Tressel’s fans struggling with violations

Jack Nicklaus is one of the few non-Ohio State band members to dot the I in Script Ohio.

Now, the golfer with the most professional major championships sounds ready to dot the I in Script Conspiracy.

Nicklaus, in Columbus Monday for a charity luncheon tied to his Memorial Tournament played in nearby Dublin in June, ventured his opinion on OSU football coach Jim Tressel and the behavior that has entangled him in an NCAA major violations investigation.

Nicklaus, like many Ohio State fans, believes Tressel wasn’t alone in knowing at least two of his players were in violation of NCAA rules last fall during the Buckeyes’ 12-1 season.

“I don’t know what really happened,” Nicklaus said. “But I’ll promise you Tressel wasn’t the only one who knew what happened.”

That is a popular theory, grounded in the goodwill Tressel has amassed winning more than 100 games in 10 seasons, including the last six Big Ten championships in a row, as well as one national championship.

But while it is a popular theory, it is also a fanciful theory disputed by none other than Tressel’s employer and the school Nicklaus attended.

That is to say, Ohio State University itself.

Busy as he is designing golf courses around the world, it’s hard to envision Nicklaus expending the time to read any of the long, detailed emails tipping Tressel to the transgressions of his quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, and wide receiver DeVier Posey last April and June.

It’s also difficult to imagine the Golden Bear pouring through 11-page OSU report to the NCAA that was released to the public March 8.

Nicklaus and like-minded others stand firmly behind Tressel in spite of the facts of the investigation, which OSU acknowledged six weeks ago.

“I think he’s an honest guy, he’s a straight guy and he’s a great coach,” Nicklaus said. “I think he really cares about his kids. And if I had a kid who was of age to play here, I’d love to have him play under Tressel.”

Nicklaus’ grandson, an elite tight end prospect from Florida who Ohio State recruited, signed a national letter-of-intent with Florida State in February.

It is a widespread theory that Tressel is too virtuous to have done what OSU says he did — lying to the NCAA and misleading school investigators three times — or simply taking the blame for others.

That births two interesting questions:

1. Assuming Tressel is too honest to have lied to the NCAA and OSU, why, then, would he lie now by saying he acted alone in concealing the damaging information from his bosses?

2. Assuming Tressel is taking the blame for others, who at OSU is bigger or more important than he is to the reputation of the university or the football program that pays for freight for 35 other varsity sports?

Tressel, after all, makes twice the $1.8-million annual salary of OSU President E. Gordon Gee, who himself is paid at least twice the salary of any other public university president in the United States and nearly three times as much as any public university president in the State of Ohio.

Nicklaus said he isn’t a Tressel confidant and isn’t privy to any inside information, but he has spoken to the coach before and says “I just like him a lot.”

That’s similar to the personal tie many Ohio State fans feel to Tressel.

Maybe he’s signed one of his books for them, shaken their hand after one of his inspirational speeches or donated an autographed football for a local charity auction.

Because of that, they believe him incapable of doing anything that isn’t virtuous or altruistic.

Such blind loyalty will undoubtedly serve Tressel’s legacy well, even if the NCAA has harsh words for him when this matter reaches its conclusion.

Those “Tressel is God” T-shirts apparently aren’t just a fashion statement for some.

The man can do no wrong in many eyes, even when the school for which he works makes it clear he did, in this case, repeatedly violate the most hallowed bylaw in the entire NCAA rule book — the one that requires coaches and athletes to be truthful to the governing body of collegiate athletics.

The Associated Press yesterday obtained the NCAA compliance form Tressel signed in September. The presumption has been that the paperwork was some jumbled mish-mash of legalize that perhaps left the coach unsure about what he was attesting.

Quite the contrary.

According to the AP, the form reads:

“By signing and dating this form, you certify that you have reported through the appropriate individuals on your campus (OSU President, Gordon Gee; OSU Athletic Director, Gene Smith; Faculty Athletics Representative, John Bruno; or the Athletic Compliance Office) any knowledge of violations of NCAA legislation involving The Ohio State University that occurred during the 2009-2010 academic year through the time you sign this form.”

Tressel printed his name, then signed his name and dated the form.

That was a pivotal opportunity for the coach to do what his reputation suggests, and a sizeable faction of OSU fans presumes, he always does — the right thing.

Had Tressel refused to sign the form and explained why, the weight of the entire matter would have fallen on Pryor and Posey and the other players they entangled in the shenanigans that resulted in five-game NCAA suspensions to be served this coming season.

None of the consequences of their actions would have imperiled Tressel, his bosses, the OSU football program or the school.

But when Tressel signed that compliance form, he single-handedly  turned what would have been secondary violations by his players into a major violation that called NCAA investigators to campus.

That, in turn, has imperiled everything OSU accomplished last season and risks possible sanctions of the sort that have crippled many programs going forward.

Recruiting restrictions, scholarship restrictions, vacating games and championships and returning bowl revenue are among the possibilities OSU faces solely because Tressel signed that form when he knew or should have known the information he was providing was false.

Like most mammoth mistakes, it was likely not a preconceived, giant leap of duplicitous behavior that landed Tressel in this caldron of NCAA trouble.

Instead, it was an initial wrong-headed decision not to inform his bosses of the email heads-up he received that required additional and progressively-questionable decisions to deceive the NCAA in September, OSU investigators twice in December and a host of missed opportunities in press conferences and interviews thereafter to fess up.

Not until OSU confronted Tressel in January after searching his emails on an unrelated matter did the school discover his previous denials of knowing anything about his players’ behavior were false.

Tressel hopes the NCAA is satisfied with the five-game suspension and a $250,000 fine OSU has recommended for his actions. The suspension allows him to coach his team throughout the week, but not on game days, and the fine will fall likely short of the amount OSU will pay the two outside firms it has hired to prepare for and litigate the matter with the NCAA.

Athletic director Gene Smith made that assessment yesterday in an interview with The Associated Press, characterizing the search for adequate funds to foot the legal bill as “a nightmare.”

But no matter where the money comes from, and no matter how the investigations ends, it is clear Tressel will always have legions of supporters, because, as Nicklaus said, “I just think he’s a great guy.”

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Email Bruce@brucehooley.com