Just when it seems like there's nothing to talk about in the offseason, Ohio State is at it again.
The Associated Press reported today that Ohio State, in an attempt to appease the NCAA allegation committee for lenient punishments, has decided to vacate all of its wins from the 2010 season.
Ohio State University released a statement yesterday detailing why they think this self-imposed punishment is sufficient and that the NCAA "take no further action." The university has also decided to waive Jim Tressel's fine of $250,000 and is changing his resignation to retirement.
This is odd considering that the university is placing most of the blame on Tressel. It places the rest on the student-athletes and tattoo parlor owner, Ed Rife, who was involved in a federal drug investigation and participated in the Buckeyes selling memorabilia for cash and tattoos.
The university insists that no one in the athletic department or administration beyond Tressel had any knowledge of the NCAA rule violations. They claim that since it "sought and accepted Tressel's resignation," further punishments on the football program are not warranted. It also feels that suspending the four remaining Buckeye players who broke the rules (Terrelle Pryor left Ohio State) is an adequate enough reduction of competitive edge. The players' suspension is for the first five games, not the entire 2011 season.
Ohio State University's attempt at honesty and compliance with the NCAA is littered with contradictions. Probably the biggest fallacy out of OSU's statement is that it "discovered and self-reported violations." This is false. The discovery of Jim Tressel's knowledge that his players were ineligible came from Yahoo! Sports writers Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson, who reported the information publicly on March 7, 2011 that Tressel had first learned in April 2010 that his players were illegally trading Ohio State memorabilia for benefits. (Wetzel and Robinson reportedly gave Ohio State three hours to respond before they went public; Ohio State made no comment.)
Tressel's smoking gun was that he had an email trail with Christopher Cicero, an Ohio State alumnus working for the U.S. attorney general and who had stumbled across the investigation of Ed Rife, that revealed he was aware that his players were involved in selling memorabilia to Rife. Tressel said he would "get on it asap," but he didn't. Instead, he signed a compliance form in December 2010 stating that he had no knowledge that his players had committed infractions. When Wetzel and Robinson broke the news in March 2011, after Tressel had convinced the NCAA to allow the ineligible players to participate in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, which Ohio State won, Tressel admitted guilt. Despite Tressel claiming that he withheld information to protect the players, it didn't change the fact that he lied directly to the NCAA. It is more appropriate to say that he withheld information to protect Ohio State from losing games.
Ohio State's statement that it discovered Tressel's violations of NCAA rules is false because of one clear reason: if Wetzel and Robinson had not conducted a journalistic investigation and released the story, no discovery would have been made. Tressel was a highly successful and very much beloved member of Ohio State's football program, and self-reporting any rule violations that he had made was not in the football program's best interest (i.e. to win games, defeat Michigan, etc.) Anyone within the athletic department who blew the whistle on Tressel would have most certainly been terminated, discredited, and ostracized by the community for attempting to bring down Tressel, a "man of honor." Thus, Ohio State could not have discovered or "self-reported" the violations because it (and its fanbase) would have demanded proof, which they wouldn't dare to seek out, let alone provide to the public. Instead, Wetzel and Robinson had to provide the proof of their own accord, and the proof was indisputable. Ohio State and Tressel had no choice but to admit guilt.
The second biggest contradiction within Ohio State's response to the Notice of Allegations is that it actively sought out Tressel's resignation. When Ohio State responded to the Yahoo! Sports article's release, essentially admitting guilt, athletic director Gene Smith said that Tressel would be suspended for two games (later increased to five) and would pay a fine of $250,000, but Smith was quick to discount rumors that Tressel would be fired. "Wherever we end up, at the end of the day Jim Tressel is our football coach," he said. "All the speculation about him being terminated is pure speculation and this case, in my view, does not warrant it." Ohio State University president Gordon Gee also laughed off suggestions that Tressel would be dismissed. "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me," Gee said.
