Friday September 5th, 2003

In the closing minutes of last Saturday night's season-opening rout of overrated Washington (you heard me), Ohio State's first-team players stood atop sideline benches and celebrated. It was the time in a blowout when players look for familiar faces in the crowd and seek out television cameras roving the bench area. Quarterback Craig Krenzel was in the middle of the scrum laughing and joking with his offensive linemen and with wideouts Chris Gamble and Michael Jenkins. It was a big night for the Buckeyes; the long offseason was finally over and they had begun defense of their national title with a convincing 28-9 victory.

Maurice Clarett was in the mix, too. He was hamming it up with his teammates and waving a towel at the crowd. Clarett, the sophomore tailback who was supposed to have kicked off his Heisman Trophy campaign on this night, was instead beginning a suspension of indeterminate length. Still, he was very much part of the show.

Earlier that day, he had done an interview with ESPN's GameDay gang during which he expressed zero remorse for the obvious and glaring misjudgments (to use a very kind word) that landed him and his team in its current predicament. Clarett was a visible presence throughout the game, on the sideline, as if he were injured rather than suspended.

In the days following the victory, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel reversed his decision to allow Clarett to practice while under suspension, telling the media at his weekly press luncheon that it looks as if Clarett's suspension is going to be "long." Also, Ohio State's embattled athletic director, Andy Geiger, expressed frustration at the fact-finding process in the ongoing investigation of Clarett's transgressions and the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio State officials were disturbed by Clarett's ostentatious behavior on the day of the season opener.

Gee, you think? Let's take a step backward. Why was Clarett not dressed for last Saturday night's game? Because he was under suspension for, among other things, exaggerating the value of goods stolen from a car he had borrowed from a Columbus auto dealership. Because he might have received extra benefits, one of the obvious core violations on the ncaa books (whatever you think of the ncaa books, everybody knows this rule). Because he might have cut some corners in the classroom to remain eligible for last season's fiesta bowl.

Before last Saturday night, the NCAA and Ohio State had already determined that Clarett's case was severe enough to warrant a suspension of at least three games. (Some media had reported that it was going to be six games, or half the season.) Simply put, Clarett had done enough things that were outside the rules to cost his team its best offensive player. By far. His reaction to the suspension was to party all game on the Buckeyes sideline. In his defense, some of his teammates said that Clarett has made brief overtures of apology for casting such a negative shadow over the preseason and opener, but his high profile last weekend wiped out all of that.

It's time for Ohio State to move on. Tressel made the right move by rescinding Clarett's right to practice. Krenzel told me during the preseason that Clarett is "essentially a good kid, but he's got a lot of people telling him to do the wrong things." That might be true, but he's not the first young superstar to face temptations. Clarett was one of the very few Ohio State players who was seldom present for summer conditioning and seven-on-seven passing drills. Maurice is Maurice, his teammates would say, just as the Red Sox talk about Manny (Ramirez) being Manny.

The truth is that Clarett, at this point, is a burden to Ohio State's mission. Sure, in pads, healthy and eligible, he's a force. On the bench in sweats, under suspension and suspicion, he's a distraction.

Tressel runs a fanatically tight ship. In the mold of Tyrone Willingham, the coach speaks publicly only in platitudes and cliches, intentionally revealing little. His players, obviously under orders, follow suit. That doesn't make life fun for sportswriters, but so be it. It works like a charm when you're going 14-0 and en route to winning the national championship.

But when OSU players are faced each day with a battery of questions about the Clarett situation, it starts getting difficult to maintain the company line. Tressel's carefully crafted infrastructure starts to crack. Players get tired of the questions and start answering honestly. Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Shane Olivea told me before the Washington game that any player who says he's not paying attention to Clarett news is lying and that the practice field is a "sanctuary from the controversy." That won't work for a whole season.

A year ago, Maurice Clarett was one of the best freshmen football players I had ever seen. Despite the fact that he missed all or part of five games, Ohio State would not have won the national title without him. This year, he has brought scandal upon himself and his team and diminished its chances of repeating. He no longer deserves to be part of it. If he wants to come back next year, good for him, but frankly, that would be a surprise. For now, Ohio State needs to turn the page and get on with Life After Maurice.

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