On the day where we honor our brave and dedicated servicemen and women in all branches of the military across the world, this Memorial Day, a major sports headline came in the form of a resignation by a football coach from a prestigious university.
Jim Tressel resigned Monday from his post as the head football coach at Ohio State University. This extremely classy coach set himself apart not only with the continued tradition of winning, but his dress attire from all other collegiate coaches that march the sidelines throughout the country. The classic tie, red vest with an embroidered Ohio State logo on the breast has been the face of the university for many years, and even more wins.
I’ve read several website columnists and their thoughts on the former head coach taking a step back, some saying that, “Tressel’s contemptible arrogance dwarfed the weight of the crime.” In my opinion, he lied in order to protect the university and more important the players he loved, and lying is not a crime.
And then there is more. The Columbus Dispatch reported Monday afternoon that the NCAA and Ohio State are conducting an independent investigation of quarterback Terrelle Pryor. My sources at Ohio State said, “It doesn’t look good for the young man, which in turn won’t be good for the Buckeye Nation.” It all started with tattoos and gold pants (given to players after they beat Michigan), memorabilia and now possible Rose Bowl tickets. Cash and several cars are being linked to Pryor.
The owner of the now famous tattoo shop who befriended several OSU players, Ed Rife, has pled guilty to charges of drug trafficking (conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 200 pounds of marijuana, and one count of money laundering). He is a key cog in the NCAA investigation. He is accused of purchasing memorabilia, exchanging tattoos for tickets and now the possibility of auto swapping. While his lawyer claims no connection between federal court issues of drug trafficking and money laundering, he still finds himself tied to the players at OSU, which doesn’t make it look or sound any better. It wouldn’t surprise me if a booster or alum made a call tipping off authorities to help put this guy in a position to go to prison for the embarrassment he has caused many and the reckless illegal issues of which he is being accused.
Five players, including Pryor, have been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for accepting improper benefits from Rife totaling between $12,000 and $15,000. I spoke with several former Buckeye players, who have the utmost respect for Tressel. One told me that, “He is like a father figure for me; I would do anything for him.” Another player who is currently on a NFL roster said, “He is a good man, a great man. Those players threw him under the bus. It’s a damn shame.”
Let’s look at the timeline of events:
April 2, 2010: Tressel receives an email from Columbus attorney Christopher T. Cicero, the first of 12 they exchanged. Cicero, a former Ohio State walk-on player in the 1980s, says he has been told current Buckeyes players have been selling signed memorabilia to tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife. Where Tressel makes a major mistake is in the compliance process. He doesn’t communicate this information with the athletic director Gene Smith, any of his superiors, the school’s compliance department, or the NCAA about the information. Yet, he chooses to send an email to Ted Sarniak, a 67-year-old businessman in Jeannette, Pa., the mentor for Pryor.
April 2, 2010: Tressel replies to Cicero, “Thanks. I will get on it ASAP… jt”
April 16, 2010: Tressel receives another email from Cicero, with complete details about the OSU players’ activities with Rife. Cicero detailed items were as followed; nine Big Ten championship rings, 15 pairs of cleats, four or five jerseys and one national championship ring have been offered for cash or trade by players, “For not that much.” Cicero writes, “What I tell you is confidential.”
April 16, 2010: Tressel replies, “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” I question the smarts of a lawyer (Cicero) that emails information that is too easy to trace and is considered digital documentation. Was Cicero trying to help or hurt the coach?
April 16, 2010: Cicero replies, suggesting that the players not be allowed to go to Rife’s house or his tattoo parlor or call him on his cell phone, “Because if he gets arrested, and that seems to be the plan, we dont want their phone numbers in his cell phone that the government will trace. He really is a drug dealer.” He emphasizes the severity of the federal case against Rife.
June 6, 2010: Coach Tressel thanks Cicero. This is the end of the emails.
Sept. 13, 2010: Tressel signs an annual NCAA certificate of compliance form indicating he knows of no violations and has reported to the school any knowledge of possible violations. The form is required of all college coaches, officials and administrators. Tressel’s Ohio State contract also requires that he pass along any information he has pertaining to known or potential NCAA violations. Before signing, here is his last opportunity to speak up. I can only imagine he was trying to straighten out his players, but by then it was too late.
Dec. 7, 2010: U.S. attorney’s office notifies Ohio State officials that it has discovered some Ohio State memorabilia during a raid on Rife’s home and/or the tattoo parlor and asks if the items were stolen. A day later, the athletic department is informed. The list items (dozen or more) were released later estimates the value at $12,000 to $15,000. I’m curious if the gold pants are part of those items.
Dec. 9, 2010: Tressel says this is the first time he hears about his players’ involvement with Rife, when told by school officials. He does not mention his email exchanges with Cicero or Sarniak or any knowledge he has of the matter. Phone records also show Tressel had lengthy conversations with Sarniak in April. This is where the lies were committed and now there is no turning back.
Dec. 16, 2010: OSU interviews the six players found to be involved with Rife (quarterback Pryor, running back Daniel Herron, Posey, offensive lineman Mike Adams, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and defensive back Jordan Whiting). Smith later thanks the players for their conduct in these interviews, “Because they were honest (and) forthright.” Tressel does not disclose his knowledge of the memorabilia sales.
