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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive OSU: Reaching For the Bottom
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

Fickell4One of my favorite Steven Wright lines goes something like this: “You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re leaning back on the back legs of your chair and you get to that point when you know you’re going over backwards?....I feel that way all the time.”

There’s a feeling something like that among Ohio State fans in the aftermath of Jim Tressel’s resignation Monday. We know we’re falling, but we haven’t hit the floor yet.

The better analogy might be that unsettling time when a packed airliner approaches the runway to land, but hasn’t quite touched down. Suddenly you’re reminded of how fast you’re’s noisy....lots of people you don’t know are equally invested in the uncertain outcome...and in the agonizing seconds right before touchdown, the passengers know they can have no real effect at all on the landing. Still, with all their body language, they reach as one for the secure feeling of landing gear on runway, enduring that pit of the stomach feeling together.


(At the risk of stretching this analogy too far....) Unlike any plane I’ve ever been on, this OSU flight is already assured of a crash landing of some severity, with casualties among the crew already being carted out. The passengers are scrambling for their flotation devices. (Okay, that’s played out)

In the end (if only this were the end) Jim Tressel couldn’t survive his own colossal, and still not totally explained blunder. His serious NCAA violations brought embarrassment to OSU and left his own title-studded career with an indelible stain. The scandal will leave the football program limping forward, sanctioned, missing key personnel, and under untested leadership. The Tressel Era thus ends statues, no testimonials, no avenues bearing his name. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

No amount of positive job approval ratings from his superiors, nor broad-based loyalty from his players, nor a winning percentage better than that of Hayes, Bruce and Cooper, was enough to override the fallout from the dishonesty by Tressel that has left Buckeye Nation with that Steven Wright feeling.....all the time. The feeling lingers because the coach is gone, but the reckoning for Ohio State athletics is ongoing, and it looks like it will continue for some time, as investigations carry on, and sanctions are weighed. The fan base is bracing, but has yet to find the bottom.

Humor me then, as I ramble through some random thoughts on OSU and Tressel, and throw in some links to writing on the subject that I think is worth your time...(not so fast, Sports Illustrated).


The heroic media at work: We might as well start with that SI article, which, for all the hype it generated in advance of publication, contained little in the way of new information, let alone anything new directly linkable to Jim Tressel. The most important of the disclosures by author George Dohrmann was that there were several more Buckeye players involved in the memorabilia-for-tattoos-or-cash transactions than just the five already suspended for those violations, including at least five players being counted on to start or play key roles on defense for the 2011 team. He names names, but bases the identities of the players on hearsay. It remains to be seen if there is any paper trail or other evidence of their involvement.

It is being reported that those current Buckeye players are already being questioned by the NCAA about the allegations this week. The author flatters himself in the article by taking credit for the timing of Tressel’s resignation - (“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.”) - but it’s quite possible that Tressel’s consultation last week with his new attorney Gene Marsh was more responsible for the decision. For weeks, the realization had been building that there could be no happy ending with Tressel remaining in place. In that light, and recognizing that the SI article wasn’t the bombshell it was purported to be, the closeness of the article and  the resignation seemed more coincidental.

Dohrmann reaches back 30 years for dirt on Tressel...reporting as an example of his treachery an anonymously sourced story of the coach, as a young graduate assistant at OSU, “fixing” a raffle so that a prominent recruit could win. He revisits Tressel’s days at YSU, and recounts the well-worn story of improper benefits Penguin QB Ray Isaac received from a wealthy booster as an example of the “pattern” of Tressel violations...or his “ignorance” of same. (Isaac has responded forcefully in defense of Tressel and refuted Dohrmann’s implications).

Dohrman made his name on a story about scandal at the University of Minnesota. Interviewing disgruntled former players and convicted tattoo artists, and quoting anonymous sources on 30-year old stories won’t win him any Pulitzers this time around.

