I remember watching Ohio State coach Jim Tressel sit in front of the cameras. I remember the look of dejection on his face as he announced the suspensions of five key players, including his star quarterback. It was December. A bowl game was just days away, and Tressel’s face only seemed to grow longer as probing questions continued to expose the rules broken by his kids.
Some people just don't do the right things, he said -– sometimes your better judgment gets overridden by perceived necessity. But always, Tressel said, the buck stops with him.
Three months later, it finally has.
On the heels of a damning Yahoo! Sports report, which revealed Tressel had known of his players’ potential ineligibility the entire 2010 season, the Buckeyes coach once again stood before cameras.
Only this time, we weren’t talking about the mistakes of his players. It was Tressel under the microscope.
After leaving their coach hanging off a bridge with no comment for nearly 24 hours after Yahoo! Sports published its report, Ohio State revealed in Tuesday’s news conference it had self-reported Tressel’s unethical conduct infraction to the NCAA. Specifically, the Buckeyes admitted Tressel suppressed a tip that several players were selling memorabilia to Edward Rife, the owner of Fine Line Ink Tattoos.
The email tip was received on April 2, 2010, more than eight months before Ohio State was previously believed to be aware of the scheme. Tressel responded to the informant with concern and said he would look into the situation. It wasn’t until Tuesday that Tressel claimed the nature of emails -– which included information about Rife’s suspected drug trafficking -– made the coach feel as if he needed to keep the information secret from the outside world.
When asked why he hadn’t come forth with the emails before federal agents informing Ohio State that Rife was in possession of Buckeyes memorabilia, Tressel said his silence stemmed from not knowing who to speak to about the information.
When asked if it ever crossed his mind that his players’ eligibility may be affected after reading the emails, Tressel said “at some point in time, yeah, I think so, but not to the degree that I thought about their safety and the seriousness of the big picture. As I said at the outset, I probably did not give it the amount of thought from the eligibility standpoint that it deserved.”
At best, Tressel is being disingenuous. At worst, he’s lying through his teeth. And frankly, Tressel isn’t giving college football fans enough credit. The rationale for his deception miserably fails any reasonable test of logic.
We are supposed to believe that one of the most buttoned-up, intelligent coaches in the country didn’t know Ohio State’s compliance office was the first place he should have run to after receiving information on potential NCAA infractions? That his sole motive in concealing the information was to protect his players?
Had he never dealt with a situation where he had become aware of rules violations before? The truth of the matter is, Tressel’s actions provided us with a glimpse at college football’s thinly veiled truth. His silence stands as proof that winning in college football takes precedent over all else, including morals, ethics, contracts and NCAA rules.
In Tressel's new book, "The Winner's Manual," he writes, "to many people, winning is everything. Striving for a conference championship can be a passion that turns into an obsession ... I’ve seen the positives of setting a goal and pushing a team of players to achieve it ... But I’ve also seen the destructive force of that kind of ruthless search and what it can do to ... coaches who try to win at all costs."
How ironic that Tressel fell victim to the very destructive force he describes.
This wasn’t solely about mistakes that were made in an attempt to protect his kids. Or an inability to determine who best to speak with about a sensitive subject. It was about winning. It looks like a willful deception carried out by a nearly omnipotent head coach in an attempt to protect his own interests as well. And were it not for the United States Attorney’s Office bringing it to light, the deception probably wouldn’t have been exposed.
The most troubling aspect of this situation is how Tressel left his kids out to dry, though. The fact that Tressel allowed his players to be scapegoated during the firestorm surrounding their suspension, knowing full well that he was the one who exposed them to the scrutiny, is troubling to say the least. He didn’t step in to protect them from the attacks. He stood by and watched the media pick them apart.
However, when Tressel met with his players in December and told them if they didn’t commit to coming back for their final season that he wouldn’t allow them to play in the Sugar Bowl, he pulled off his greatest feat of deceit. He convinced those kids that coming back to Ohio State was in their best interests. That coming back would allow them to redeem themselves. To learn from their mistakes and grow as men.
But after those kids took a leap of faith at the coach’s behest, and the time came for Tressel to give them the ultimate life lesson, to accept responsibility for his transgressions and the corresponding punishment, Tressel’s principle-above-all-else facade crumbled. As he stood at the microphone and faced the media, he could have used the moment to make an indelible gesture to his players, illustrating that ethics and integrity really do matter. Instead, Tressel retreated behind a tale of vague and confusing interpretation, leaving many of us with one conclusion: He’s a wizard of spinning good, wholesome hopelessly empty words.
Tressel was one of college football's untouchables. He was a man who was considered by many to be beyond reproach. A man who stood for teaching the value of character, ethics and integrity to his student-athlete pupils.
But on Tuesday, we found out that Tressel is not untouchable. He's not beyond reproach. And the value of the lessons the Buckeyes coach taught about character, ethics and integrity mean a lot less today than they did when we believed he practiced the tenets that he taught.
The fact is, the two-game suspension and $250,000 fine don’t sound very equitable in the face of the five-game suspension each of his players face for lesser transgressions. And there are still potential NCAA infractions to be dealt with, including unethical conduct, failure to monitor and a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance. The odds are the NCAA will hold Tressel accountable, and restore some believability to this supposed tale of morals, ethics and accountability.
Before Tuesday, we thought those words were the definition of Jim Tressel. Now we’re left to wonder whether they will be his undoing.
- Rand Getlin covers issues at the intersection of law and sports for ThePostGame.com. He is a sports attorney and president of Synrgy Sports Consulting.