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Will Jettisoning Jim Tressel Save Ohio State?

Posted on May 30, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Jim Tressel's Gatorade bath following the Sugar Bowl will be his last as head coach at Ohio State.

Given the embarrassing black eye that he has bestowed upon one of the proudest universities in big-time college football I guess it is ultimately no surprise to learn that Jim Tressel has coached his last game at Ohio State, but with the Buckeyes now squarely in the sights of NCAA investigators it is still unclear if this move will significantly reduce the inevitable penalties the school now appears to be facing.

From the president to the staff to the fans, Ohio State has long been among the national leaders in football arrogance. When the president said last fall that schools such as Boise State and TCU didn’t belong on the same field as the Buckeyes, the Buckeye Nation shook their heads in agreement.

But what made Ohio State so proud and they believed justified their cockiness wasn’t just their great record on the field, but also the pride in knowing that they accomplished their success the right way. While other programs were regularly answering NCAA inquiries, the Buckeyes ran what seemed like a clean program and were under the leadership of a coach who wrote books about integrity and doing things the right way.

But then last December the walls started to come down on this great facade.

Just days before facing Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, news came out that five players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had violated NCAA rules by selling rings and other memorabilia for cash and reduced prices on tattoos.

At the time the story seemed very contained and only became more than a minor story when the NCAA suspended the players for the first five games of the 2011 season, but let them play in the bowl game.

Critics of Ohio State cried foul, but it was obvious the power and influence Ohio State had over the BCS and NCAA.

With Jim Tressel Gone, Should Ohio State Receive a Lesser Penalty from the NCAA?

  • No (66%, 25 Votes)
  • Yes (34%, 13 Votes)

Total Voters: 38

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There was no hint at the time that this was just the tip of the iceberg and would ultimately end the tenure of the most successful coach at Ohio State since Woody Hayes.

Ironically, Hayes’ tenure with the Buckeyes ended in an ugly way in front of a national television audience when he attacked a Clemson player at the 1978 Gator Bowl.

The ending for Tressel was in some ways even uglier and more surprising because up until the last few months there was never any indication that he and the Buckeyes were headed for a fall.

Joe Paterno has now outlasted another coach.

When it first came out in March that Jim Tressel had known for eight months that members of his team had broken NCAA rules and then on top of that had lied to investigators when first asked if he was aware of the situation, it wasn’t completely surprising that the Buckeye leadership was defiant and acted with the same level of entitlement that had worked months earlier when they convinced the NCAA to delay the penalties against the Buckeye players.

Ohio State President Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith dismissed any suggestion that they should consider firing Tressel and were instead unwavering in their support of their football coach. In fact, at the time they saw his infraction as worthy of only a two-game suspension and fine of $250,000 from his annual salary of $3.5 million.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the first Big Ten title game. After years of dictating circumstances both within their conference and across the NCAA, the Buckeyes were suddenly no longer calling the shots and like kids on the playground who eventually stood up to a bully, their critics were quick to pounce on the opportunity.

The outrage over Ohio State giving Tressel just a two game suspension for lying to the NCAA was so great that the coach eventually added three games on his own to make his punishment equal to the players he had protected.

Then, word started to spread about other potential violations including the liberal use of a particular car dealership by football players and their families and additional revelations about players selling memorabilia.

But even with the blood starting to form in the water Ohio State leadership appeared determined to do all they could to maintain control. Even as the national media was predicting that the NCAA would suspend Tressel for the entire season, Smith and Gee reiterated their confidence in Tressel as their head coach.

Then last week two things happened that made it clear that something had to be done if the Buckeyes hoped to try and turn things back in their favor.

First, the NCAA upheld harsh penalties against another prestigious program in the USC Trojans. The message was clear, that the NCAA was no longer going to simply slap the hands of programs that committed major violations and seemed to condone a culture of entitlement.

The second major announcement was the indictment on federal charges of the tattoo parlor owner whose investigation led to the revelation that there were violations happening in the first place. Ohio State officials said last week that the announcement had nothing to do with the universities case, but just the association of Ohio State with the case continued to hurt the reputation of the storied program.

So, on Sunday night as most of the country celebrated a three-day weekend, the coach who brought a national title back to Ohio State and then won six straight conference titles was in discussions about leaving the program he had returned to prominence.

Interestingly, the announcement of Tressel’s resignation did not include word of any severance package. There is a clause in his contract that calls for him to inform the school of NCAA violations in a timely manner, but given that they were willing to keep him as coach until it got too hot, it now seems unfair if they hide behind that clause and refuse to pay Tressel some kind of a settlement.

Clearly, Ohio State officials realized that their defiant stance wasn’t going to bode well for them in the face of the NCAA and jettisoning Tressel was the only thing they could do to try and head off the NCAA.

Surely they will now argue to the NCAA that they have taken their own steps to rectify the situation by accepting Tressel’s resignation and therefore the NCAA should be lenient in their punishment.

However, I think the original message from the OSU administration is still very clear and what the NCAA should focus on. Remember that after learning that Tressel had lied to the NCAA they initially suspended their head coach for only two meaningless early season games and fined him less than 10% of his salary.

Recognizing that slight, if the NCAA doesn’t levy similar punishment on the Buckeyes as they did on USC, the NCAA will have a difficult time in the future dismissing accusations of favoritism. Tressel and Ohio State tricked the NCAA once by convincing them to let their top players play in the Sugar Bowl, but will sacrificing their beloved head coach be enough to save the Buckeyes the second time around?

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