Dec. 19, 2010: OSU turns in a self-report to the NCAA and declares the six players ineligible. At this point, if the athletic director or president wants to admit it or not they knew Tressel was holding something back or the coach has told them and now they are playing possum.
Dec. 21, 2010: NCAA conducts phone interviews with the players and then asks for additional information, which Ohio State provides on Dec. 22.
Dec. 22, 2010: NCAA notifies Ohio State of five-game suspensions for five players and one game for Whiting. All must also pay to charity the equivalent of the money and services they received. But the NCAA does allow the players to participate in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. Self-reporting is always a good thing, but it also opens doors for other search opportunities.
Dec. 23, 2010: Smith and Tressel have a news conference to announce the sanctions. Tressel says the players must have known what they were doing was a violation of NCAA rules: “I suppose that would be something rattling around inside the head of each of them individually. We all have a little sensor within us, ‘Well, I’m not sure if I should be doing this.’ ” Merry Christmas Buckeye Nation.
Jan. 13, 2011: While reviewing information to appeal the players’ suspensions, Ohio State’s office of legal affairs finds Tressel’s email exchanges with Cicero. Ding ding! Again, why would Cicero leave an email trace? It’s not very smart on his part unless he is part of a conspiracy to remove Tressel from his position.
Jan. 16, 2011: Presented with the emails, Tressel finally acknowledges them. In its self-report to the NCAA, filed later, Ohio State officials say of Tressel, “As you know, shortly thereafter, you were informed of this and invited to participate” in the investigation.
Feb. 8, 2011: NCAA and school officials interview Tressel, and for the first time admits he knows he committed an NCAA violation. The truth will set you free. But in this case it’s like climbing Mount Everest with no oxygen.
March 7, 2011: Yahoo! Sports publishes a story in which a source says that Tressel had knowledge of his players’ potential NCAA violations as early as April and did not disclose it. Smith has his staff rush to finish the self-report. In my mind, Smith knew well before March 7.
March 8, 2011: Ohio State reports Tressel’s violation to the NCAA and calls a news conference to announce it has suspended Tressel for two games (later increased to five games to coincide with the players’ punishment) and has fined him $250,000. In the letter to the NCAA, Ohio State says, “The institution is very surprised and disappointed in Coach Tressel’s lack of action in this matter.” Yet at the news conference, university President E. Gordon Gee and Smith lavish praise on Tressel. Asked if he considered firing Tressel, Gee jokes, “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” This was the kiss of death. It sounds too much like the coach had more power than both the president and the athletic director.
March 17, 2011: NCAA denies an appeal on behalf of the five players suspended for five games.
April 19, 2011: Smith says Tressel’s $250,000 fine may not cover the cost of the NCAA investigation. Ohio State releases a copy of the NCAA compliance form Tressel signed in September. The NCAA continues to deliberate additional sanctions. This is not a good sign. All hell is about to break loose. The NCAA is just taking its time and getting all their ducks in a row.
April 28, 2011: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says he may not have defended the suspended players if he had known that Tressel knew. “I appealed on behalf of the school. But we didn’t have the information we have today,” he says. A former NCAA enforcement committee representative, Delany adds that coaches should be held to a higher standard than athletes because “they’re adults, teachers.” The Big Ten commissioner punches OSU in the mouth, and is embarrassed.
May 30, 2011: Ohio State announces Tressel has resigned. Assistant Luke Fickell, already tabbed to coach the team during Tressel’s suspension, will be interim coach for the 2011 season. The search for a new permanent head coach will begin following the season.
As far as the school president, athletic director and the school’s regents, boosters and local Buckeye fans across the country are concerned, Tressel’s biggest crime is that he didn’t follow the rulebook of the compliance department down the hall from his office or the NCAA encyclopedia of terms, definition, rules and penalties that is updated yearly and sits in every institution of higher education.
Does it make it OK to lie or cheat in collegiate athletics? No. But it happens every day on every level in all sports. It’s just a matter of who gets caught. Did Tressel disregard the rules? Was it the denial to the bitter end that sealed his fate? He was the well-respected captain of a ship that sailed the high seas for many years, but then institutional control got out of hand because players became reckless, irresponsible, defiant, and downright out of control. The captain of the ship is made to walk the plank. I feel he was forced out, possibly set up. Maybe there was a possible conspiracy to get him out. He had too much power at the university and within the conference.
When a university self-reports wrongdoing to the NCAA, that opens the front door for them to come in and look around. They will make sure to visit all bedrooms, bathrooms, search the closets, and will dig themselves into the basement, while crawling through the attic before leaving out the back door. While the NCAA has a reason to come into the OSU house, they can comb through the entire athletic department.
On my many visits to OSU and my one-on-one dealings with Tressel, he was always very professional, extremely personal, talked truthfully about his players and cared for all of them and his staff a great deal. He will leave Ohio State with a national title, several conference championships, bowl games and most of all beating Michigan repeatedly over the years, owning several gold pants.