If Ohio State actively sought out Jim Tressel's resignation, Smith and Gee would not have said that Tressel was always going to be their football coach. Tressel's resignation came eventually because of increasing media coverage over the issue, as well as numerous Ohio State alumni (e.g. Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Spielman) who called for Jim Tressel to step down. In the end, he did. Tressel announced his resignation on May 30, 2011. It is also possible that Tressel resigned as a preemptive measure because Sports Illustrated was releasing an article detailing Tressel's corruption throughout his entire college coaching career.
The article holds that Tressel used ignorance of his players' infractions as a means of distancing himself from the crimes they committed, just as he did when five Buckeyes got involved with Ed Rife. If it seems strange that Tressel was ignorant of his players' improper or illegal actions all the time, it's because it is. Tressel could not be both entirely ignorant of what his players did while at the same time being so close to them that he was frequently considered more of a father than a coach. The full, objective reality can never really be known, either because Tressel will take those secrets to his grave or because those who do know will not dare reveal the truth. (See: Sacred Brotherhood.) The article reports that Tressel was more aware than he let on, but he chose to look the other way because he needed those players to win games.
Perhaps the most damaging revelation of Tressel's corruption is this:
The [Maurice Clarett] and [Buckeye booster Robert Q. Baker] scandals were further evidence that Tressel was, at best, woefully ignorant of questionable behavior by his players and not aggressive enough in preventing it. At worst, he was a conduit for improper benefits, as Clarett alleged. The latter interpretation is suggested by a story that has long circulated among college coaches and was confirmed to [Sports Illustrated] by a former colleague of Tressel's from Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting.
At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won—a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
Because the allegation is so damaging, Ohio State fans question the credibility of the source. While problematic, the presupposition that the source not be identified is necessary because of backlash that would arise from the Buckeye nation. Wetzel and Robinson of Yahoo! Sports did not initially reveal that Christopher Cicero was their source. After his identity was revealed, Cicero received and continues to receive numerous death threats from Buckeye fans—enough to the point where he publicly regrets informing Tressel of the players' rule violations. The fear and intimidation imposed on Cicero alone is enough reason for Sports Illustrated to keep the source anonymous. Predictably, however, the result from Buckeye fans is to say that Sports Illustrated is and perhaps never was a credible news outlet, despite previously saying that George Dohrmann, who wrote the article on Tressel, was "the real deal."
In any case, Tressel's resignation was seen by some as the honorable thing to do. Others see it as an attempt, much like Ohio State's response today, to placate the NCAA from instilling harsher punishments, when it is actually more like Tressel flying the coop before the chickens come home to roost. Like Terrelle Pryor, Tressel left Ohio State before the NCAA had even ruled, which means that he leaves the university to face any punishments they receive alone.
Still, despite Tressel's numerous transgressions and wrongdoing, and putting the university in a position where it could suffer for years to come, several Buckeye fans see Tressel as a man who can do no wrong. They showed up at Tressel's house to show their support, and later they held a parade in his honor. The reason: they don't see Jim Tressel's rule violations as a bad thing, but as him "doing what's best for the state of Ohio." What does that mean? It means that anything Tressel did to win championships and beat Michigan is all right in their book. Tressel's response to their adulation was not to apologize for letting them down. Instead, he promised that Michigan would lose to them again. It was exactly what they wanted to hear.
Reports indicate that Gene Smith admitted asking Jim Tressel to resign. So, which is it: was it Tressel's idea to resign, or was it Smith's? If it is the former, then the notion that Ohio State actively sought Tressel's resignation cannot be true, and Ohio State's athletic department had no intention of letting Tressel go. If it is the latter, then it contradicts Smith's earlier statement that Tressel was and forever would be Ohio State's coach, and Tressel could not make "the honorable decision" to step down because he was asked. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle: pressure mounted from the media and Ohio State alumni saying that Tressel was a toxic asset, and the decision for Tressel to leave was a collective one.
