Ohio State has suspended football coach Jim Tressel for the first two games of the 2011 season and fined him $250,000 for failing to notify the school of NCAA violations involving Ohio State football players and a financial arrangement with a local tattoo parlor, the school announced Tuesday.
Ohio State self-reported a violation of NCAA Bylaw 10.1, which bans "unethical conduct." In the process of handling another legal matter on Jan. 13, Ohio State officials discovered that Tressel was made aware by e-mail in April of a financial relationship between a Columbus, Ohio, tattoo parlor and two Ohio State players. Months later, it was revealed that six players had traded championship rings, jerseys and awards to owner Edward Rife of Fine Line Ink Tattoos in exchange for cash and discounted tattoos, but the April e-mails referred only to two players. Ohio State first contacted the NCAA about Tressel's violation on Feb. 3. Previously, Ohio State officials had said they didn't learn of the relationship until Dec. 7, when federal officers investigating Rife contacted the athletic department to determine whether the memorabilia was stolen.
Violations of Bylaw 10.1 are considered major infractions by the NCAA. Ohio State's self-reporting of that violation does not preclude NCAA investigators from tacking on more accusations after they finish their inquiry. Based on previous cases, Tressel also could face charges of failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and a failure to monitor for not reporting the information to the NCAA. Both of those also are considered major violations. The NCAA also could force Ohio State to vacate all 12 wins in 2010 for using players Tressel knew to be ineligible.
Tressel is scheduled to miss home games against Akron and Toledo, but Tressel also could face additional penalties from the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. He will be called before the committee after NCAA investigators complete their inquiry.
Tressel said Tuesday that he held off on informing anyone about the information because he worried about his players getting mixed up in a federal drug investigation. "Admittedly, I probably didn't give quite as much thought to the NCAA end of things as I read it," Tressel said. "I was focused on the young people." He also said he wanted to protect the confidentiality of the attorney who tipped him off to the arrangement between the players and the tattoo parlor. In Tuesday's press conference, Tressel was asked if he had forwarded the e-mails to anyone. He began to answer but was cut off by athletic director Gene Smith, who said Tressel wasn't allowed to answer out of respect to the NCAA investigation.
The e-mailer wrote Tressel again on April 16 after meeting with Rife. The e-mailer said Rife had explained that he had 15 pairs of signed cleats, four or five signed jerseys, nine Big Ten championship rings and the 2002 national title ring of a player whose name was redacted. Tressel replied less than two hours later. "I hear you!! It is unbelievable!!" Tressel wrote. "Thanks for your help. ... keep me posted as to what I need to do if anything. I will keep pounding these kids hoping they grow up."
On June 1, Tressel sent an e-mail to his tipster asking for names of current players who might have sold championship rings. "Our rings arrive this week for the 2009 Big Ten ... any names from our last discussion??" Tressel wrote. "I would like to hold some collateral if you know what I mean." The tipster replied five days later, saying he didn't know any names other than the two current players he had named in a previous e-mail. "No more names as the federal government appears to have reached a resolution for [redacted] Eddy Riffe [sic]," the tipster wrote.
Tressel, 58, has gone 106-22 and won a national title and seven Big Ten titles at Ohio State. Tressel's contract, originally signed in 2005 and since extended through 2014, addresses his responsibility for reporting violations of NCAA rules. According to the contract, Tressel must "supervise and take appropriate steps to ensure that Coach's assistant coaches, any other employees for whom Coach is administratively responsible and the members of the Team know, recognize and comply with all such laws, policies, rules and regulations; and immediately report to the Director and to the Department's Office of Compliance Services if Coach has reasonable cause to believe that any person or entity ... has violated or is likely to violate such laws, policies, rules or regulations." Another section of the contract explains the scenarios in which Ohio State could fire Tressel for cause. One such scenario is for "Failure by Coach to report promptly to the Director any violations known to Coach of governing athletic rules or Ohio State rules and regulations by assistant coaches, students or other persons under the direct control or supervision of Coach."
Despite that, Smith made it clear Tuesday that Ohio State has no intention of firing Tressel. "Wherever we end up at the end of the day, Jim Tressel is our football coach," Smith said. Ohio State president Gordon Gee echoed that sentiment. "This university is very committed to this coach," Gee said. "This university president is very committed to this coach."
Five players -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, tailback Dan "Boom" Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas -- were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season after it was discovered they had sold items to Rife. (A sixth player, linebacker Jordan Whiting, is suspended for one game.)
The players were allowed to participate in the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl win against Arkansas because school officials claimed they had failed to properly educate the players about rules barring the sale of team-specific awards and memorabilia. It is unclear whether this new information will affect that punishment. The players' appeal of the punishment is scheduled for later this month.
Tressel's situation is similar to the one facing Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Pearl received an unethical conduct charge for allegedly lying to NCAA investigators about whether juniors on unofficial visits attended a cookout at Pearl's home in 2008. NCAA officials also accused Pearl of trying to manipulate the investigation by calling a player's father before his NCAA interview to discuss details of the visit. Pearl was suspended by the SEC for Tennessee's first eight conference games this season. Tennessee received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA last week, and Pearl's case is scheduled to go before the Committee on Infractions later this year. On top of the unethical conduct charge, Pearl also is charged with a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failure to monitor the activities of his assistants.
Pearl's suspension by the SEC probably won't be the only punishment he faces. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions also will rule on his case and could issue more sanctions. The same committee ultimately will hear Tressel's case, and its decision could forever alter the legacy of one of college football's most accomplished coaches.
"Obviously, I plan to grow from this," Tressel said. "I'm sincerely saddened by the fact that I let some people down and didn't do things as well as I could possibly do."