Monday, May 30, 2011

Hubris? From a millionaire coach? Who'da thunk it?

Jim Tressel resigned (a.k.a. was fired) today as head football coach at [The] Ohio State University. This was about as unexpected as the news that a number of Americans have fired up their grills over Memorial Day weekend. Tressel was allowed to survive as long as he did at Ohio State for one reason and one reason only: he won a lot of football games. That was, of course, what he was paid to do, and even if he didn’t fare as well as fans would have liked in bowl games, his overall record was outstanding: 106-22 (a better winning percentage than Woody Hayes), a national championship, seven league titles and eight BCS appearances in 10 years. Ohio State had more players (66) drafted by the NFL during Tressel’s regime than any other program. Most importantly to Buckeye fans, he was 9-1 against arch-rival Michigan.

Throughout this time, he managed to maintain a reputation for rectitude that the facts didn’t bear out. He wrote books with nauseating titles like The Winner's Manual: For the Game of Life which contained the predictable mix of Biblical quotations and homey aphorisms: “Discipline is what you do when no one else is looking” and similar treacle. As Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, however, “Nowhere in it does Tressel suggest that withholding information on player wrongdoing from superiors, lying to the NCAA in writing, and knowingly playing ineligible players are behaviors worthy to be emulated.” Jim Tressel is a very good football coach. He is also a liar, a cheat, and a hypocrite.

The scandal that brought him down started in December when a half-dozen Buckeye players, including star quarterback Terrell Pryor, were suspended for accepting improper benefits: selling memorabilia in exchange for cash and discounted tattoos (yes, really). This, unfortunately, is the kind of thing that happens all the time. But Tressel, that presumed paragon, covered it up: he didn’t tell the school’s athletic director, compliance officer, or university president. He did tell Pryor’s hometown “mentor.” And, of course, he lied about it to the NCAA. As Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples notes, “Tressel did… make a poor choice of NCAA rules to break. An accomplished former coach once told me that the NCAA only considers two violations unforgivable: Getting caught buying a player and getting caught lying to the NCAA. Tressel is guilty of the second, and coaches who get caught lying to the NCAA rarely keep their jobs.”

When he was finally busted, Tressel started spinning his misconduct as an attempt to protect his players. Nonsense: it was an attempt to protect his winning percentage: nothing more and nothing less. Notice, also, that the suspensions were for the first few games of this season, against Ohio State’s traditional cupcake non-conference schedule (to be fair, the 2011 schedule is far tougher than usual). Couldn’t keep those players out of a bowl game just for blatantly and completely intentionally breaking NCAA rules, now could we?

But this is just the latest in a string of improprieties in Tressel’s career, as a précis on the website Bleacher Report suggests: there was the Ray Isaac story, in which the star quarterback reportedly received $10,000 in cash and access to multiple cars (this was when Tressel was at Youngstown State); there was the admission by Santonio Holmes that he was receiving money from an agent; there were the cash and loaner cars to Troy Smith and to Maurice Clarett (not to mention the fact that Clarett almost certainly wasn’t academically eligible). Then, of course, there was the single-game suspension of linebacker Robert Reynolds for choking Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi. Tressel tried to make it sound like suspending Reynolds showed how tough he was on players who got out of line; in fact, of course, Reynolds should have been thrown off the team and probably arrested.

And there may be more to come: Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann, the last sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize, has a new piece due out today. He’s not shy, tweeting, “I'm told it is likely my SI mag story will be posted at later today/tonight. Timing of Tress dec. will make sense after you read it.” Hoo boy.

Only a couple months ago, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee responded to a question about whether Tressel would be fired: “I hope he doesn’t fire me.” Gee, of course, is an idiot, but something clearly happened to precipitate the change of direction. Given the administration’s serial gutlessness over the past decade, it’s likely to be damning.

Perhaps the most telling quotation came from Athletic Director Gene Smith: “We look forward to refocusing the football program on doing what we do best—representing this extraordinary university and its values on the field, in the classroom, and in life.” Unfortunately, this may be the one time someone at Ohio State has told the truth in years: yes, I’m afraid the football program and its manifold transgressions do indeed represent the university’s values. More’s the pity.

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