In terms of appealing to the NCAA for mercy, this creates another problem. If Ohio State sought Tressel's resignation and places the majority of the blame on him, why would they change his resignation to retirement? (There is an interesting parallel with Michigan's Lloyd Carr, who officially retired but in reality was asked to resign because he had failed to defeat Ohio State consistently. Tressel's retirement/resignation, in contrast, resulted not from losing games, but from breaking NCAA rules.) Furthermore, if Ohio State intends to paint Tressel as a culpable figure, and no one beyond him knew of the players' actions, then why would they waive his fine of $250,000? In what now appears to be an obvious and blatant contradiction, Gene Smith had explicitly said a month ago that Ohio State will hold Tressel to his punishment and that Tressel "will pay the fine."
It is more likely that Smith and the athletic department are thinking about Ohio State's fans and less about the implications of what they're doing has towards the NCAA. Not surprisingly, Ohio State still wants the fans to see Tressel as a lovable figure, and so they have softened the blow of his departure. While this is understandable for the Buckeye faithful, it hardly makes sense to the rest of us: fans quickly forgave Woody Hayes after Ohio State fired him for punching a player from Clemson on national television. Hayes has buildings and streets named after him. It stands to reason that Tressel will have them too someday. So, if the Buckeyes will still love and forgive Tressel regardless of what he did, the changing of his resignation to retirement is meaningless. It won't change history. The rest of the world will remember Tressel for his scandal.
As mentioned previously, Ohio State's response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations is an attempt at honesty, or at least appearing honest. However, Smith and Gee's earlier comments either mean that it is an obvious statement of dishonesty or that they genuinely (perhaps deliberately) underestimated the implications of Tressel's and the players' major NCAA violations. The latter easily explains why Ohio State has gradually increased the severity of its self-imposed sanctions. Tressel's suspension was increased from two games to five to his full-on departure. Ohio State has also vacated all of its wins from 2010, including the Sugar Bowl victory won on January 1, 2011.
Finally, Ohio State has installed a two year probation period. This, however, is relatively light. When the NCAA found that Rich Rodriguez's staff and players had exceeded practice time by roughly an extra twenty minutes per week, Michigan self-imposed a probation period of three years. Today, those practice violations look pale in comparison to what Ohio State has done.
Despite Ohio State claiming that Tressel's departure and the players' five-game suspension means that the team will be significantly less competitive, there's something missing. Ohio State has not imposed any bowl ban restrictions or scholarship reductions. Doing so would most certainly damage recruiting in any capacity. But do the punishments of bowl bans and scholarship reductions relate to the rule violations that took place?
Ohio State clearly feels that they don't. Yet Tressel's transgressions were a direct result of his interaction with players, as he himself claims that he wanted to handle the situation internally. (As it turned out, handling the situation internally meant not handling it at all.) Bowl bans are appropriate because Tressel had convinced the NCAA to let the players participate in the Sugar Bowl, when he had known all along that they had been ineligible for that season. His statement that he didn't know was proven to be a lie.
The NCAA had decided to open an independent, unrelated investigation on Terrelle Pryor because he was taking illegal benefits from Ohio State boosters. There is plenty of photographic evidence that Pryor was driving cars he could not afford—an unmistakable violation of NCAA rules. However, following his lawyer's advice, Pryor left before NCAA could rule against him. (Had he stayed at Ohio State, he most likely would have been suspended from the entire 2011 season.) As such, and because these infractions relate directly to benefits for players, the NCAA should reduce Ohio State's capacity for scholarships, as it did for USC because of Reggie Bush.
If the NCAA wishes to impose punishments that act as a deterrent and prevent future violations, then these must be included. Ohio State doesn't want to do anything that would reduce their chance at winning the Big Ten or, perhaps more importantly, defeating Michigan every year. This is why bowl bans and scholarship reductions were not included, but the vacating of wins was. Those games have already happened, and Ohio State has enough past victories to outshine them. A truly harsh (and perhaps appropriate) punishment would be to vacate every game that Tressel has coached at Ohio State. This would mean that Ohio State would lose its 2002 national championship and several Rose Bowl victories, a crushing blow to the Buckeye faithful.
