Buckeyes adrift in a sea of lies

Buckeyes adrift in a sea of lies

Published May. 26, 2011 3:39 p.m. ET

Ohio State once bragged that it offered a major in everything but oceanography, and the only reason it didn't offer that was because it lacked an ocean.

Now it's apparent Ohio State has at least one other hole in its academic offerings — lacking a degree program or even the slightest clue when it comes to crisis management.

The ongoing Jim Tressel fiasco — birthed at a March 8 news conference where the school announced its football coach had repeatedly broken one of the NCAA's most sacred bylaws and amplified Thursday by former wideout Ray Small's allegations to the school newspaper — now threatens to spawn another ugly offspring.

The torturous drip of additional details about Tressel's duplicitous behavior that has played out over the past 2-1/2 months has been a prequel to what might be an unflattering portrayal of the coach and his program in an upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated.

The impending story is the worst-kept secret in Columbus, which, despite its standing as the third-largest city in the Midwest and 15th largest in the country, is really only America's biggest small town.

Gossip travels fast in Ohio's capital city, and never does it multiply and morph into more alarmist rhetoric than when the subject concerns the beloved Ohio State football Buckeyes.

The author of the SI story, George Dohrmann, has a Pulitzer Prize on his resume for investigative journalism.

That's not helping folks sleep any better at Ohio State, where they fear what might show up on the cover and inside the magazine to body-slam Tressel's reputation.

What those who run the university apparently do not fear is continuing to employ a football coach who:

    * Lied to the NCAA in September.
    * Lied twice more to school investigators in December.
    * Attempted to cover up those lies until forced to admit to them by a search of his email records in January.
    * Lied at the March 8 news conference to announce he had lied previously.
    * Didn't publicly apologize that night for lying, as he was ordered to do by the NCAA.
    * Lied again at a speaking engagement six days later.

Encompassed in all of Tressel's lying was a breach of his contract with Ohio State, which gave the school all the ammunition it needed to fire him for cause and, thus, would owe him nothing.

Of course, that bit of minutiae might have eluded the notice of the university brass, seeing as how the exact part of the contract Tressel violated is underlined for emphasis in the document.

Welcome to Bizarro World, where what might be written in a national magazine causes more sleepless nights than what Tressel did, which the university has admitted in its report to the NCAA.

Given how badly things have gone in Tressel's attempted cover-up of his knowledge regarding his players' NCAA rule-breaking, it's fair to wonder how that disastrous March 8 news conference might play out if school officials were given a do-over.

Ohio State didn't get two cents worth of wisdom that night from its $7 million men — Tressel ($4 million), athletic director Gene Smith ($1 million) and school president Gordon Gee ($2 million).

Tressel filibustered like he always does, never owning his egregious behavior. And at one point he lied again, when he said of the April 2010 emails he received informing him of his players' NCAA rules violations: "I probably, no definitely, didn't forward those emails to anyone."

Smith stonewalled a reasonable follow-up question about whom Tressel told about the information he kept secret from university officials. (Surprise, it was his quarterback's "mentor.")

Gee made himself a national laughingstock by incredulously dismissing the very notion he had even considered firing the coach for violating his contract. The Ohio State president then offered the signature walk-off line of the night, "I just hope the coach doesn't dismiss me."

Tressel's defenders maintain that his failure to immediately apologize and his continued deception about why he kept the damaging information secret from Ohio State — "I wasn't able to find the ones to partner with to handle our complex and difficult situation." — are indicative of how hard this entire episode was for him initially.

What instead should alarm Ohio State is how easy a moral decision it was for Tressel to conceal the information about his players' wrongdoing from university officials, his purported bosses, the university's extensive compliance staff and the NCAA for an entire 10 months.

Why Tressel did it might never be known, but why he thought he could get away with it isn't a mystery at all.

This is, after all, a coach who won a Division I-AA national championship at Youngstown State with a quarterback on the take from a booster. That booster also happened to be on the school's Board of Trustees, and Tressel happened to be the one who introduced the quarterback to the booster/trustee.

When the NCAA came calling, and when Youngstown State ordered Tressel to investigate, he did so by failing to talk with either the player or the booster/trustee.

