The outlook for the Ohio State football program is positive heading into Saturday’s LiFESports Spring Game. Entering his second season at the helm of the program, coach Urban Meyer has yet to lose a football game, and, with the team’s postseason ban from last season no longer in place, the Buckeyes are expected by many to be national championship contenders coming off a 12-0 season.
However, the future of OSU football didn’t look so bright on May 30, 2011, when Jim Tressel, who compiled a 106-22 record over 10 years as OSU’s coach and led the Buckeyes to a national championship in his second season at the school, resigned as coach.
Tressel’s resignation came following an improper benefits scandal that gained national publicity, and has since been dubbed as “Tattoo-Gate.”
“Unfortunately we needed to move on, but obviously you would not have created the end of our tenure there the way that it happened,” Tressel told The Lantern in an exclusive interview Friday.
On Dec. 23, 2010, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas – all of whom played for the Buckeyes at the time – for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling memorabilia and receiving improper benefits from Eddie Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink tattoo parlor. Linebacker Jordan Whiting also received a one-game ban.
Tressel was initially suspended for two games by OSU on March 8, 2011 and fined $250,000 for failing to report the violations committed by his players. His suspension was increased to five games nine days later, but his fine was waived following his resignation.
It got worse for OSU. On Dec. 19, 2011, the NCAA sanctioned the OSU football program with a one-year postseason ban, which kept the team out of the Big Ten Championship Game and a bowl game last season, and a nine-year scholarship reduction over three years. Those sanctions came just three weeks following Meyer’s hiring as coach on Nov. 28, 2011.
Although it might have ultimately cost Tressel his coaching career – he also received a five-year show-cause penalty in the NCAA’s sanctions, which would result in penalties for any NCAA school that hires him as coach within that time window – he did not express regret for failing to report his players’ violations.
“If my fault is on the loyalty side, I’ll take it,” Tressel said.
Tressel said OSU’s violations were a result of “personal decisions” made by his players.
“Sometimes they’re the right decisions, and sometimes they’re the wrong,” Tressel said.
Whiting said his violation came as a result of accepting a discount on a tattoo, and said he did not realize he was receiving a discount at the time.
“Someone told me it was a certain price, and I said OK,” Whiting told The Lantern in January. “I think the only thing that I probably could have done differently is … after I had got my tattoos, maybe ask, ‘Well, is that shop minimum?’ or ‘Do you offer this to anybody else?'”
Whiting said he believes most other players in his situation would have made the same decision he did.
“Going through that whole situation, being part of something that was so big, it was hard,” Whiting said. “It definitely was, because you have to go through the situation where you don’t want to be seen in public, only thing you want to do is stay inside … That was hard to deal with, very hard to deal with.”
Whiting believes people have misconceptions about the players’ sanctions.
“Honestly, I don’t agree with the whole situation or how it went down,” Whiting said. “I honestly feel like, had a lot of the athletes had an opportunity to vocalize their story, I feel like it would be totally different. I think a lot of people would feel differently.”
“I haven’t personally been bluntly offered something like, ‘Hey, do you want this?’ … I’ve known guys that have been offered things that have denied them,” Whiting said. “It’s really a hard thing to do, especially when you’re coming from situations where when you’re younger, you didn’t have anything. When you’re growing up and you don’t have anything, you don’t have the luxuries of things, you tend to want to do that (accept benefits).”
Although he said getting a scholarship to pay for his education was a “blessing,” he was not able to take full advantage of his academic opportunity while still playing football at OSU.
“In some situations, athletes are not able to pursue their academic dreams because of the game that they play,” Whiting said. “For instance, I wanted to do architecture. Unfortunately I could not pursue my architecture dreams at that moment … because football takes a lot of time, (and) so does taking the major of architecture.”
Whiting left the OSU football team prior to last season. He transferred to Louisville but did not play last season and is no longer on its roster. He is working on completing his degree in marketing and is currently enrolled to begin classes at OSU again in June.
Pryor, Herron, Posey, Adams and Thomas did not respond to The Lantern‘s attempts to contact them.
Tressel said there are “valid arguments on both sides” of whether NCAA players should be able to profit from playing football, but said it isn’t an excuse for what happened in Tattoo-Gate.
“Right now, all you can worry about when you’re working with your student-athletes is that the rules are what the rules are right now,” Tressel said. “If they ever are changed, fine, but until they’re changed, our job is to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do.”
Even so, Tressel said he is not sure he could have prevented Tattoo-Gate from happening.
