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Tressel in turmoil; questions remain

Andy Gottesman / Multimedia editor

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Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, athletic director Gene Smith and university President E. Gordon Gee met with the media at 7 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the NCAA violations committed by the coach.

Tressel has been suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season, ordered to attend a compliance seminar and fined $250,000 by the university.

Though the three responded to questions for about 15 minutes after their statements, they left many more to be answered.

What wrongdoing did Tressel commit?

On April 2, 2010, Tressel received an e-mail from an attorney. The contents of the e-mail alerted Tressel to the fact that the owner of a local tattoo parlor, Edward “Eddie” Rife, was recently involved in a federal government investigation. His house had been raided the day before, and the government seized $70,000 as well as some memorabilia from OSU, including championship rings. He was also informed in the e-mail that a Buckeye player had taken signed memorabilia to Rife, who was flipping the items for profit, while in turn supplying the players with free tattoos.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the e-mail came at the end, where the attorney listed various criminal charges involving Rife in the past, including a conviction for felony forgery.

“It kind of jogged in my mind some of the toughest losses I’ve ever had in coaching,” Tressel said. “I’ve had a player murdered; I’ve had a player incarcerated; I’ve had a player get taken into the drug culture and lose his opportunity for a productive life. And so it was obviously tremendously concerning. Quite honestly, I was scared.”

Tressel replied that he would “get on it ASAP.” Over the next two months, the attorney continued to send Tressel e-mails pertaining to Rife’s misdeeds. The attorney had recently spoken with Rife, and had more information about the incidents in question. Included in these messages were specific items Rife obtained, including the names of two student-athletes who were selling their championship rings.

The university determined that Tressel violated NCAA Bylaw 10.1, and failed to follow the school’s protocol by not reporting the violations to compliance, or any of the university administrators. It was decided that he had multiple opportunities to do so, and chose to prioritize the ongoing criminal investigation over reporting potential violations in regards to the NCAA rules and regulations.

“I think back to what I could have done differently because obviously as Gene mentioned in the outset an NCAA violation occurred on my part,” Tressel said. “I asked for a little advice as to how I should have taken this forward. I’ve learned that I probably needed to go to the top legal counsel person at the university and get some help as to how you handle primo investigations.”

Will these sanctions hold up to NCAA scrutiny?

Unfortunately for the OSU football program, these self-imposed sanctions are not the end of the scandal. Though the university has conducted its own investigations and levied sanctions against its coach, the NCAA has yet to officially weigh in.

“Even though (the NCAA has) worked with us all the way collaboratively to this point, they still get the self-report,” Smith said. “They deliberate within their team to determine if they are supportive of the sanctions we have levied and if they agree with the exact bylaw that we have said the violation occurred.”

The OSU athletic department contacted officials early on in its own investigative process, and two NCAA investigators came to campus to begin conducting interviews in unison with the university Feb. 8.

“We decided early on to work with them, to ask them to be a part of the process and work with us from the beginning,” Smith said. “It’s a different model than what you historically see in these types of investigations.”

That OSU went the alternate route and got the NCAA involved sooner rather than later might be its saving grace as it might be more likely that the association simply uphold the university’s self-imposed sanctions.

Students say they are concerned that this investigation might affect the appeal of the suspension the five players who sold memorabilia received.

“I just thought that there is a possibility that the five-game suspension for the kids might’ve been lifted or reduced a little bit, but with this now I think it won’t change at all,” said Jason Ruberg, a fourth-year in health sciences.

Smith, however, assured that the two investigations were “totally separate.”

All that is known for sure is that the 2011 Buckeyes will not have Tressel at the helm for their first two games. The coach is forced to look forward.

“At no point … am I looking for anything other than doing what needs to be done,” Tressel said, “growing from the experiences that we’ve had, and continuing to serve the greatest university in America.”

How will this affect OSU during the 2011 season?

The university has taken corrective and punitive action toward Tressel, the worst of which includes a two-game suspension for the beginning of the 2011 season and a $250,000 fine.

“Obviously I’m disappointed that this happened at all,” Tressel said. “I take my responsibility for what we do at Ohio State tremendously seriously, and for the game of football.

“I plan to grow from this, and I’m sincerely saddened by the fact that I let some people down.”

Smith was adamant that this incident was separate from the incidents that occurred with the players back in December 2010, Tattoo-gate as they’ve come to be known. However, both transgressions will affect the team in a major way next season.

The football program will now have the responsibility of choosing an interim coach for the first two games. Darrell Hazel, the assistant head coach last season and obvious choice for the gig recently took over as the new coach of Kent State, so he’s out.

Another option is defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, who was the head coach at Illinois State from 1988–95.

At this point, it’s hard to predict who will be stepping in for the Senator to start the season, but what we do know is that the Buckeyes’ first two games, against Akron and Toledo, shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as some of the games they’ll be playing in later in the year.

Still, losing Tressel for the first two games — on top of losing five seniors, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, for the first five games — will make for a tumultuous start to the 2011 season. Tressel’s leadership in the locker room and along the sidelines will be missed.

Despite all the turmoil, the football program remains united in its efforts. This includes former players, whose support for Tressel has been unwavering.

“It doesn’t change my opinion of him. I would do anything for coach Tress,” former kicker Mike Nugent said. “I think it’s terrible that he had to be a part of it, and I’ve never met someone with so much class and I just hate that this happened. He doesn’t deserve it; he doesn’t deserve any of this.”

News regarding the interim coaching assignment should be announced before the start of spring practices.

How will this affect his legacy?

Tressel has amassed a record of 106-22 at OSU with one national title and seven Big Ten championships during his decade with the program.

Though Tressel has been lauded for his success on the field, many have also praised the man for his integrity off it. This scandal might call that feature of the man’s personality into doubt.

“I really have to question the man’s judgment,” said Richard Hersch, a third-year in actuarial science. “If you get a letter from somebody like that … you know that part of your responsibility is to report any sort of situation like this to other authorities.”

Others pointed to the fact that Tressel’s transgression was an error in judgment, and, as such,
one he should not be judged too harshly for.

“It wasn’t that he went out and, you know, elected to do something illegal or against recruiting regulations and thought he couldn’t get caught. It wasn’t anything like that at all,” OSU football historian Jack Park said. “It was something he had to deal with because of some actions of other players.”

Regardless of how the transgression is viewed, it did occur and must be put into the context of the coach’s résumé.

That résumé is compared to former OSU coach Woody Hayes, who compiled a 205-61-10 record, three national titles and 13 Big Ten crowns with the team. His career ended after punching a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl.

Park said Tressel’s failure to report knowledge of violations does not resonate in the same way as Hayes’ assault.

“I think it’s pretty major right now because it happened (yesterday) and we’re all talking about it,” he said. “I think in a few years as you reflect on everything … I don’t think it will have a major impact on coach Tressel’s legacy.”

Jay Clouse contributed to this story.

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