Tressel ran out of 'plausible deniability'

Tressel ran out of 'plausible deniability'

Published May. 31, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It’s called plausible deniability.

And for years, Jim Tressel used it to portray himself as a rare beacon of integrity in the polluted world of college football.

But it all finally caught up with him Monday when he was forced to resign as Ohio State’s coach amid an inferno of an NCAA investigation threatening to leave the Buckeyes program in ashes.

Tressel’s resignation was hardly unexpected after he admitted in March that he had lied nearly three months earlier about not having knowledge of Buckeyes players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, swapping memorabilia with a Columbus tattoo parlor owner. That was despite receiving emails indicating such in April 2010, but hiding them out of “confidentiality.”


Yet truth be told, we shouldn’t have been surprised by Tressel’s deceitfulness. Because until the emails surfaced, he had always somehow not known about illegal benefits provided to his players and, most importantly, got away with it repeatedly.

That included the approximately $10,000 that Tressel’s star quarterback Ray Isaac received at Youngstown State, the money that Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett took from 2002-2003, and $500 that former Buckeye and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith received from a booster in 2004.

In each instance, "The Senator" (as Tressel is known for his deft ability to sidestep even the simplest questions) claimed plausible deniability.

How could Tressel know so little about so much? Because like any good politician, he simply didn’t want to know.

That’s the beauty of plausible deniability, the true way the game of college sports is played these days.

Just turn a blind eye and hope no one can connect the dots, a philosophy that sadly epitomizes college basketball's and football’s champions this past season.

Because as we all know, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun miraculously never knew anything about his program’s major NCAA violations involving a former recruit who received more than $6,000 in improper benefits from an agent who was also a Huskies booster. He also pleaded ignorance about impermissible calls to recruits and improper distribution of game tickets that landed his team on probation in February, but he still cut down the nets just more than a month later.

The same goes for former Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton. His version is that he never knew that his father, Cecil Newton Sr., did indeed shop him to Mississippi State for $180,000 in an attempted pay-for-play scheme.

Like Calhoun, Newton was never suspended a single game by the NCAA this past season during his team’s march to a national championship.

And when it comes to the definition of plausible deniability, it contains a photograph of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. Although he’s never been a national champion, he’s been one for years when it comes to deny, deny, deny.

Forget that Calipari had to vacate two of his three trips to the Final Four because of a player receiving improper benefits and for another reportedly not taking his own SAT. But somehow the detail-oriented coach didn’t know about either and was never suspended by the NCAA. Really?

But hold on; the apologists for Tressel, Calhoun, Newton and Calipari always blame the NCAA for their woes. They’re quick to say college sports’ governing body operates an unfair system.

It’s far from perfect, but the rules are the rules. Can’t adhere to them? Then take your plausible deniability elsewhere.

That’s exactly what Ohio State president Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith should do now by resigning their respective positions, but they won’t.

Instead, they’ll hide behind plausible deniability as long as they can, just like Tressel, and hope they can persuade the NCAA infractions committee in August to take it easy on them by arguing they were snookered by a coach who suddenly turned rogue and who has been banished from Buckeye Grove.

Gee and Smith claim they didn’t know about Tressel’s lying and the improper benefits that Buckeyes players received. Of course, there’s a reason why: They simply didn’t want to know.

If Gee and Smith weren’t in denial, Ohio State would have conducted more than its sham 11-day investigation into the tattoo fiasco in December, after which Smith proudly declared that “there are no other NCAA violations around this case.”

By doing so, it would have discovered the emails that showed Tressel was lying and should have fired him then.

But that’s not how The Ohio State University and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany conduct business. Instead, both embarrassingly made sure that the six Buckeyes players involved in Tattoo-Gate would begin their suspensions next season to ensure their eligibility for an essentially meaningless Sugar Bowl in January.

Then, after Tressel admitted to lying in March, Gee and Smith initially gave Tressel just a two-game suspension and a $250,000 fine before later increasing it to five games, only after the NCAA denied the appeals of the players’ suspensions.

In Tressel’s resignation letter to Smith, he makes it clear that he resigned after meeting with university officials, who agreed with him that it was for the “greater good of our school.” He also doesn’t express any remorse for his dishonesty.

Maybe he’s just upset that he got caught, but he knows better than to be upset with Gee and Smith for being forced out.

They’re just using plausible deniability to try to save themselves and Ohio State, a page straight out of Tressel’s playbook.