“If you’re any kind of competitor or have any kind of feeling for the group you’re a part of, you always look back and say that you wish you would have been better at what you did than you were,” Tressel said. “If you talked to the kids 999 times about things, maybe you should have talked to them 1,000 … but I can’t sit there and say that I know that if this, this and this were done, we wouldn’t have had that problem.”
Tressel said it is “really difficult to pinpoint” whether there were cultural issues within the OSU football program that allowed Tattoo-Gate to happen, but said he did not think it was caused by any “inherent, out-of-control, issues or problems.”
“I think there are challenges for every group, especially at the highest level,” Tressel said. “When the young people have the success they’ve had, when the fervor of interest in a program is as high as it was and is, it’s always a challenge to not error.
“But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be anything ever happen again at Ohio State or anywhere else,” Tressel added. “It is … really a difficult time we live in … when you have that type of atmosphere, it’s sometimes difficult to navigate. What I always liked about Ohio State and still like about Ohio State is that as difficult as the challenge is, it
‘s still a great place with a great culture.”
Although OSU was in a transition period under then-interim coach Luke Fickell, and in the midst of what ended up being the program’s first losing season since 1988, at the time of Meyer’s hire, OSU’s current coach said he did not believe there was a cultural issue within the OSU program when he was hired.
“It was not a cultural issue here,” Meyer told The Lantern during an exclusive interview April 1. “It was a mistake, and we’ve all made mistakes. If there was a cultural issue here, we wouldn’t have won 12 games last year.”
Tressel said he was unsurprised by the Buckeyes’ success last season.
“A, I knew we had great talent and B, coach Meyer and his staff, those guys win,” Tressel said. “I always say winners win.”
Tressel said it was “very disappointing” for last year’s team that they did not get to participate in postseason play as a result of Tattoo-Gate, but he does not think the team allowed that to affect them.
“They didn’t allow them to weigh on them,” Tressel said. “They went into the season, they said, ‘OK, we know the score. The score is we only get to play 12 games.’ And so the only thing you can do is do the best you can. They did a great job of blocking that out and I thought they handled that the right way, and that’s what you have to do … because that would do nothing but affect your performance.”
Now entering his second season and with the postseason ban in the past, Meyer said he does not feel the scandal’s presence on the program aside from the scholarship reductions, which will continue to be in place for one more recruiting season.
“We’re going to be nine, three per year for three years, and that’s real. I can feel it out there, like we should have three more players than we have vright now,” Meyer said. “And someone might say, well it’s only three players. Well, it’s only (defensive end, 2012 senior) John Simon, Braxton (Miller, junior quarterback) and (senior running back) Carlos Hyde. Who knows who those three players are?”
Aside from having fewer scholarships, however, Meyer said Tattoo-Gate has not caused him any additional issues in recruiting.
“It’s one of the easiest sells I’ve ever had,” Meyer said of recruiting players to OSU. “We have a very good graduation rate, very good APR (Academic Progress Rate), our support system’s incredible. Then you start talking about facilities, walk around you see great facilities, you see everything’s in order, you see 12-0 season, great momentum.”
The APR is a standard used by the NCAA based upon the retention and eligibility of student-athletes measured over a four-year span. In the NCAA’s most-recent APR scores released in June 2012, OSU’s score of 988 (out of a total possible 1,000 points) ranked second to Northwestern in the Big Ten Conference.
OSU athletic director Gene Smith told The Lantern during an exclusive interview in February he believes he and his staff have learned from the scandal and have made OSU athletics better as a result.
“Right now we’re in a great spot. We just got to keep our strive towards excellence,” Smith said. “I’ve never lost that focus, even when we were going through our challenges.”
As for Tressel, he is in his second year at the University of Akron in a non-football position as the university’s vice president of Strategic Engagement.
“It’s really busy,” Tressel said. “I used to have 100 guys and a dozen coaches and tried to recruit 20 guys a year and so it was very concentrated, whereas now as the vice president … I’ve got 28,000 students and about 300-400 employees, so it’s been a different experience, and it’s been fun.”
Tressel interviewed for the Indianapolis Colts’ head coaching job in January 2012, according to multiple reports, after working as the Colts’ replay consultant for the 2011 season. He said he has not given any thought since joining the Akron faculty about whether he will eventually return to coaching.
“I have not woken up one morning and said, you know, I’ve got to go back and coach,” Tressel said. “I did that for a long time and it was wonderful, and we were blessed to have moderate success, and it was just a wonderful profession, existence, calling … but I’ve been really kind of totally embraced a new challenge.
“I’ve done that many times (coaching),” Tressel added. “In some ways it’s not quite as exciting when you’ve already done it.”