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Tressel on borrowed time at Ohio State in wake of NCAA allegations

What has been whispered for nearly two months took a significant step toward becoming reality Monday: Jim Tressel's tenure at Ohio State is numbered. It may even be over before the end of the calendar year.

The NCAA sent a Notice of Allegations to the school last Friday, less than seven weeks since Ohio State self-reported Tressel's violation on March 8, virtually warp-speed for the governing body. As expected, the NCAA accused Tressel of ethical misconduct for failing to inform OSU officials of an e-mail tip he received that at least two of his current players were selling memorabilia to a local tattoo parlor owner and stated that Tressel "knowingly provided false information to the NCAA" by signing a compliance form last September stating he knew of no potential violations by his players. The letter also cites the school for using ineligible players last season.

The penalty for the latter is easy to predict: Ohio State will have to vacate its 11 regular-season wins from 2010 and presumably its Big Ten title. It should be off the hook for the Sugar Bowl because the NCAA reinstatement staff specifically cleared the players for that game (though the NCAA might contend it did so after being provided with false information).

As for Tressel, Ohio State will appear before the Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12 and make its case for why its self-imposed five-game suspension and $250,000 fine constitute sufficient punishment for the coach. However, past precedent for Bylaw 10.1 violations suggest the odds of Tressel keeping his job are slim.

The timing of the hearing could make for a particularly awkward scenario. Knowing how slow most NCAA investigations move, it was thought no definitive ruling would come down until after the 2011 season. But with an August hearing, the typical timeline suggests a verdict sometime in October. If given a show-cause penalty (the most severe the Committee can levy against a coach), Ohio State may have no choice but to cut ties with Tressel for good shortly after he returns from suspension. Tressel has given no indication he would consider stepping down voluntarily, and the school isn't likely to ax the revered coach on its own.

Beyond that, Ohio State can breathe a little easier knowing the NCAA found no basis to levy lack of institutional control or failure to monitor charges against the school. Therefore, it seems unlikely the school would face future penalties like a postseason ban or reduced scholarships, though the NCAA hinted that Ohio State could be treated as a "repeat violator" due to the 2004 case involving Troy Smith receiving money from a booster. The NCAA also gave Buckeyes fans plenty of cause for concern by asking the school to submit, among other things, its average number of scholarships over the past four years and its contractual agreements for live television contests over the next three seasons. (The latter is standard in these cases, but the Committee hasn't issued a television ban since the mid-90s.)

The main reason broader penalties against the school appear unlikely is because the NCAA appears to be pinning the blame for the situation almost entirely on Tressel.

According to the report, Tressel "knew or should have known that at least two football student-athletes" received benefits from Edward Rife and, by failing to report the information, "permitted football student-athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics competition while ineligible." In levying the unethical conduct charge, the NCAA writes that Tressel "failed to deport himself in accordance with the honesty and integrity normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics." If that language sounds familiar, that's because it's extremely similar to that written about ex-Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl in a Notice of Allegations the school received last February. The school dismissed Pearl before the case reached the Committee.

It will be interesting to see whether public opinion toward Tressel begins changing at all in Columbus, where the majority of Buckeyes fans continue to defend a coach whose persona is based in large part on his purported integrity. His greatest flaw, they might say, is that he cares too much about his players and was genuinely concerned for their safety. Yet here in writing, with little room for interpretation, is the NCAA flat-out saying Tressel failed to act with honesty and integrity.

Long story short: Tressel made a colossal mistake, and he's about to pay the price. In the end, it will inflict an even greater wound on the very players he cares about so deeply.

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