By Rick Morris
It’s a development that I’ve slowly come to see coming – but after the 2011 season, I thought. With surprising corners of the normally pliant Ohio media starting to call for the head of Jim Tressel, I read the tea leaves and deduced that the next round of shoes to drop in the various ongoing investigations would be deemed too much. But I never thought that day would come so quickly.
Cards on the table, from different perspectives:
^ My dad is a season-ticket holder at Ohio State and I’ve been going to games all my life (on board with the home team except for the games against my alma mater, Ohio!).
^ When OSU decided – more than ten years belatedly – to replace John Cooper, Glen Mason was my first choice. Unlike most, I didn’t think Tressel would be overmatched at this level due to his previous career experience having topped out at Youngstown State. I simply felt, as did a great many, that Mason was the next great big-time coach waiting to happen. Well, you can’t get them all right!
^ I have been critical for a long time of the paranoid, self-righteous nature of so many in the Ohio State fanbase. There’s a whininess, a “the nash-null media hates us” pathetic quality that is far too prevalent and unbecoming. Such know-nothingism reflects poorly on the entire Buckeye community. Everything is a conspiracy against them, to hear them tell it.
^ Although nobody in my family knows Jim Tressel personally, my parents got to know his family and worked with his brother in the Berea School District. I should backtrack for a moment and point out that the Tressel name is legendary and beloved in Cleveland’s southwest suburbs as Jim’s father Lee was a coaching legend at Baldwin-Wallace. In the corner of the universe where I’ve lived most of my life, the Tressel family is regarded as the salt of the earth and it was decades before Jim relocated to CBus in 2001. I have heard a great many stories about the kindnesses Jim has shown that he has kept quiet because they were not for show.
It’s that last point that I wish to extrapolate first. The idiotic portrayal in the national media that this was a man who schemed to put forward a holy façade while gleefully looking for ways to cheat, lie and steal is the laziest kind of tripe.
Clearly, clearly, he made mistakes. Not marching down the hallway to the university compliance officer over a year ago looms as the biggest of any of them. Because of the lie of omission on the form he turned in to the NCAA before last football season (“nope, nothing to see here”), I knew that more punishment was inevitable. I thought, I hoped, that it would be limited to a suspension for the 2011 season and vacating wins from the 2010 season. Under normal circumstances, that would be a draconian punishment – but as Monday proved, there could always be a worse outcome.
The vaunted Sports Illustrated story that was due to drop today clearly drove the timing on the story and the “resignation” – side note, nobody has walked away from Ohio State fully voluntarily since the 1940s. The column got most amusing when Robert Rose played the “a brotha’s gotta eat” card – when talking about why he exchanged memorabilia for tats! You can’t make this stuff up! It’s interesting that almost the entire gist of the story is “this bad stuff was going on and he should have known about it and managed not to” (well, aside from the hearsay from a possibly bitter former associate of Tressel’s – who did NOT go on to the career heights of Tressel – who claimed that he screwed over some non-prized high school athletes at the expense of blue-chippers in some football camp raffles). I say “interesting,” because what did Tressel do, after all, if not prove wildly unsuccessful at working through the world of plausible deniability that most big-time coaches have to navigate?
Think about it: the folks with the “Buckstaches” are right that a lot of these matters happen everywhere with the culture of entitlement that follows a lot of the top-ranked players in the country. BUT – coaches at other institutions keep these things under control. For example, Bob Stoops cracks heads, big-time. If you get caught doing something wrong at that school, be prepared to get dragged by your nuts down Main Street. Does that mean there’s no wrongdoing at Oklahoma? Of course not. But everything is under control there – which, in the sewer pit of big-time college athletics, is the only realistic aim. Be clean – or keep the bacteria on your nose invisible. Tressel was far worse on the second point than the first.
Frankly, for all of the Machiavellian conspiracy theories about how Tressel schemed to put up a false image all these years, most of his problems appear to stem from a softness that did him in. He never cracked skulls, Stoops-style. In the fateful email chain that ultimately did him in, he complained about the difficulties of keeping these kids out of trouble – while ultimately not having the stomach to put the fear of God into them. Does that sound like somebody gleefully and deliberately living a second life contrary to his public image? We don’t even need to get into the fact that he left a ton of money on the table with his resignation (even if the university does agree to a settlement of some sort) rather than put blood on OSU’s hands by having them fire him.
I would say that the time for piling on is over, but I actually think that time is long overdue. To date, I see nothing that changes my original prescription for the situation (season-long suspension and vacating 2010 wins). I think that the NCAA should have allowed for the possibility of taking his good acts into account when the possibility of his “personal death penalty” arose. In Ohio, he will be regarded as one of the all-time great college coaches and somebody who paid a price for his actions – with many finding it excessive. The rest of the country will find that judgment narrow and parochial. For once – for once, they will be judging the fanbase wrong.