Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Floodgates Are Open: Ohio State Football, Jim Tressel, and the NCAA

Many of our readers may know this, and many of you may not, but KD and I both live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which sits right on the Ohio River. Now, one of the state's two defining geographic entities along with Lake Erie, the Ohio River is quite a large river and typically has a strong current. Sitting in the upper deck at Great American Ball Park, I always see giant coal barges travel at a slow pace, fighting to head upstream toward West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But the water doesn't prevent jet skis, motor boats, or sometimes even swimmers from putting their bodily health aside to dive in to enjoy the largest body of water in the area (unless you're like a few idiots in the class below me and decide to take a dip in the river at 2AM while you're overly drunk, inciting a riot and police search party on both sides of the river, resulting a ridiulous amount of legal fees to settle the claim. But that's another story for another day).

But like most of the Midwest, the city has been slammed with a record-setting amount of rain this month - 11+ inches to be exact - with more on the way this week. Playing golf last week on a river view course, our entire group could not believe the water level, which rose to the edges of the banks for the first time anyone knew of. I went to a Reds game, and the same coal barges that usually take 2 minutes to pass by the ballpark took about 8-10 because they couldn't go more than one or two miles an hour with the breakneck current. Last Thursday, Kabloom (my girlfriend) and I drove over a bridge on our way to a show at riverside Coney Island and we were amazed that trees were partially submerged on the riverbanks. The sight was extraordinary, a spectacle of nature taking its course as the rains spewed out of the Ohio. But the banks can only take so much water or hold for so long; with the relentless rain, the great Ohio River had to overflow the land surrounding it and cause some real damage.

After more storms early this weekend, the river finally flooded. All the much-hyped Cirque du Soleil weekend shows were cancelled as the Riverbend Music Center and Coney Island amusement park overflowed with water. Riverside businesses and homes have been evacuated, a school has been relocated, and the rain has kept pouring down.

The last few months, thunderstorms have been brewing with Ohio's crown jewel of sports: the Ohio State Buckeyes football team. The rain started falling shortly before Christmas, when it surfaced that Ohio State suspended six Buckeyes, including stars QB Terrelle Pryor, RB Dan "Boom" Herron, and WR DeVier Posey, broke NCAA violations by selling memorabilia and awards for cash and... tattoos. The school became aware of the violations after the FBI contacted the athletic department when a criminal investigation revealed that a Columbus tattoo parlor owner possessed some of the players' items, which ironically included Terrelle Pryor's 2009 Fiesta Bowl Sportsmanship Award.

As ridicule poured in from around the country, the fans stood strong by the team. Maybe we were a little hurt. Sure, Pryor, Herron, Posey, and the other three were idiots. Yes, they sold the cherished gold pants, scarlet and grey jerseys, and Big Ten Championship rings; items that many kids in Columbus grow up dreaming of winning. But one could at least understand that maybe, just maybe, their families did need the money. As far as the tattoos, no one knows, but Ohio State has dealt their share of stupid, immature idiots over the years. Art Schlister (Gambling). Steve Bellesari (DUI). Andy Katzenmoyer (Academic "Issues"). Reggie Germany (Starting WR, 0.00 GPA). Maurice Clarett (Everything but the kitchen sink). But players come and go. After four years, they graduate and move on. Even though our national championship hopes for next year took a hit, we knew Pryor and Co. would come back strong and Tressel would have the team ready to go. Besides, the Vest was our fearless leader. He would keep the team on track, which most of the state of Ohio couldn't do itself.

Ohio is a blue collar Midwestern state, full of hard-nosed people. As the state faces economic depression as the manufacturing industries that brought it to national prominence have faded, populations have dropped, unemployment has risen, and state pride has fallen even further. The state, by and large, is downtrodden. There's not a lot to look forward to. So to give us something to believe in, Ohio residents throw ourselves into their sports teams; they tailgate with the best of them, constantly fill stadiums, and have undying support through the best of times and the worst of times - no matter what.

But like the State of Ohio itself, our teams have fallen on hard times. We've seen success and been on the brink of championships, only to have it taken away in an instant. The Bengals finally showed glimmers of hope a few years ago, only to have Carson Palmer's ACL and Mike Brown's incompetency push the team back into the depths of the NFL. The Browns, one of the most rabid fan bases in the NFL, had their team TAKEN from them and haven't been relevant since. The Reds had two one-game playoffs in the mid-90's Barry Larkin years, but then had years of subpar baseball until last season. The Indians were perennial contenders in the 90's on the brink of the World Series title in 1997, only to fall back into the pack once Manny left for Boston. The team was then one game from the World Series in 2007 with Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia on the roster, but lost three straight games to the Yankees and hasn't had a winning season since. We all know what has happened to the Cavs since the "Decision," when Cleveland became a national punchline in the summer of 2010. Thee lowly Blue Jackets have had one playoff appearance in their existence, ending in a sweep at the hands of the Red Wings. But Ohio always had college football season. And even when the team failed us (like in the 2007 and 2008 BCS National Championship games), we always had the Vest: Jim Tressel, who from the second he stepped on campus became the state's savior. If he ran for governor, he would have won in a landslide.

