When coaches, conference officials and players gathered for Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last Thursday and Friday, Ohio State was once again under the microscope for its involvement in an NCAA investigation.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany blasted OSU for the sanctions against the school, saying it reflects poorly on the conference as a whole.
“Coach (Jim) Tressel made a mistake and he paid dearly for that mistake,” Delany said. “…This year we have Ohio State getting ready to go in front of the infractions committee on Aug. 12th. That’s embarrassing.”
But Delany wasn’t the only one to speak out on the matter. While OSU head coach Luke Fickell emphasized that he is ready to lead the team and move forward, other coaches had strong feelings of their own about the situation.
Fickell, who called the past few months “a whirlwind, exciting, crazy, emotional,” said the team seems to be resilient in responding to their off-the-field troubles, but he knows that it is their behavior that will truly be telling.
“They say the right things. They’re doing the right things,” Fickell said. “But we keep referring to them and trying to remind them when we have the opportunities that we see a lot better than we hear.”
Fickell, who said he has had minimal contact with former head coach Tressel, said he doesn’t believe his recruiting will take a major hit as a result of the investigation because OSU’s history will outshine any current issues.
“It’s bigger than any one player, any one coach, any one team or era. I truly believe that Ohio State will always attract top-notch student athletes around the country no matter what,” Fickell said.
Yet other coaches saw the sanctions as a black eye on the Big Ten and college football as a whole and felt they should be handled harshly.
“If you’re trying to be competitive, you’re trying to win a football game, all those things, maximize all your opportunities, do what you have to do,” said Bret Bielema, head coach at Wisconsin. “But when you consciously break an NCAA rule, to me the only way to deter that is to get rid of people, or seriously hold programs accountable.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald agreed and also stressed the importance of taking steps to move forward as a conference, though neither he nor Bielema specifically mentioned OSU.
“When we make poor choices as people and individuals, no matter what it is, we have to learn from them, we have to grow,” Fitzgerald said. “As an educator you have to teach your young people through that experience.
“When we make poor choices and decisions that impact above that teaching and coaching opportunity,” he continued, “we need to be held accountable for them.”
Other Big Ten coaches are looking at OSU’s mistakes as a learning lesson to avoid similar situations in their own programs.
“You hate to see these things happen. Obviously, it’s lessons that we all as coaches have to look at, maybe rethink, obviously help your players in education, learning what’s right and what’s wrong from that standpoint as well,” said Illinois head coach Ron Zook.
Nebraska’s head coach Bo Pelini agreed, saying he works to keep his programs out of the spotlight for negative reasons.
“We’re under the microscope all the time,” Pelini said. “You have to be on guard all the time. You have to make sure you do things the right way so your institution doesn’t fall into that (negative) category.”
Still, many coaches said they don’t see the Buckeyes as down right now and are instead focusing on their own teams and the season at hand.
When asked if he viewed OSU as “wounded” due to the investigation, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, “When you have schools that have that quality about them, have those legacies, I don’t see anybody as wounded.”
Penn State coach Joe Paterno said he has been avoiding media coverage of the scandal, choosing instead to put his energy into preparing his team.
“I try not to even read anything about it. I try to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, period,” Paterno said.
But for some coaches, the investigation hits too close to home to be ignored.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, a long-time friend of Tressel, called the situation “heartwrenching,” but feels confident that Tressel will be able to bounce back from the recent scrutiny.
“He’s done a lot of good for college football,” Dantonio said. “Every person he’s come in contact with as a player and a coach, he’s made a positive impact on their lives.
“To me, it’s tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end and that’s what I’ll look for in the end.”