So how devastating was this SI article to Jim Tressel? Pretty damned devastating:
… That support crumbled suddenly over Memorial Day weekend. Tressel was forced out three days after Sports Illustrated alerted Ohio State officials that the wrongdoing by Tressel’s players was far more widespread than had been reported. SI learned that the memorabilia-for-tattoos violations actually stretched back to 2002, Tressel’s second season at Ohio State, and involved at least 28 players — 22 more than the university has acknowledged. Those numbers include, beyond the six suspended players, an additional nine current players as well as nine former players whose alleged wrongdoing might fall within the NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations on violations.
One former Buckeye, defensive end Robert Rose, whose career ended in 2009, told SI that he had swapped memorabilia for tattoos and that “at least 20 others” on the team had done so as well. SI’s investigation also uncovered allegations that Ohio State players had traded memorabilia for marijuana and that Tressel had potentially broken NCAA rules when he was a Buckeyes assistant coach in the mid-1980s.
Last Friday, SI informed Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch of the new allegations and asked that Tressel be made aware of them. Lynch said the school would have some comment by the end of the day. No comment came, and on Saturday, Lynch told SI to contact Tressel’s lawyer, Gene Marsh, for any response from the coach; Lynch also said he could not confirm that Tressel had been apprised of the new allegations. The implication was clear: Ohio State was distancing itself from Tressel. (E-mails from SI to Tressel and to Marsh and multiple phone messages for Marsh went unanswered.)
As bad as that sounds, Tressel’s mortal sin wasn’t being in charge of a program with all that going on. He’d made a career out of plausible deniability.
… Yet while Tressel’s admirable qualities have been trumpeted, something else essential to his success has gone largely undiscussed: his ignorance. Professing a lack of awareness isn’t usually the way to get ahead, but it has helped Tressel at key moments in his career. As coach at Youngstown (Ohio) State in the mid-1990s, he claimed not to know that his star quarterback had received a car and more than $10,000 from a school trustee and his associates — even though it was later established in court documents that Tressel had told the player to go see the trustee. In 2003, during Tressel’s third season in Columbus, Buckeyes running back Maurice Clarett was found to have received money and other benefits. Even though Tressel said he spent more time with Clarett than with any other player, he also said he did not know that Clarett had been violating the rules. A year later an internal Ohio State investigation (later corroborated by the NCAA) found that quarterback Troy Smith had taken $500 from a booster. It was the second time the booster had been investigated for allegedly providing improper benefits to a star player, but again Tressel said he had no knowledge of the illicit payment.
It’s just that you can’t lie to the NCAA and hope you’ll get away with it. That’s why Gee and Smith had no choice but to cut Tressel loose – they’ve got their own reputations for plausible deniability to protect. They’ll portray themselves as a couple of doofuses who were misled by a man whom they believed had a sterling reputation. (In Gee’s case, that’s probably not much of a stretch.) Look for this to get pretty cold-sounding when the school makes its case to the NCAA’s infraction committee; it’s not like they have much of a choice but to lay it all on Tressel to save the program’s (and perhaps their own) skin.
That being said, don’t feel too sorry for the man nicknamed the Senator. It never ceases to amaze me how often people who should know better ignore the lesson of Watergate – that the consequences from the coverup wind up being worse than those from the crime. In the end, all Tressel got out of the mess he made was a Sugar Bowl win. That hardly seems worth losing a career over.