In March, the first evidence of wrongdoing on Tressel's part surfaced. E-mails between Tressel and attorney Chris Cicero were unearthed while OSU was in the midst of an internal investigation. The school suspends Tressel for two games, fines him $250,000, and Tressel claims to have kept the information to himself to protect the players involved while the federal investigation of the tattoo parlor owner was ongoing. He didn't mention anything to his superiors, or the NCAA. The school, including president E. Gordon Gee (who is the man) and AD Gene Smith, stood by Tressel, giving him the benefit of the doubt. As this becomes newsworthy, the national media starts to slam Ohio State, but the fans stood by Coach Tress. We hinged on every word coming out of that mouth, even as the water level of the BS coming from the program and its coach kept rising. We believed that he was genuinely interested in keeping his players safe from harm.

On March 17th, another rain shower occurs, as the NCAA denies Ohio State's appeal to reduce the six players' suspensions. Speculation increases that the NCAA is bringing down the hammer to save face after letting Cam Newton and Auburn walk free with no reprecussions a few months earlier. This sentiment started back in December, as the NCAA was widely criticized for the way it handled the matter, just another incident in the long line of NCAA investigations going awry. But the buzz within the Buckeye community applauds Tressel as he asks to receive the same suspension as the players. "He self-imposed his penalty? What an honorable guy." Buckeye fans want a coach that stands up for his players, and that is accountable for his actions.

On March 25th, the Columbus Dispatch reveals that Jim Tressel was also in contact about the federal investigation with Terrelle Pryor's childhood mentor, Ted Sarniak. Tressel let Sarniak know, but did not advise his superiors? The tornado sirens went off as the rain poured down. Questions started to be asked by the fans, but generally, they kept saying "In Tressel We Trust." Surely the man who wrote "The Winners Manual: For The Game Of Life" would not deceive the NCAA, his University, or his fanbase. The fanbase that had blindly followed him all this time. But the water level certainly brimmed to the edge of the bank. Tressel, the coach who led us to three National Championship games in 10 years on the job, would not lie, deceive, or cheat. There had to be some explanation, and the NCAA investiagtion was underway to find out what that was.

Fast forward to Monday. The NCAA completed it's report alright, and like the Ohio River, the fans drowned in the information. The NCAA has officially accused Jim Tressel of lying. He submitted paperwork stating that he was not aware of any violations within his program, which is directly contradicted by the e-mails that came to light during the investigation. Tressel's cover-up was out there in the open, for all to see. Now it's probably going to cost him his job. After reading the report, I sent out a message to all of my friends asking what they thought about Tressel and/or the program. My friend JShy reacted with the following: "Throughout this entire scandal, two parts of me have reacted to each piece of news: one part of me loves OSU blindly and can see no wrong in anything done by Tressel or any other member of the program. Te other part of me is rational. Having said that, after today’s news, the first part of me has fallen much more by the wayside, and the second part of me has taken over."

We always have our Buckeyes. The fans were the banks that wouldn't break. We couldn't, and we always felt that the team would never let us down. After all, the Ohio State Buckeyes are really all that Ohio sports fans had anymore. But Ohio State fans let the football program challenge the banks of the river. Players like Pryor, once thought to be destined to lead Ohio State to multiple national titles, thought they could get away with anything. Fans believed in Tressel's statements relating to honesty and integrity, and bought into his system. Tressel was the man with the Midas touch.

I'd originally wanted to make this article funny, and entertaining. But as it started flowing, I realized that there really wasn't anything comical to write, because like many of my friends, I felt distraught that the one sports figure in Ohio left that we all believed in let us down. Which proved to Buckeye Nation - like so many fans of teams and programs before us - that nothing in the sports world is sacred. Many cling to the idea that college sports is about providing kids who are good at sports an education, but in reality, my friend Beastman said it best: "I think we need to give up on the idea of college sports as pure."

If collegiate athletics were pure, why would we have point shaving scandals? Or one-and-done superstars in college basketball? Or even boosters? Kabloom seems convinced that all sports are fixed, that everything revolves around money. She's convinced that every single thing that happens in the sports world is a foregone conclusion. While I would never go that far, I think to an extent that what she believes holds some merit. The corporate NCAA, and all of its subsidiaries (the universities), have become so concerned about image and the bottom line that even the good men and women in the industry (and for the record, I still do believe Tressel truly is a good man at heart) will do anything to save face. Another responder - BDubs, in all his wisdom - said "I get that once you tell one lie and start digging that hole, you just keep digging until you hit China." Schools, coaches, and players think they need to do anything to protect the image that is their team, their institution, from the inconsistent discipline of the "non-profit" organization, the NCAA.