And please understand...none of this is an effort to blame the media for any of OSU’s shame and embarrassment, or for anything done by Tressel or anyone else who behaved badly at Ohio State. I do maintain that the national media helped create and drive a perception of events that was somewhat distorted and sensationalized....but more media criticism can wait...


Tressel_PryorPryor’s protector is gone: It is being widely reported this week that Terrelle Pryor has played his last game as a Buckeye due to new allegations as yet only speculated upon, but probably at least in part related to the use of cars and other benefits he may have received while an OSU player. I’m sure there will be much more written in this space about Pryor and his OSU career, good and bad, after more details are revealed, but for now it’s notable how few fans are even remotely upset to hear the news. Bottom and teammates alike (and presumably remaining coaches too) are tired of his act.

I have been outspoken at times in Pryor’s defense against the growing number of OSU fans who feel awkward about, as one of them put it, “cheering for Ohio State while hating their quarterback”.  While readily acknowledging his often irritating personality, the arrogance, the immaturity, the off-putting sense of entitlement and all the rest of it, I was unprepared to write him off as representing everything that’s wrong with college football, and hanging his picture up alongside Lawrence Phillips. That is, as long as I was looking around college football and seeing other players stealing laptops, committing robberies, cheating on tests, slapping around women, and whatever else, while the only law Pryor had broken was the speed limit. Maybe that’s no longer the case. We’ll see.

But as teammates and former players are opening up in recent days with criticisms of both Tressel and Pryor, the picture is becoming clearer about the way Pryor has operated with the notion that there was a set of rules in place for everyone but him. Regardless of what the details of his behavior turn out to be, if Luke Fickell and the rest of the staff choose to go forward without him in 2011, (or if the NCAA makes that decision for them) there appears to be ample justification for it.

Pryor committed the same violations as did DeVier Posey, Dan Herron, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas, but fans looking for someone to scapegoat for Tressel’s demise are somewhat understandably focused on the quarterback, always the high-profile spot in good times or bad.

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, one of the reporters who broke the Tressel emails story back in March, says the scapegoating of Pryor in OSU’s troubles is misplaced. It’s hard to disagree with him that the blame should be squarely on the shoulders of President Gordon Gee and Athletic Director Gene Smith who conducted what Wetzel calls “a joke” of an 11-day investigation, when a much more far-reaching and honest one was called for. Even faulting Pryor for the transportation he was using seems a stretch.

Reporting on the car purchases by OSU players and/or their families (at the Dispatch, for example)  has indicated that the salesmen at the dealership(s) involved were in ongoing contact with the OSU Compliance office to assure that the deals would pass muster with NCAA regs. If that office was less than diligent or competent in their duties, that can hardly be blamed on the players. On that topic, it has been reported this week that several employees of the Compliance office were terminated on Tuesday, the day after Tressel’s resignation was announced.  More of the same is easy enough to predict.

Whether the ultimate responsibility for compliance issues relating to car deals rests with Smith or Tressel is beyond my knowledge, but clearly it rests with one or the other of them, and not on a used car salesman, or on a football player or his parents.

Holding himself up? : To paraphrase various commentators in recent days on Tressel’s resignation...”it’s embarrassing, especially for a man who promotes himself as “squeaky clean”...or, describing Tressel as someone....”who holds himself up as better than other coaches”. These seem to me unfair characterizations of Tressel as the framer of his own reputation.

Reputations are not garnered in a vacuum, or on the basis of what one says about oneself. They are gained, good or bad, by what employees, colleagues, associates, competitors and other outside observers say about a person. In college football, that would include players, opposing players, fans and media as well.

So it’s fair to say that Tressel had something of a reputation for being squeaky clean, or as a guy who “did things the right way”, just as you can now say that this reputation was, at least in part, a lie, because he was dishonest and cheated in order to win. But if anyone can find any evidence that this is the way he characterized or promoted himself, I’d like to see it.

