An attorney who has represented coaches and schools in hearings before the NCAA Committee on Infractions believes Ohio State and head football coach Jim Tressel will have difficulty avoiding stiffer penalties than those already proposed for Tressel’s admitted NCAA violations.
Ohio State has recommended Tressel serve a five-game suspension and pay a $250,000 fine for concealing information sent to him via email in April that suggested both quarterback Terrelle Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey were violating NCAA rules.
The NCAA ruled on the players’ transgressions in December, but Tressel did not disclose his prior knowledge of their behavior then or until Ohio State confronted him in January.
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“If I was representing a coach in that similar situation, I would advise my client to expect not only a show-cause order assessed against him or her, but also significant individual penalties that may cause their employer, which is the university, to either terminate their employment or some other significant employment action,” said Michael L. Buckner, of Pompano Beach, Fla., whose law firm specializes in representing schools and individuals before the NCAA. “I’d tell them they should be prepared for that.”
A show-cause order is the harshest penalty the NCAA can impose against a coach. It requires any school that wants to employ the coach to petition the NCAA Committee on Infractions for permission to hire them until the duration of the penalty expires.
That school risks the imposition of sanctions for hiring the coach, which is why no coach with a show-cause order has ever been hired until its expiration.
Basketball coaches who have received such penalties include Ohio State’s Jim O’Brien, Minnesota’s Clem Haskins, California’s Todd Bozeman, Baylor’s Dave Bliss and Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson.
Mark Jones, a former managing director of enforcement with the NCAA, said Ohio State’s penalties will likely be stiffer if the NCAA rules Tressel committed major violations within the five-year window since OSU’s basketball penalties from March 2006.
That would classify Ohio State as a repeat violator, which seems clear given the time frame involved and an admission by athletic director Gene Smith at a March 8 press conference, which detailed Tressel’s actions.
“What we self-reported today is a 10.1 violation,” Smith said. “It’s a major violation.”
Jones has participated in approximately 70 infractions hearings during his 18 years at the NCAA and in the past six years as a staff member at the Indianapolis law firm, Ice Miller, which specializes in NCAA litigation.
“If Ohio State says it’s a major violation, that increases the likelihood there will be a hearing or a formal major infractions case,” Jones said. “That’s just the way it works. It’s always possible the NCAA could look at the case and say, ‘We don’t think it’s major; we think its secondary, but usually it doesn’t work that way. If the school thinks its major, then its major.”
Buckner also said Tressel will have difficulty explaining to the NCAA the rationale he offered March 8 for keeping secret details about Pryor’s and Posey’s behavior outlined in the emails sent to him in April and June.
Tressel said he kept that information to himself and did not notify anyone from Ohio State or the NCAA to maintain confidentiality, as requested by the attorney who emailed him the details, and to preserve the sanctity of an ongoing federal investigation into the tattoo parlor where the players sold their team awards and received free tattoos.
“I probably, or definitely, didn’t move forward with this information to anyone simply because, in my mind, I couldn’t think as to who that best would be, with the seriousness of the emails and the confidentiality component,” Tressel said on March 8.
On Friday, the Columbus Dispatch, citing multiple sources, reported Tressel indeed forwarded the emails about Pryor to the player’s “mentor,” 67-year-old Ted Sarniak, who owns a glass factory in Pryor’s home town.
Sarniak accompanied Pryor on his recruiting visit to Ohio State and ate dinner with two Ohio State assistant coaches before Pryor’s official visit to Michigan.
“There’s a story out there that (Tressel) forwarded those emails to Pryor’s mentor,” Buckner said. “That adds to this. If the NCAA has receipt of that — I’m sure they will get a copy of that — that is inconsistent with Tressel’s statements to the media . His explanation for not disclosing it was he was trying to keep the confidentiality of it for the federal criminal investigation. I dispute that, but (forwarding the emails) is inconsistent with his original reasoning.”
Tennessee fired head basketball coach Bruce Pearl last week for a violation of the same bylaw Ohio State acknowledges that Tressel violated.
“If you compare Bruce Pearl with Jim Tressel’s situation, there are allegations that Bruce Pearl lied to the NCAA,” Buckner said. “. . . He eventually came back and admitted that he did lie, and he did come forward with truthful information afterward. He and his attorney will have that mitigating factor. ‘Hey, I eventually came clean.’
“In this situation — and this is still early, Tressel and his attorney can still come back — at this point we don’t have any statement of contrition or a logical and reasonable explanation about what happened. If that’s the same stance Tressel is going to take before and during the hearing, I think it’s going to be a long hearing, not only for Tressel, but for Ohio State.”
It could be months, and perhaps even more than one year, before the NCAA issues a ruling on the Tressel matter.
The NCAA’s Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee acted in December to suspend Pryor, Posey, Mike Adams, Daniel Herron and Solomon Thomas five games in the 2011 season for their rule-breaking. The Reinstatement Committee acts only on information provided by the school. It does not investigate.
The NCAA Enforcement Staff is now involved in the process, which means investigators are on campus digging into Tressel’s communications and interviewing witnesses.
It will issue a report of its findings to OSU upon completion of the investigation. Then the school will be given a date by which to respond to that Notice of Allegations.
After that, a hearing before the Committee on Infractions would take place. After the hearing, another waiting period would ensue before that committee imposes any penalties.
By then, Tressel could have coached the seven regular-season games he is permitted to coach in 2011 by the penalty OSU has already recommended to the NCAA.