The NCAA may be the ultimate problem, as their governance creates a system that promotes hiding infractions. Programs know that the NCAA won't do anything until they get caught. The NCAA places its programs on a very long leash to operate as they desire. When there is a sign of trouble, the organization becomes involved and tries to overcompensate by punishing the parties involved. If the NCAA wanted to truly keep an "amateur" environment, it needs to create a system that consistently monitors its member institutions and its actions. The NCAA needs to become the governing body that it claims to be. I read an article somewhere this week, I can't remember where, that suggested one of two options. Option 1: create its own constant monitoring organization, much like the FBI, to ALWAYS watch its programs, not just take note when allegations of misconduct arise. Option 2: hire a private contractor to constantly monitor the member institutions in the same way as Option 1. If the NCAA wants to keep its programs in check, and truly maintain an amateur environment it wants to foster, it has to take these steps. Or else, you can expect a lot more Reggie Bush, Bruce Pearl, and Jim Tressel/Pryor situations well into the future. And the truth is that these incidents, as large scale as they have become, give rise to the thought that the NCAA currently does not have the proper measures in place to control and employ the athletic departments of its members.

Spring is slowly turning to summer here in Cincinnati. Eventually, unless we're headed for another Noah's Ark situation, the rain will stop. We all know that. Slowly but surely, as the weather dries up, the banks of the Ohio will return from their submerged state, and contain the great Ohio River once again.

Once the storm subsides, many things may happen to the Ohio State football program. Tressel still may be their coach, or he may not. The Buckeyes may still be the defending Big Ten champions, or they may not. The team may not be banned from future postseason play, or they could lose a number of scholarships over the next few years. While it is highly unlikely, the program could even receive the "death penalty," which is what happened to SMU football back in the 1980's. That program is still recovering.

The funny thing is that I don't the love for this team subsiding. Like the trees and parks that will return when the Ohio River water level recedes, the banks of Buckeye Nation will emerge from the aftermath of the storm, just like they have for so many programs throughout the country before us. Even though the Buckeyes let the state down over the past year, come September 3rd, there will still be 105,000 strong at Ohio Stadium when the team takes the field against the Akron Zips. As the fallout from Tressel's reign becomes clear and possibly a new coach emerges (many of my inquiries were met with hopes of Urban Meyer standing on the sidelines in 2012), the fans will still stand and yell O-H!!! I-O!!! Tressel may even be standing on the sidelines, and fans wearing scarlet and gray colored glasses won't even care - as my buddy BDubs told me "Say what you want about him and his ways but the record speaks for itself. Hard to come down tough on a guy that's 9-1 against Michigan."

So in reality, nothing really changes. The NCAA will continue its confusing ways of enforcing its "rules" and "regulations," and the institutions will continue to find ways to bend the rules in their favor until the water level breaks. The NCAA and its member universities won't realize that the idea of amateur athletics on this scale is a fallacy - at least when it comes to basketball and football - until the water level becomes so high that the banks disappear altogether and fans don't come back, similar to what happened after the MLB strike in 1994. When that happens, the NCAA will have to take notice. But until that happens - and it probably never will - the joke is on us.


  1. As an Ohio State fan myself, I think the majority of the fan base vastly overlooked Tressel's career at Youngstown State, where he not only won chapmionships, but had multiple NCAA violations. Fans, especially Buckeye fans, don't see that; they see the wins. That's it.

    I doubt most Buckeye fans could tell you whether or not Tressel took money from boosters at YSU (he did).

    Personally, while I like Tressel and respect him, I got the chance to meet him in high school, I've never thought of him to be that good of a coach. Yeah, he's not characterized as a snake the way Nick Saban is, but give them each the same roster of guys and Nick Saban gets more wins out of them 10 out of 10 times. Saban's an X's & O's genius.

    Tressel's Ohio State teams, for the most part, I think have been pretty soft. They don't do well against teams that can pound them physically (Michigan 2004, Wisconsin last year) and they don't do well against teams with speed (Florida, LSU, USC). Sure, they beat up on Big 10 opponents, but since Lloyd Carr left Michigan, is that saying much?

    Personally, I'm sad that he's drug Ohio State's name through the mud, but all things being equal, I'll be happy if he does resign or get fired, as I just don't think he's that good of a coach. Put him in the SEC and I doubt he lasts as long as he did in the Big 10.

    I did notice Urban Meyer bought a house near Columbus a few months back. But, I think all Buckeye fans should've taken notice - his first big recruit that performed was Maurice Clarett. Afterall, never wise to trust a man who wears a sweater vest.

  2. Very nice Simmons-length post Chizzy. As someone who is still forming his opinion, it was a great read. At this point, I think of Tressel as someone who has played a very positive role in a lot of young men's lives and someone who has no trouble lying. And I think this is a very common theme amongst college football coaches. With the way the NCAA is currently structured, it seems that lying/cheating the system and winning are positively correlated.

    Also, I started reading the Winner's Manuel awhile ago before all this went down. It's context seems to be changing by the minute.

  3. And I wasn't reading The Winner's Manuel, the story of a champion jockey's trusty Mexican steed. I was going for The Winners Manual on that one.

  4. Steve, I must say that at this point the story of a sturdy Mexican steed may be more entertaining. However, Tressel's book probably provides solid unintentional comedy.

    I'm still trying to formulate my opinion on what happens from here as well. At this point all I know is that come fall, I'll still be rooting for the scarlet and gray, no matter who the coach is.