Much has been made of the fact that Tressel’s has a book called “The Winner’s Manual”, a summary of the program he has used for years with players on his teams that emphasizes balancing sports with other important priorities in life, such as family and education, and teaches other positive life values like gratitude, and putting concern for others above self...or even taking personal responsibility for your actions.  In other words, a book about “doing things the right way”.

Since Tressel has now been caught doing things the wrong way, some have suggested this makes a mockery or a fraud of his program of positive life values. But if these lessons are worth teaching...and Tressel’s success with young people over two decades suggests that they are...then they are no less worth teaching now that the teacher has proven to have character the rest of humanity.

Fickell has a tough act to lots of ways: Ohio State has been high on Luke Fickell for some time. He has been talked about for years as a possible future head coach, and possibly as OSU’s head coach if events led him that way. He is a terrific recruiter by all accounts, and has shown the competitive fire and ability to inspire and motivate that the good ones must possess. He is known as a disciplinarian, and he is a strong communicator who should be able to handle the public access side of the job well.

While he inherits all the blessings that accompany the head coaching job at Ohio State, in many areas, there is nowhere to go but down. Set aside the 106-22 record he has to follow, (the first two numbers in a list put together by Tony Gerdeman at TheOzone.) Off the field as well, Tressel’s Buckeyes have set some standards that will hard to match, let alone exceed.

Recent APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores achieved by the OSU football program are at the highest levels ever, and Ohio State led the Big Ten in Academic All-Conference performers in nine of Tressel’s ten seasons. There’s no reason to assume that the football team’s academic performance will suffer under Fickell, but it would be hard to do better.

On the down side, Tressel leaves the program under NCAA sanctions, and it will be Fickell’s undeserved problem to clean up the mess. Recruiting will undoubtedly’s just a matter of how much. A bowl ban would of course make that situation worse. Fickell will coach his first five games at OSU with at least five key players suspended, and possibly several more depending on how the investigations play out. And he’ll likely coach the entire 2011 season unsure if it will be his only one, with media speculation about high-profile successor candidates starting....yesterday.

It’s a great opportunity for him, but also one presenting daunting challenges.

Does self-reporting pay?  It’s fairly useless to speculate at this point about what sanctions OSU will receive  from the NCAA, since we still don’t know what the final findings will be. But it’s worth paying attention to see if there is any benefit accruing to the school that follows the NCAA suggestion to self-report any and all violations.

More so than many other schools, Ohio State under Gene Smith, and also under his predecessor as Athletic Director Andy Geiger, has fostered and maintained a culture of self-reporting to the NCAA. When the Columbus Dispatch performed a 2009 survey of the practices of FBS schools for an article on privacy issues relating to NCAA violations, they found that OSU had reported some 375 NCAA violations since 2000, more than any of the other 69 (over half of all) FBS schools supplying records.

The OSU case has inevitably drawn comparisons to the recent USC case, and opinions are all over the board about how serious Ohio State’s sanctions should be relative to the probation, the bowl game ban and scholarship losses suffered by USC.  But as Drew Sharp notes in an article dated the day of Tressel’s resignation, the approaches the two schools took toward NCAA investigators could not have been more different.

...what many don't realize is that the Trojans got hammered not for the sins committed, but rather how they responded once the transgressions were brought to their attention nearly five years earlier. USC's own arrogance brought it down.

USC was defiant and uncooperative, where Ohio State virtually gave the NCAA the run of the athletic department after the player violations and Tressel’s emails came to OSU’s attention in the December-January time frame.

The cases are different in many ways, but you can bet every other school will be watching what happens to Ohio State....the school that has traditionally played the game the way the NCAA says it should be played, in terms of self-reporting, and that welcomed the NCAA into virtually a joint investigation of the latest scandal.

If the NCAA hammers OSU in a way indistinguishable from how they hammered the uncooperative Trojan program, every school will be left asking themselves if and how self-reporting pays.


I’m so looking forward to writing about football. Next week, I promise.


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