However, such a punishment can only happen if the NCAA sees Ohio State as a repeat offender, possibly taking Dohrmann's Sports Illustrated article into consideration. Not surprisingly, Ohio State claims that the incidents involving Jim Tressel and the five Buckeye players were isolated, and thus only 2010 should be vacated. Dohrmann's article clearly shows that Tressel has a history of corruption at Ohio State.
Interestingly enough, among all the allegations against Ohio State, the one that the NCAA did not include is that Ohio State has presented a "lack of institutional control." This is typically considered the most severe. In its response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations, Ohio State might have unwittingly admitted that it had a lack of institutional control. Evidence for this exists in the fact that Ohio State has now imposed stricter "corrective actions" that will increase monitoring of where student-athletes go, where they eat, what they receive or can do, etc. It also will increase education of staff and student-athletes in the requirements of compliance.
In the strictest sense of the definition, if Ohio State had institutional control, it would not need to crack down now simply because one of its staff members (Tressel) committed a major violation. Furthermore, Gene Smith has said that Ohio State will overhaul the compliance department. Why would that be necessary if Ohio State had institutional control? The fact that it is making these sweeping changes now suggests that it did not have institutional control previously.
Buckeye fans are not surprised that the 2010 wins were vacated but, like Ohio State's athletic department and university officials, they are hoping that the NCAA finds the current self-imposed sanctions to be sufficient. "This is pretty huge as I imagine most of us were bracing for something much worse," writes Jason of Eleven Warriors, an Ohio State fan blog. "Of course, the NCAA could come back and say the punishment is not enough, but given athletic director Gene Smith's relationship with the organization and the close level of cooperation between the school and the NCAA, there's a chance that the two sides are somewhere in the vicinity of each other on the punishment side of things."
Meanwhile, Brian Bennett of ESPN's Big Ten blog feels that Ohio State's self-imposed sanctions are far too lenient, and calls into question the university's decision to change Jim Tressel's resignation into a retirement:
Vacating wins was already an automatic outcome from the NCAA, which would have surely erased the Buckeyes' 2010 victories because of those ineligible players. The best way to appease the infractions committee, as USC learned, is to appear as contrite as possible and get out ahead of the sanctions by imposing your own harsh conditions.
Instead, Ohio State has tried to half-step it, again, just as it did in its 10-day sham investigation last December, and just as it did when it originally announced that Tressel would be suspended for only two nonconference games. The school's response, predictably, tried to lay all the blame at the feet of the departed and disgraced coach.
"The responsibility is upon Tressel," the response says. "The institution is embarrassed by the actions of Tressel."
Yes, Ohio State is so mad at Tressel that it waived the $250,000 fine it levied at the coach when it became aware he lied to his superiors about the NCAA scandal. You remember that fine, the one Gee assured the Columbus Dispatch in June that "he will pay it." Well, instead, now the school will pay Tressel $52,250 as part of what now will be known as a "retirement," rather than a resignation. That will surely show him!
Even with these sanctions, there's little to suggest that Ohio State has seen the end of the storm. The period of uncertainty before the NCAA hearing in August has already hurt Ohio State's 2012 recruiting, and most recruits would be wise to commit elsewhere. Bowl bans and scholarship reductions would only solidify the pain that Ohio State is feeling now.
The Buckeyes are facing a stern evaluation of conscience in the coming days. Ohio State will soon learn what it means to put winning and beating Michigan above anything else. Until then, it will not do anything to jeopardize that. If the NCAA is not as weak as colleges, sports analysts, and readers across the country believe them to be, then they will teach Ohio State a lesson. They will make the Buckeyes pay the price for dishonesty.
After all, if you can't enforce rules, then there's no point in having them.