The more information that comes out about Tressel and the Buckeyes, the more this situation seems to smell.
Thursday, Ohio State opens spring practice, and Tressel will coach the Buckeyes. He will not coach them the first five games of the 2011 season, though, because he, like five of his players, will be suspended for breaking NCAA rules.
In this situation, Ohio State maintains it properly uncovered and dealt with violations by its coach and players. Tressel maintains he did not know what to do when informed his players’ personal memorabilia had wound up in the hands of a Columbus tattoo parlor owner. Perhaps, as OSU president Gordon Gee said, Tressel “is a man who by every fiber and by every action believes in the law of integrity.”
Or perhaps the Ohio State saga is more serious than that.
Tressel has been down this road before. Youngstown State, where Tressel coached before going to Columbus, was sanctioned when it was learned quarterback Ray Isaac had taken money and a car from a booster who happened to be chair of the school’s Board of Trustees. At Ohio State, Maurice Clarett drove a car given to him by boosters, and eventual Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith was suspended for a bowl game and the next two games of the regular season for taking money from a booster. In each case, Tressel said he was unaware and was not sanctioned.
The most recent chronology began in April, when Chris Cicero, a Columbus, Ohio, attorney and former OSU player, emailed Tressel to inform him federal authorities had raided the home of a Columbus tattoo parlor owner as part of a drug-trafficking investigation. The government seized $70,000 in cash “and a lot of Ohio State memorabilia, including championship rings,” Cicero wrote.
Among other things, Cicero told Tressel that OSU players had received free tattoos for memorabilia. He later told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” the players he mentioned to Tressel were quarterback Terrelle Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey.
In the world of the NCAA, the only people allowed to profit from athletics are schools and coaches. Five OSU players, including Pryor, Posey and three others, are suspended for the first five games because they sold memorabilia for cash and free tattoos, something Cicero tried to alert to Tressel last April.
Tressel’s email response to Cicero: “I will get on it ASAP … Happy Easter to you as well!! Go Bucks!! jt”
Tressel later said Cicero demanded confidentiality, but never in the first email did Cicero use the word. In fact, he concluded the email by saying: “Just passing this on to you.”
Two weeks later, on April 16, Cicero emailed again and said he had spoken the previous day with the parlor’s owner for 90 minutes: “What I tell you is confidential.”
He then informed Tressel that Eddie Rife had 15 pairs of signed cleats, four or five signed jerseys, nine Big Ten championship rings and at least one national championship ring. He lamented the fact Ohio State players would sell these items.
“I hear you!! It is unbelievable!!” Tressel responded. “Thanks for your help … keep me posted as to what I need to do if anything. I will keep pounding these kids hoping they grow up … jt”
Cicero responded by telling the coach to make the tattoo parlor off limits to players and to advise them not to call Rife on his cell phone. He even stated, “He really is a drug dealer.” (Rife never was charged.)
Tressel did not tell the OSU Compliance Office about the possible violations, nor did he notify his bosses. But the Columbus Dispatch reported he did forward the emails to a mentor of Pryor. The Dispatch reported that Tressel sent the emails to Ted Sarniak, a 67-year-old businessman in Pryor’s hometown (Jeannette, Pa.).
In June, Tressel wrote Cicero and told him the team’s 2009 Big Ten championship rings were arriving and asked if there were any more names of players involved.
“I would like to hold some collateral if you know what I mean,” the coach wrote. Cicero provided no new names.
On Sept. 9, Tressel signed an NCAA Certificate of Compliance, stating he had reported any possible violations he was aware of.
On Dec. 7, the U.S. Department of Justice notified Ohio State of the memorabilia in Rife’s possession. Ohio State investigated, asking Tressel on Dec. 9 and 16 if he had any knowledge of the situation. The university described Tressel’s response this way: “[Tressel said] while he had received a tip about general rumors pertaining to certain of his players, that information had not been specific, and it pertained to their off-field choices. He implied that the tip related to the social decisions/choices being made by certain student-athletes. He added he did not recall from whom he received the tip.”
On Dec. 19, Ohio State suspended the players for the first five games in 2011, though they were allowed to play in OSU’s bowl game.
When Ohio State announced its sanctions, athletic director Gene Smith said, “There are no other NCAA violations around this case.”
But on Jan. 13, during an unrelated public records search, Ohio State officials stumbled across the emails from Cicero to Tressel.
Ohio State talked to Tressel on Jan. 16, and OSU and the NCAA interviewed him on Feb. 8 — after his recruits had committed to Ohio State on National Signing Day. He admitted he had committed an NCAA violation and said his main concern was that “his players were associating with individuals involved in criminal activities,” according to the OSU report. He said he did not tell the university because the attorney requested confidentiality and because of the ongoing Federal investigation. “He prioritized potential criminal activity and the possibility of interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation over potential NCAA violations,” the report said.
On March 8, Ohio State announced it had fined Tressel $250,000 and suspended him two games. When asked at the news conference why he didn’t say anything, he answered, “In my mind, I couldn’t think as to who that best would be.”
The same day, Gee said, “The integrity of this man, and the integrity of this coach, is absolutely superb.”
Did Tressel tell anyone of the emails? Asked that specific question at a news conference, Tressel was cut off by Smith, who said the coach could not answer because of an ongoing investigation. It’s not known when Tressel sent the emails to Pryor’s mentor.
A public outcry followed, with many criticizing Ohio State for suspending Tressel for the exact same offense it had cited when it fired former basketball coach Jim O’Brien. Ohio State even cited the exact same contractual clause when firing O’Brien it cited when disciplining Tressel — Section 5.1(a).
On March 15, Tressel made his first public appearances. “We’re in a situation right now,” Tressel told one supportive group, “that I didn’t get as wise of counsel as I should have.”
Two days later, he announced he had asked the university to extend his suspension to five games, to match the one given his players.
A “situation?” A “stench?”
The ultimate judgment will come from the NCAA, which can accept Ohio State’s actions as proper, or decide that there is a remaining smell that must be addressed.