What happens next at Ohio State?

March 11, 2011

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was seated next to athletic director Gene Smith at the Dec. 23 press conference announcing the suspension of five OSU players for selling memorabilia and merchandise in violation of NCAA rules.

Smith did most of the talking that day, with Tressel at his side when the OSU AD said:

�There are no other NCAA violations around this case. We�re very fortunate that we do not have a systemic problem in our program. This is isolated to these young men, isolated to this particular instance. There are no other violations that exist.�

Tressel undoubtedly heard Smith�s statement, but did not pull his boss aside that day, in the next week during OSU�s trip to the Sugar Bowl or throughout the first two weeks of January to tell him otherwise.

On Jan. 13, while searching Tressel�s email, Ohio State found the communications which confirmed the coach�s knowledge since April of his players� NCAA rules violations.

As the NCAA now pores over Ohio State�s self-report that damages Tressel�s credibility and the school�s image, the collegiate athletics� governing body can find other evidence of Tressel�s words and actions failing to match his reputation for honesty and integrity.

At the Dec. 23 press conference announcing his players� suspensions, Tressel was asked about his most significant regret.

�I think the biggest disappointment that I have, knowing that there are mitigating circumstances in all of our lives, we have to seek the right solutions,� Tressel said. �And the right solutions are to come to people who understand the rules, who know what our options are, who could maybe provide a direction we could go.�

Had Tressel heeded his own advice, he would have taken the email he received on April 2, which outlined his players� activities in violation of NCAA rules with Columbus tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife, either to Smith or OSU�s rules compliance office.

Instead, OSU�s report to the NCAA says Tressel �did not inform institutional officials� about the �specific information� he received regarding the players� rules violations in that email and others from Columbus attorney Chris Cicero.

Asked Dec. 23 about his efforts to educate players in avoiding NCAA penalties, Tressel said: �There�s a constant discussion of doing the right thing. If you�re not sure, don�t (do it). Then, let�s come ask.�

And on that same topic that same day, Tressel added this: �I think we all have a little sensor within us. �Boy, I�m not sure if I should be doing this.� Sometimes, it gets overridden by what you think your necessity is.�

It�s speculative what Tressel believed his necessity was in concealing the details of his players� wrongdoing for nine months, playing them an entire season during the interim, until OSU confronted him with his deception.

Tressel claims to have been motivated by a fear for his players� safety, and by Cicero�s request for confidentiality.

If Tressel spoke to his players and prohibited them from associating with Rife out of fear for their safety, they did not heed the coach�s advice. Rife was selling both Nike Pro Combat shoes and gloves worn and autographed by the players from the Michigan game played in November.

As for Tressel�s confidentiality explanation, Cicero�s first email made no such request, and no confidentiality requirement ever actually existed between the coach and Cicero because they had no attorney-client relationship.

These are some aspects of Tressel�s behavior the NCAA will scrutinize in determining whether to rubber-stamp or amplify the two-game suspension and $250,000 fine OSU levied against its coach.

In this era of Auburn�s Cameron Newton and Ohio State�s Tattoo Five being permitted to play in the immediate aftermath of committing NCAA violations, predicting the NCAA�s next move is harder than forecasting Charlie Sheen�s next stream-of-consciousness rant.

Tressel�s failure to disclose his knowledge of the rule-breaking by Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Dan Herron, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas makes the NCAA look even worse than it did when each of those players contributed significantly to OSU�s win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

OSU�s report to the NCAA says:

� Tressel signed an NCAA form in September stating he knew of no possible violations in his program.

� He did not tell OSU of his prior knowledge in December when the Department of Justice informed the school that the players were involved with Rife in activities that violated NCAA rules.

� Later that month, after the players were interviewed by investigators, Tressel gave vague and misleading answers about the detailed information he received in a series of emails regarding the relationship between Rife and the five players.

It is a measure of Tressel�s popularity in Ohio and beyond that loyalists have birthed scenarios over the past two days to excuse the findings in OSU�s report to the NCAA.

A brief exchange between a reporter and Tressel at the Tuesday press conference where OSU announced Tressel�s wrongdoing has given rise to one widespread, albeit implausible, explanation.

Tressel nodded affirmatively when asked if he had forwarded the emails from Cicero to anyone else at Ohio State. Smith quickly intervened before Tressel could say more and said the coach would not be permitted to answer because the matter involves an ongoing NCAA investigation.

From that, conspiracy theorists reckon that Tressel is covering for someone else at Ohio State, nobly falling on his sword to protect a person more notable and important to OSU�s image.

There is no second shooter on the grassy knoll in this case, however, because there simply is no one more powerful, more high-profile or whose reputation is more precious to Ohio State than Tressel himself.

Of the $7 million in combined annual salary standing at the podium Tuesday when Tressel�s rule-breaking was detailed, his $4 million salary dwarfs both university president Gordon Gee ($2 million) and Smith ($1 million).

Tressel is the guy others would be made to take the fall for, not the other way around.

That much was evident at the Dec. 23 press conference, when OSU�s compliance office was thrown under the bus and backed over several times by Smith. He explained the players� selling of memorabilia to Rife as a failure of the compliance office to inform them they could not sell championship rings and other items for profit.

If that were the case, how did 80 scholarship players get the message such behavior was prohibited and only five did not?

OSU would gladly sacrifice any of its compliance personnel, Smith or even Gee to preserve Tressel�s previously pristine image. By doing so, the school would protect its sweater-vested, fundraising juggernaut and keep the football cash register ringing to finance a bloated 36-sport athletic department.

How else to explain Gee and Smith turning what was supposed to be a mea-culpa over Tressel�s wrongdoing into a testimonial about his moral character and service to the school and community?

Whether the NCAA will be dazzled by Tressel�s reputation or treat him as roughly as it has other violators in similar cases is unknown.

Smith said OSU examined past precedent to arrive at the two-game suspension and $250,000 fine.

The Columbus Dispatch reported Thursday that since 2006, 13 head coaches in all Division I sports have broken the same bylaw Tressel broke by attesting in September that he had no knowledge of violations in his program. According to the Dispatch, 12 of those coaches were forced to resign or were fired.

The NCAA has historically taken a hands-off approach when misbehavior in Ohio State�s football program arises. The Buckeyes did not vacate their 2002 national championship won with Maurice Clarett in violation in NCAA rules, nor did OSU forfeit victories from the 2004 season when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith played in the aftermath of taking $500 from a booster.

The only hammer the NCAA holds over rogue coaches is the threat of stiff punishment should they mislead investigators or mock rules compliance efforts by falsifying documents.

Tressel did both, which has given Ohio State a much bigger headache than how to handle the first five games of 2011 without Pryor and his four teammates.

Of that challenge, after winning the Sugar Bowl, Tressel said:

�I�m looking forward�.We have a plan. If we stick to our plan, we�ll be fine. That�s what we plan to do.�

Now, the plans have changed.

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