I have a question for all you holier-than-thou types, you ax-grinders. All of you claiming to have a corner on the integrity market. What exactly would you have done had you been in Jim Tressel’s shoes last April? What would your course of action have been when e-mails began crossing your desk regarding your players and a federal drug trafficking investigation?
Would you choose to try and protect your players – as well as yourself and your program – or would you immediately inform your athletic director and compliance office knowing full well that by doing so you expose those players and that federal investigation to unwanted (and perhaps illegal) publicity?
I know the easy (and somewhat lazy) answer. In a nuanced world filled with shades of gray, maybe you would have informed Gene Smith and the compliance office and maybe you wouldn’t have. Maybe, just maybe, you would have met with the players in question and held an investigation of your own. Maybe the answers you received were satisfactory and maybe they weren’t. Maybe you would have meted out some form of punishment of your own at that time. Maybe you wouldn’t have.
We now know Tressel’s decision on how he thought best to handle the situation. We also know that decision will forever provide a blemish on his impressive coaching résumé. But did it really have to turn out this way?
Some things in this whole sordid mess simply don’t add up.
At first blush, the Yahoo! Sports report seemed flimsy at best. Knowing his players were selling memorabilia in defiance of NCAA regulations and then purposely covering up that knowledge was completely out of character for the Jim Tressel I have come to know over the past decade. Now, after listening to the university’s explanation of how things transpired between the e-mails Tressel received in April and the NCAA investigation in December, I’m not convinced I was wrong in my judgment of Tressel’s character.
Could it be that Tressel is falling on his own sword? There was an instance during last night’s news conference when a reporter asked the coach if he forwarded the e-mails to anyone. Tressel began to nod his head before Smith quickly interrupted to say the coach couldn’t answer the question due to the ongoing NCAA investigation.
Tressel could have simply been acknowledging the question or he could have been nodding in affirmation as prelude to an answer. That is total conjecture on my part but it seems at least plausible that the coach took the initial e-mail he received in April and forwarded it to the university compliance office. If that was indeed the case, and the compliance office failed to act on the e-mails, Ohio State would have been looking at “lack of institutional control” – the dreaded four words no NCAA member institution wants to hear.
Lack of institutional control to the NCAA is like running away from a cop. No matter what else you may have done, they really don’t like that. Whenever a school is penalized for lack of institutional control, it is looking at loss of scholarships, vacated seasons, postseason bans and jobs lost.
If your coach simply takes the fall, he gets the sanctions, the scrutiny and the criticism – but your program moves on.
A wacko conspiracy theory? Maybe, but I would contend it’s no more wacko than the overheated cacophony coming from the sanctimonious ESPN crowd today that believes Tressel should be fired and the entire 2010 season vacated. That’s ridiculous. Why do you think Smith – who knows the NCAA Committee on Infractions inside and out – immediately contacted the NCAA for consultation on the matter?
Look, defending the indefensible is pointless. Even before yesterday, we all knew Jim Tressel wasn’t perfect. There was the Troy Smith suspension, the Maurice Clarett fiasco, the NCAA violations the coach purportedly committed when he was at Youngstown State, and now this. There is no use trying to defend those incidents although they do seem rather minor – even in their totality – to any number of others committed elsewhere by other programs and other coaches who did not receive similar penalties.
Nevertheless, whether Tressel withheld information, failed to tell the whole truth or out-and-out lied – and for whatever reason, noble or otherwise – he is the one who will have to live the consequences.
He is the one whose legacy with be forever changed, and knowing him just a little bit, I’m guessing that will be the toughest sanction of all for him to bear.