Tressel, Woody Now Have Something Else In Common

Jim Tressel certainly isn’t the first football coach in NCAA history to feel the wrath of sanctions.

He’s not even the first one at Ohio State.

It would probably surprise many in the Buckeye Nation to know that Woody Hayes and his program were hit with a one-year probation by the Big Ten back in 1956. The reason? Several members of the football team were being paid for jobs despite the fact they were not showing up to work while others were receiving money directly from the coach himself.

That’s right. Woody Hayes was paying his own players.

Of course, things were a little different 55 years ago. The NCAA had been around in one form or another since 1906, but the governing body for collegiate athletics hadn’t moved into its so-called modern era until 1952. Even then, the NCAA was not the myopic behemoth it is today as individual conferences held much more sway over their member institutions. In fact, until July 1952 when the NCAA moved its headquarters to Kansas City, it shared office space in a Chicago hotel with the Big Ten.

In April 1956, Big Ten commissioner Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson announced Ohio State and Hayes would be placed on probation for one year and made the Buckeyes ineligible to represent the conference in the 1957 Rose Bowl.

Wilson’s ruling came as a result of special investigator Jack Ryan’s 10-week probe into Hayes’ program that found “a serious irregularity in the off-campus work program for certain football players (who were) being advanced monthly wages for either two or three months with no enforceable liability to repay in kind or in services.”

Ryan further uncovered the fact that Hayes had provided “assistance to unnamed members of the Ohio State football squads from his personal funds in amounts which are said to total approximately $400 annually over a period of five years.”

OSU director of athletics Richard Larkins said there would be no appeal, and university president Dr. Howard L. Bevis added, “Any violation of the rules of which we have been guilty will be stopped. We mean to live within the rules.”

A one-year probation with disqualification for the Rose Bowl was a fairly stiff penalty in 1956. Even so, the Big Ten did not come down as hard on Hayes and his program as it could have – and certainly not as hard as the NCAA probably would have had the infractions occurred today. Not only would Hayes and his program have likely faced more severe penalties, the players involved would have probably been suspended as well.

But the Big Ten confined its ruling strictly to the football program. In 1956, that was key for Ohio State since football players had not yet become one-sport specialists. They participated in several other sports, including baseball where such football players as Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and Galen Cisco were also stars.

The conference declined to suspend or sanction any of the football players involved and OK’d them to fully participate in spring practice sessions including the annual spring game set for May 5 of that year. Even better for the squad, the Big Ten decided to take no action with regard to the Buckeyes’ eligibility to contend for a third straight conference title in the fall.

In other words, the probation had little teeth with the exception of the Rose Bowl ban.

As Tressel has done in 2011, Hayes took his medicine in 1956.

“All my life,” the coach said, “I have been taught respect for properly delegated authority, and for this reason I do not believe we should appeal the decision.”

But Hayes couldn’t help himself and quickly added, “This, however, does not infer that I agree with the severity of the penalty nor the matter in which the investigation was made.”

The coach made it clear he believed the situation was a witch hunt initiated by the national media, and in reality Hayes was at least partially right.

The investigation was triggered by a lengthy story in the Oct. 24, 1955, issue of Sports Illustrated on the coach and his program titled “The Ohio State Story: Win or Else.” About three-quarters of the way through the piece, reporter Robert Shaplen wrote, “A recruit (for Ohio State football) can count on some financial help from Hayes if he is ‘in need.’ Woody insists he never forks up for a luxury … but it’s certainly also true that he makes sure he won’t lose any valuable men by financial default.”

During the 10-week investigation by the Big Ten – the NCAA never got involved – Hayes admitted he gave players money from his personal funds, but the coach steadfastly refused to name any player to whom he gave the money. He insisted his reasoning was not because he feared any penalty or sanction, saying he would not name names because he feared the players involved would suffer public embarrassment.

A coach doing something he knew was wrong to protect his players. Why does that sound familiar?

(A final note: Contained in that same SI article from October 1955 was this interesting quip from Bevis to prove that things haven’t changed much over the years at Ohio State: “We should have a university of which the football team can be proud.” You can read the entire article here.)

No One To Defend Tressel? I Will

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.

End Of Tressel Era? I’m Not Buying

I have no idea when Jim Tressel first discovered six of his players had sold game-used memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules.

I also don’t care.

Most of today has been spent hand-wringing over last night’s revelation from Yahoo! Sports that “a concerned party” told Tressel last April that several players including quarterback Terrelle Pryor had sold such items as jerseys, Gold Pants charms and MVP trophies. That was eight months before Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith claimed the university first learned of the incident.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the allegation against Tressel is true. Who is this so-called “concerned party”? That matters because if the coach was made fully aware of what was going on and purposely covered it up, he’s in trouble.

If, however, the “concerned party” is one of the hundreds of e-mails, snail mail letters and phone calls the Ohio State head coach receives on a daily basis, well, then, there seems to be plenty of plausible deniability on Tressel’s side.

Plausible deniability is a phrase used in the recent NCAA investigation into recruiting violations committed by the University of Connecticut men’s basketball program. At the crux of that investigation was more than $6,000 in improper recruiting inducements by a former team manager as well as 150 impermissible phone calls and 190 impermissible text messages from coaches to recruits between April 2007 and February 2009.

For all of that, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun will have to sit out the first three Big East games of the Huskies’ 2011-12 season. In other words, the tiniest of wrist slaps even though money changed hands and recruiting violations occurred.

And you’re telling me that Tressel is going to face some sort of stiff penalty like termination?

I have heard the argument that Smith will have little choice but to fire his head coach because Tressel lied to him. That is such a leap of logic you would need a rocket ship to cover the distance.

In my little picayune job, I get a ton of e-mails and phone calls from folks claiming to have inside knowledge about this player or that coach. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to chase down everyone’s story. After having been in this business for awhile, you get a certain feel for what is plausible and what is not. Obviously, this story has legs or there would be no need for tonight’s news conference with Smith and university president Dr. E. Gordon Gee.

But let me let you – and them – in on a little secret. In the big picture, what Tressel knew and when he knew it doesn’t amount to a tick on the rear end of a dog. If the coach knew in April and deliberately covered it up, it would be so out of character for the Jim Tressel that I know I couldn’t even begin to describe it.

That means that someone – that “concerned party” – sent Tressel a message in April and whether or not he received it and whether or not he acted upon it remains up for conjecture.

As I wrote in the opening, I really don’t care. Knowing the way college athletics operates these days, knowing that nearly every program bends/breaks the rules – either knowingly or not – I have a hard time getting myself lathered up over this.

Worst case scenario: If Tressel knew in April and purposely withheld the information, he should be fined and/or suspended by the university. And that’s it.

If Tressel somehow loses his job over this, it’s a slippery slope to a college football world I’m not too sure I want to be part of anymore.