, does not warrant it," said Smith. “. . . We trust him implicitly.”

As the NCAA wants to be considered above reproach, Smith should have answered questions about the Tressel case at his Wednesday press conference for the tournament. Of course, he did not.

“I know there may be people out there who may want to ask questions about the Ohio State University case,” he said. “Please, I ask that you be respectful. I’m here today as chair of the Men’s Basketball Committee. Those questions are reserved for . . . later days. We’re here to talk about the basketball tournament.”

Well, it would’ve been nice if someone respectfully asked if his status as AD of a department now under investigation by the NCAA didn’t compromise his position as the boss of the NCAA’s selection committee. In other words, if he screwed up or, God forbid, had an ethical lapse as AD, then couldn’t he do the same as the basketball chairman?

You get my point, right? If he’s shown to be conflicted while wearing one hat, he can be conflicted while wearing another. Suddenly, the selection process is something less than beyond reproach.

I don’t mean to pick on Gene Smith. But I do think he’s a perfect symbol of what’s been happening since Mark Emmert took over as NCAA president in November. Seems Emmert’s NCAA is tougher on student-athletes than the coaches who are supposed to be their examples. And even more important than the coaches are those hallowed money games, the bowls and the NCAAs.

While Tressel got two games, his student-athletes — five of them, whose offenses came to light last December — were suspended for five. But not before the Sugar Bowl. Apparently, there was no way they were missing the money game.

Speaking of which, recall the case of Cam Newton, whose own father was accused of trying to sell his progeny’s services to Mississippi State for a six-figure sum. On Nov. 29, the NCAA concluded that a “violation of amateurism rules occurred.” On Nov. 30, Auburn ruled its star quarterback and Heisman front-runner ineligible. The very next day, the NCAA reinstated Newton — just in time for the SEC Championship, the Heisman Trophy and BCS title game.

But as Gene Smith himself said, this is about men’s basketball. So let me remind him of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. Last summer, the university imposed a $1.5 million pay cut to Pearl’s $12.5 million deal. The punishment came after a UT investigation found that Pearl lied to an NCAA investigator about entertaining a recruit and some 96 impermissible calls made by the coach and his staff.

But a more recent letter by the NCAA — this dated Feb. 21 — leads you to believe that the sanctions had little effect. Though Pearl is now charged with impermissible recruiting contact as late as Sept. 14, the Committee on Infractions won’t consider the matter until June — more than two months after the NCAA tournament.

Then there’s UConn’s Jim Calhoun. The Infractions Committee decided that he “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.” That’s another way of saying Calhoun and his staff made about 2,500 improper calls and text messages, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

Calhoun’s suspension won’t take effect until next season, long after Gene Smith’s tournament is over. If he’s still coaching, he’ll miss the first three Big East games.

Too bad Akron and Toledo weren’t available.