The downfall of a Buckeye legend
The plummet of Jim Tressel from iconic head football coach at Ohio State University to his resignation amid an NCAA investigation did not begin in April, when he concealed emails about his players' violations; in September, when he first lied about it; or even in March, when the school announced his misdeeds.
It dates to March 19, 2008 -- the day Terrelle Pryor ended a month-long wait after National Signing Day and announced he would attend "the University of Ohio State."
That was the first clue Pryor didn't get it. And other hints would come that day and regularly thereafter.
Tressel exposed himself then as an enabler and apologist for the player whose dealings with the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor ultimately trashed the OSU coach's previously unimpeachable reputation for integrity and character and forced his departure from a job that once seemed his for as long as he wanted it.
"I think he's grossly misunderstood," Tressel said when asked, on the day Pryor announced for Ohio State, about several ugly, on-court incidents the player was involved in during the Pennsylvania state basketball tournament.
Instead, from that moment forward, it was Tressel who misunderstood, even missing an essential point made by legendary coach Lou Holtz in 2009:
"He should tell Terrelle Pryor, ‘You came here to become us. We didn‘t bring you here so we could become you.' "
Pryor showed that he felt entitled when he met questions from those who attended his collegiate announcement by scoffing, "Whether I was a bad kid or not, you‘re all still here."
That was a public warning Pryor needed serious instruction on attitude and humility, which is certainly not uncommon for five-star recruits.
Tressel seemed the perfect coach to impart those lessons, but he failed miserably.
He continued to make special allowances for Pryor, shielding him from reporters, sending coaches to postgame news conferences to babysit him, shoving him into the lineup four games into his freshman season and then excusing his shortcomings by saying Pryor was forced to play immediately.
Forced? By Tressel, perhaps, because Ohio State sat first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Todd Boeckman to get Pryor on the field.
Tressel once gushed, "There's probably not a more compassionate person in the whole world than Terrelle."
To be fair, Mother Teresa had died by then.
It was against this backdrop of coddling and excuse-making that Tressel received a series of emails in April 2010 detailing how Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey violated NCAA rules.
Had Tressel notified OSU's compliance office, other school officials or the NCAA, he would still be the coach at Ohio State.
Instead, Tressel forwarded the emails to Ted Sarniak, a 67-year-old glass factory owner in Pryor's hometown of Jeannettee, Pa., and said nothing to anyone from OSU or the NCAA.
Thus began a cover-up that brought down a coach with as a solid a power base on his campus as Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Penn State's Joe Paterno, North Carolina's Roy Williams and select few others in the collegiate ranks.
Two people who know Tressel well believe protecting Pryor superseded the coach's responsibility to his school and the rest of his players.
"If that was anyone else, coach Tress would not have hesitated to turn them in," said a former teammate of Pryor and a multiple-year starter for the Buckeyes. "I never understood why, but he let TP get away with stuff other guys couldn't do. (Pryor) clearly had different rules than the rest of us."
A longtime Tressel friend agreed.
"I can't explain it, but he felt differently about (Pryor)," the friend said. "He treated him differently. He would just go on and on about him — not as a player, but as a person. I didn't get it at all."
Perhaps Tressel had a Father Flanagan complex, feeling only he could save Pryor from his immaturity.
As noble a goal as that might have been, sparing the quarterback the immediate consequences of his NCAA rules violations did not serve Tressel or the program well going forward.
It cost the coach his job, his reputation and perhaps a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
And it cost Ohio State untold national embarrassment as a university, the damage of which is incalculable.
Make no mistake, this will not erase Tressel's popularity among the entire Ohio State fan base, a troubling portion of which remains more upset about him being caught than the violations he committed.
No amount of irrefutable proof of Tressel's duplicitous behavior nor his tacit admission by resigning will prompt that delusional fraction of supporters to cough up the virtuous image they swallowed and digested long ago.
But the truth is, there's been a constant steam of troubling NCAA misdeeds by Tressel's headline players throughout his career, dating to when he first became a head coach at Youngstown State 25 years ago.
And there always was a booster connected to that star player, providing extra benefits against the rules.
That trail traces to Mickey Monus financing Ray Issac at YSU in the early 1990s, and it continued when Tressel came to Ohio State.
Youngstown caterer Bobby Dellimuti was Maurice Clarett's sugar daddy, and Robert Q. Baker stuffed $500 into Troy Smith's pocket several years later.
Then came Pryor, and his "mentor," Sarniak, who accompanied the QB on his recruiting visit to Ohio State and who had dinner with Buckeyes coaches the night before Pryor made his official visit to Michigan.
Tressel likely could have skated for looking the other way again, even if the Sarniak-Pryor association results in NCAA sanctions.
But when Pryor began selling his championship rings and team awards for cash and free tattoos, the coach was boxed in by emails that provided proof of his knowledge of Pryor's behavior.
The emails came from Columbus attorney Chris Cicero, whom Tressel described in an email to Sarniak as "someone who has always looked out for us."
Cicero was trying to give Tressel a heads-up, warning him about the explosiveness of the "stupid media" finding out the details.
But Yahoo Sports broke the story in early March that Tressel knew about Pryor and Posey breaking NCAA rules since April 2010.
The news report came four months after OSU announced five-game suspensions for the players during a news conference where athletic director Gene Smith said the scandal was limited and confined.
"There are no other NCAA violations around this case," Smith said on Dec. 23. "We're very fortunate that we do not have a systemic problem in our program. This is isolated to these young men and isolated to this particular instance."
Tressel sat to Smith's immediate right that day and never said a word, then kept silent throughout the intervening weeks as OSU played in the Sugar Bowl.
In mid-January, the school confronted Tressel with 12 email exchanges between the coach and Cicero over the previous summer, exposing more lies by Tressel.
In December, Tressel told OSU investigators he knew nothing about a tattoo scandal when it was revealed after a raid of a tattoo parlor owner's home during a federal drug investigation.
The school's report to the NCAA said:
"When Coach Tressel was asked if he had been contacted about the matter or knew anything about it, he replied that while he had received a tip about general rumors pertaining to certain of his players, that information had not been specific, and it pertained to their off-field choices.
"He implied that the tip related to the social decisions/choices being made by certain student-athletes. He added that he did not recall from whom he received the tip. He also stated that he did not know that any items had been seized."
Those were blatant lies, based on the extensive and detailed email correspondence with Cicero months earlier, and a clear violation of an underscored clause in Tressel's contract that requires him to be truthful with the school in all investigative matters.
It's one thing to bamboozle hero-worshipping fans, but it's another to hoodwink well-educated university administrators and a Board of Trustees charged with a mission much larger than winning football games.
Since his hiring in January 2001, Tressel endeared himself to all his varied constituents - to some because of his wild success on the field, to others because of his educator's persona and ability to bring a financial windfall for any university or private fundraising campaign he embraced.
His power base at OSU was rooted in far more than football. It was anchored in his out-front faith, his laudable philanthropy and his love of country.
Never did Tressel stage a pre-arranged press conference without a U.S. flag pin on his lapel and Old Glory standing at attention behind him.
But now he's gone, having resigned on Memorial Day, departing like some disgraced general - the last images of him on the Ohio State sideline during the spring game, dressed in a military-style hat and fatigues.
The camouflage he wore that day covered Tressel's trademark sweater vest.
But it could not cover his flawed allegiance to the quarterback who took him down.
Follow Bruce on Twitter @BHOOLZ