That's all in the official NCAA report on the matter, which ended with Youngstown State keeping its title and no finding of wrongdoing by the coach.

Fast forward from that to Tressel's second season at Ohio State. The 14-0 record and accompanying national championship came with another star player — this time, tailback Maurice Clarett — on the take from a booster.

Clarett's transgressions were exposed inside of the next calendar year, and he never played another down at Ohio State. But what earned him a season-long suspension from the NCAA were violations of the same bylaw Ohio State now admits Tressel violated.

So two of Tressel's five national championships were won with players who were in violation of NCAA rules at the time of the title game.

Similarly, Tressel's sterling 9-1 record against Michigan would be a middling 5-5 mark if adjusted to reverse games won with headline players (Clarett in 2002, Troy Smith in 2004, Terrelle Pryor in 2009 and 2010) who were in violation of NCAA rules at kickoff of those games against the Wolverines.

The clear message Ohio State is sending by retaining Tressel, despite the lying Ohio State admits he engaged in, is that winning — even if it requires cheating — is preferable to playing by the rules.

Throughout his career at Ohio State, Tressel has been advertised as being not just a coach but a teacher. Both the Columbus Dispatch and ESPN have, in recent seasons, trumpeted him as the only coach in the country who teaches a class in addition to his coaching duties.

According to the faculty code of conduct at Ohio State:

"We accept responsibility for our actions, we keep our word . . . our communication is direct and honest. We promote authenticity and transparency in our relationships and activities . . . in the administration and management of our enterprise, we are responsive, ethical and transparent . . . "

By even the most liberal grading scale, Tressel violated that code on all three counts. Not only is he still employed, but just last week he gained another vote of confidence from Smith.

Given all that, it's clear Ohio State is all-in with its coach. So the school's fear of Sports Illustrated's story is grounded more in how foolish Ohio State will look for continuing to support Tressel than any fear of being forced to fire him by some new revelation.

But suppose the doomsday rumors permeating Columbus prove true.

Suppose a star player comes clean and admits Tressel facilitated him getting a free car. Or suppose a player divulges that many of his teammates received the use of cars in exchange for signing some memorabilia over to a friendly dealer. Or suppose another player says an assistant coach set him up with a high-paying job that didn't require him to work much, if at all.

Would those be game-changing allegations?

Only if they've aged like fine wine, because Clarett and other players made them against Tressel and his brother/assistant coach, Dick, in an ESPN story in November 2004.

Fans dismissed the players as malcontents, the NCAA did nothing and Tressel's coaching career and reputation continued to track upward.

Maybe Ohio State's administration is counting on Tressel's Teflon to still be able to shed the stickiest of predicaments, or maybe it just can't bear the thought of imperiling 35 other varsity sports that survive only because of the cash Tressel's football program brings in.

At some point, though, perhaps Gee or someone above him (hello, any of you 18 Board of Trustees members awake?) might realize the university's reputation cannot survive the damage caused by Tressel's lying.

Nationally, Tressel is quite the punch line, with Photoshopped images of him in handcuffs, tattooing his players, consorting with Pinocchio and dotting the I in script O-lie-O sprinkled throughout cyberspace.

What Ohio State's brass should consider isn't the damage that might ensue if Tressel is forced out but the damage that could occur should they stand by their man.

It's entirely possible the NCAA could hit Tressel with a show-cause order, which would effectively force him off the sideline, and hammer Ohio State with scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions and other sanctions. That would turn what is an attractive job right now into a risk-taking endeavor that might no longer interest an elite coach.

The hubris and arrogance that believes Urban Meyer is sitting around waiting for the Ohio State job to come open needs to meet the reality that Ohio State will not be the last school to offer a two-time BCS national championship coach an opportunity for a comeback.

Meyer might look at a sanction-laden Ohio State like he did Notre Dame back in the day and instead opt to wait for, say, Mack Brown's retirement at Texas.

That's yet another thing for Ohio State's leaders — or what passes for them — to consider as they cower in wait for the other shoe to drop from Sports Illustrated.

Until then, Gee and his trustees might not have that oceanography major to console them, but that surely won't keep them from continuing to fiddle on the deck of the Titanic.

Email Bruce@brucehooley.com

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