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Tressel report appears damaging

Probably not. Not yet, anyway. But the mere possibility that the Buckeyes' stately sweater wearer may have perpetrated unethical conduct in an NCAA investigation is as stunning a turn to his career -- and one that may ultimately prove as damaging.

The latest Yahoo! Sports investigative bombshell Monday night claimed Ohio State's coach was made aware of his players selling memorabilia to a Columbus tattoo parlor owner eight months before the school claimed it learned about the transactions from law enforcement officials. Yahoo's report appears to be based on one anonymous source, but is stated as fact, which leads us to believe the school itself was already aware of Tressel's transgression and is in the midst of processing it. Now, it's a matter of finding out just how egregious it may be.

Failing to disclose a possible rules violation is itself an NCAA violation. A cornerstone of the NCAA's case against USC last year was that assistant coach Todd McNair knew of Reggie Bush's illicit financial arrangement but failed to disclose it. Obviously, the crime in play here (players selling a few thousand dollars worth of rings and trinkets) was less serious than that at USC (where Bush and his family allegedly pocketed six-figure benefits) and thus had not yet warranted a full-scale NCAA infractions case.

But the severity of Tressel's infraction rises exponentially if it's found he lied to NCAA investigators. And it wouldn't take much further investigation to figure that out. At some point during those 10 days in December that led to the suspensions of Terrelle Pryor and Co., one of the NCAA's staffers presumably interviewed Tressel. If at any point he or she asked the coach whether he'd heard previous rumblings about the notorious Edward Rife, and if Tressel replied, "No" -- well, that's unethical conduct. The NCAA frowns on it. Ask Dez Bryant or Bruce Pearl.

Mind you, we're only about three yards into one of Tressel's patented 17-play field goal drives in terms of learning his ultimate fate. First Ohio State would have to self-report the information to the NCAA. Its enforcement staff would have to launch an investigation. Several months later, that group would report its findings. It could be a year or more before the seeds of this Yahoo! report make their way into an Infractions Committee decision.

But surely Ohio State will do something before that. Sometime soon, it will reveal what it knows about Tressel, especially if it merits pre-emptive punishment. Maybe he'll join his quarterback on the suspended list for the first few games next year. But it's hard to imagine administrators will send him packing without a full-blown investigation. You don't part ways with your seven-time Big Ten champion coach until you've exhausted every other possible measure. Especially when that coach is Tressel.

At this point, it's hard to be shocked by anything nefarious in college sports, but few coaches in America have maintained a more pristine image than the so-called Senator. Not that there haven't been threats to his reputation -- Maurice Clarett's sordid allegations of cash and cars, a similar case with one of his star players at Youngstown State, Troy Smith's relationship with a booster right through to Tattoo-gate -- but the author of Life Promises for Success: Promises from God on Achieving Your Best survived all of it unscathed. Ohio State fans still hold him up as a genuinely pious figure, while his nonpartisan critics mostly fault him for losing to Florida and LSU.

There's always been a cynical minority, however, that grudgingly held out hope of his eventual undressing. They may be about to get their wish.

Meanwhile, there should now be serious questions about Ohio State's original handling of the situation last December. Beyond the still-mystifying loophole that allowed the Buckeye Five to play in the Sugar Bowl, it always seemed a bit odd that the notoriously laborious NCAA was able to resolve the case in less than two weeks. Reading between the lines, it was clear that AD Gene Smith and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany did something to expedite the process. They were practically boastful of it. Perhaps they missed an important piece?

Ohio State's own former players let it spill via Twitter that their friendly relationship with Rife dated back nearly 10 years. Yet the NCAA took Smith at his word that the incidents were "isolated"? They didn't want to look into the school a bit more?

Apparently someone did. And now we wait to learn just what's been uncovered. All that's at stake is the legacy of one of the sport's preeminent coaches.