It’s never a good thing when your rival goes down in flames. We may root for them to lose every now and then (okay, or more times than not). We may be glad when they lose out on a top recruit. But when their coach is outed for NCAA violations, we shouldn’t rejoice, right? Yet, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombshell dropped by Yahoo that Ohio State Head Coach Jim Tressel was made aware of NCAA violations regarding some current players and did nothing with it, I’m met with mixed emotions.
On one hand, it’s bad for the rivalry and bad for the Big Ten Conference as a whole, but on the other hand, it’s been a long time coming.
For the past decade, college football fans that don’t see the world through scarlet and grey lenses have known something just wasn’t right with the guy. The writing was on the wall, if only with laundry detergent* instead of Sharpie. He’s been deified by those in Buckeye Nation as a supreme bastion of integrity, but there’s a reason others dubbed him “Teflon Tressel.” Even though the number of violations involving high-profile players that have occurred under his watch could rival those of any other coach in the country, he always maintained a pristine reputation. Until Tuesday.
Yahoo’s piece by Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel finally revealed enough to perhaps permanently tarnish that reputation. And he didn’t make it any better with the spin job he put on during last night’s televised press conference.
Most expected him to admit wrongdoing, apologize for it, and take his medicine. Instead, he admitted wrongdoing, said he has a tendency to talk in circles, and then talked in circles.
If you haven’t read the emails that form the backbone of this revelation, his explanations probably seemed at least somewhat understandable. He received a startling email from an attorney hinting at involvement of some of his players with the subject of a federal drug trafficking investigation, was so scared and concerned that he didn’t know what to do, decided he didn’t want to break confidentiality and interfere with a federal investigation, so he did nothing. Except that wasn’t actually his reaction.
“Thanks [name redacted]…I will get on it ASAP…Happy Easter to you as well !! Go Bucks !! jt” read his reply to the initial email on April 2.
I’m no expert on email lingo of middle-aged football coaches, but common sense tells me that when you’re truly “scared” and “concerned” about the contents of an email, your reply wouldn’t include multiple exclamation points, and “Go Bucks.”
His reply suggests a “buddy-buddy” relationship with the attorney, a “thanks for giving me the heads up before anybody else found out” reaction.
Nowhere in the initial conversation did the word confidential appear, nor was it hinted at. In fact, the attorney said “Just passing this on to you,” which indicates it wasn’t intended to be confidential.
Two weeks passed before the attorney emailed Tressel back with more detailed information and stated that the information was confidential. Tressel had two weeks before confidentiality was requested to report it to somebody (I mean, he did say “I will get on it ASAP”), but as he said in last night’s press conference, “In my mind, I couldn’t think of who that best to be.”
You received information which at that point wasn’t confidential, that some of your current players were engaging in what you knew were NCAA violations and you couldn’t think of who to report it to? Seriously? This coming from the coach of a program that has self-reported more minor violations than any other school in the nation the past 10 years ?
His next response was even more puzzling.
“I hear you !! It is unbelievable !! Thanks for your help…keep me posted as to what I need to do if anything. I will keep pounding these kids hoping they grow up…jt”
When thinking of who he could possibly report this to, his boss, school compliance officials, or even the university’s attorney apparently didn’t come to mind, but he asked the attorney who sent these emails to keep him posted as to what he needed to do if anything. Since when does Jim Tressel, head football coach at The Ohio State University, report to this attorney, and why is his take-away action-item that he’s going to “keep pounding these kids until they grow up”?
If he was concerned about the confidentiality of a federal investigation and not compromising the well-being of his involved players, it seems like an appropriate response would be something along the lines of “Look Mr. Attorney, I realize this is confidential, but I’m bound by contract to report any possible NCAA violations to my superiors and ultimately to the NCAA. Would my doing so jeopardize your investigation?” Perhaps then the attorney would have said yes and Tressel would have been faced with a moral dilemma, but at least he would have a paper trail backing up his innocence.
Of course, we have now come to learn the identity of said attorney and it doesn’t help Tressel’s defense from last night. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the attorney who sent the emails to Tressel is Chris Cicero, a former Buckeye player who was on the team while Tressel was an assistant under former head coach Earle Bruce. This means that Tressel likely had some sort of relationship with Cicero, which explains the “buddy-buddy” tone of the emails and furthers the notion that Cicero sent the emails to Tressel as a heads up so he could cover it up before anyone else found out. This certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Cicero, who according to the Dispatch, has been in trouble multiple times previously, including having his law license suspended by the Ohio Supreme Court for a year in 1997.
Chris Cicero, the attorney who sent the "heads up" emails to Tressel (photo from Columbus Dispatch)
This does not bode well for Tressel or Ohio State. Not only did Tressel cover it up initially, but he lied about (or intentionally omitted disclosure of) the incident when NCAA investigators came asking in September and twice in December. When asked in December whether he had any prior knowledge of the tattoo parlor, Tressel said that he had received a tip, but it wasn’t specific. Yet, as the emails show, they were specific and certainly worthy of being brought to the attention of school compliance officials.
The school’s self-imposed two-game suspension and $250,000 fine will undoubtedly be raised by the NCAA and only goes to show the arrogance of Tressel, Athletic Director Gene Smith, and school president Gordon Gee. That they’re willing to concoct a story in front of a national television audience that they think will appease the NCAA and convince everyone that Tressel was really just a martyr shows that they believe they’re above reproach.
And why should they think any differently? Tressel and Ohio State have toed the line between right and wrong the past decade and gotten away with it with a couple of very minor slaps on the wrist.
In just his second season, Tressel ran into trouble with freshman Maurice Clarett, a key member of the 2002 National Championship team, who got in trouble for both academic and legal issues and was dismissed from the team. He claimed that had he told the truth to investigators, “half the team would have been suspended” so he just “took it,” and that he received preferential treatment, phantom jobs, money and favors. At the time, he was written off as a rogue player operating on his own and trying to get back at his former coach who “blackmailed” him.
Then, star quarterback Troy Smith was suspended a couple games for accepting $500 in return for nothing from Robert Q. Baker, a health care product provider, who also said that former OSU receiver Chris Gamble had “worked” for him as well. Interestingly enough, Baker played at Baldwin-Wallace while Tressel’s father was head coach there, so there was a prior relationship. Sound familiar? Neither the program or Tressel received any penalties.
A year later, star linebacker A.J. Hawk and lineman Nick Mangold’s apartment was robbed of $3,000 in cash, $1,425 in movies, a $500 Gucci watch, and more. You know, all the stuff that a normal college student has laying around. Nothing came of it after his dad said he had repeatedly warned Hawk not to keep his money in his apartment. Just like Cam Newton’s dad warned him to act as if he didn’t know he was shopped around.
This past fall, former NFL agent Josh Luchs described meeting with OSU receiver Santonio Holmes in 2005, but Holmes told him that he had already been receiving money from an agent the past couple years and his family had been taken care of.
Finally, since it’s still fresh in our minds, we remember “Tatgate” in December when Terrelle Pryor and several others were found to have sold championship rings, gold pants, and other gear to a tattoo parlor in exchange for tattoos. In addition, Pryor was pulled over driving loaner cars not once, not twice, but three times. Of course, all three were on the up-and-up while his car was getting worked on by this dealership that features autographed Ohio State memorabilia all over its walls.
Of all its transgressions the past decade, Ohio State got dinged the worst for the tattoo incident, with those players being forced to sit out the first five games of next season. AD Gene Smith tried to play it down as “an incident isolated to these young men and this particular instance,” but former Buckeye running back Antonio Pittman said players have been getting hookups on tattoos since 2001 (when Tressel took over).
Co-conspirators Smith and Gee say Tressel won't be fired (AP Photo/Terry Gilliam)
Each of these incidents when taken individually aren’t particularly damning. But when viewed together, with the addition of Tressel’s cover-up, they certainly suggest a pattern, especially considering that OSU has self-reported a nation-leading 375 minor violations. It seems to suggest that their strategy is to self-report the small things so the NCAA will overlook the bigger things. Yet, even the small things when compiled together, should point to a larger problem.
A married man may be able to receive forgiveness from his wife once or twice for telling her that he mistakenly kissed another woman.** But when it keeps happening, sooner or later, she’s going to realize that he either keeps putting himself in those situations or is having an outright affair and is trying to cover it up by telling half-truths.
Likewise, a coach may occasionally realize he sent one too many texts to a recruit and need to self-report, but when it’s happening 35-plus times a year, you’re either covering up larger issues as an organization or you have incredibly poor compliance educators.
So what should we Michigan fans hope for? Is this a good thing for us?
I say it’s not a good thing, because while we may take some satisfaction about our smug rival’s downfall (finally), he has basically owned us since he took over from John Cooper. We have our own new regime with Brady Hoke committed to restoring Michigan football to its glory days and this provides us a perfect opportunity to recapture the rivalry. We want Tressel at the helm when that happens. We’ll probably never achieve a winning record against him since he’s already so far ahead and won’t stay coaching that long, but at least we could put a dent in it.
Secondly, we just went through an NCAA investigation of our own and are currently on probation for Rich Rodriguez’s violations. Yes, we all caught a lot of flak from our Buckeye brethren during that time, but we don’t have much room to talk.
Finally, even though they’re our arch rival, we want the Big Ten to remain strong and above the cheating reputation that the SEC has earned. It may be too late for that now, but if the NCAA drops the hammer on Ohio State, it could affect their program (and by default, the Big Ten) for years.
That being said, I think we can all agree to paraphrase Dennis Green and say that he is who we thought he was and we never have to listen to a self-righteous Ohio State fan wax poetic about their sweater-vested hero anymore.
It will be interesting to see the fallout from this in the coming months, but this is the last I’m saying about Tressel or Ohio State for the foreseeable future on this site. I now turn my attention back to Michigan !! Go Blue !!
*If you take a brush, dip it in laundry detergent, and write on a wall, it won’t show up in daylight, but if you turn off the lights and shine a blacklight on it, it will glow. Years ago, in college, we painted the NCAA Tournament bracket on the ceiling of our dorm room with detergent and updated it each night throughout the tournament. The RAs had no idea, but it created one of the coolest rooms on campus, and unless they’ve re-painted the ceilings, it’s probably still there. Just like the baggage Tressel left behind at Youngstown State when he took over at OSU.
**I’m not at all saying this is okay or condoning this. Just using it as an example.