INDIANAPOLIS -- In the back of the downtown Marriott, across the hall from the ballroom where an NCAA Committee on Infractions had just heard Ohio State's case in near record time Friday, the reporters who came to chronicle the end of the Jim Tressel era assembled their stories. In the front of the hotel, the former Buckeyes coach emerged alone from an elevator with a bag over each shoulder.
Wearing a green suit, Tressel walked briskly through the lobby, but he could have sauntered. No head turned. No one acknowledged one of the most famous faces in college football until a bellhop asked Tressel if he needed help getting his bags to his car. Once outside, Tressel got directions from Luke Barker, the chief valet and a BYU grad who knows his football coaches. "I almost didn't recognize him without the sweatervest," Barker said. After several minutes, Tressel climbed into a red Chevy pickup with a small DAD sticker in the center of the back window. Then he was gone.
Ohio State entered Friday's hearing with an armada that included athletic director Gene Smith, president Gordon Gee, coach Luke Fickell, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and other assorted muckety-mucks. Tressel came in flanked by his attorney, Gene Marsh. The Ohio State contingent left in force. Tressel left alone, because he is no longer a part of The Ohio State University's football program. Smith said Friday that the NCAA forbade him from discussing the specifics of the hearing, but from everything Ohio State has done since forcing Tressel's resignation in May, it's clear the school's defense strategy has been "It's all Jim Tressel's fault." After all, it was Tressel who knowingly used players rendered ineligible by an arrangement with a local tattoo parlor owner that allowed them to trade gear and memorabilia for cash and tattoos. It was Tressel who willingly hid those violations from the school and from the NCAA.
Judging by the brevity of the meeting -- USC's hearing took three days; Ohio State's took about four hours -- that strategy worked. Though a July 13 letter from the NCAA's enforcement staff to the Committee on Infractions reveals that the NCAA will keep digging at additional allegations of impropriety, Ohio State may have dodged serious sanctions from the violations that stuck the first time around.
Because of that, everyone outside Columbus will say the Buckeyes got off light. They'll say the NCAA allowed Ohio State to skate because it is a favored program.
That simply isn't correct.
Even if the COI doesn't strip the Buckeyes of a single scholarship, Ohio State got hammered. How? Because this scandal forced Ohio State to jettison Jim Tressel.
In an age when the 85-scholarship limit has rendered every program vulnerable to a down season, Tressel's teams dominated year after year. At Ohio State, the two key bullet points on a coach's evaluation every year are:
1. Did he beat Michigan? Tressel went 9-1 against the Wolverines.
2. Did he win the Big Ten title? Tressel's teams won or shared seven Big Ten titles in 10 seasons.
Sure, the Buckeyes could hire Urban Meyer or another hot coaching name. But a big name doesn't necessarily guarantee the kind of success Tressel delivered year after year. When a school finds a winner, it's best to cling tight and hope the ride never ends. After going 8-4 in 2004, Tressel's Buckeyes never won fewer than 10 games. They finished alone in first or tied for first in the Big Ten every year from 2005-10. Tressel equaled almost-guaranteed success, and that's a rare find in this era. Just ask John Cooper, who enjoyed the same advantages Tressel did and had a career record of 2-10-1 against Michigan.
Tressel may not have been playing by the rules the entire time. Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith faced NCAA trouble long before former walk-on Christopher Cicero e-mailed Tressel to inform him that quarterback Terrelle Pryor and others were swapping memorabilia for money and tattoos at Fine Line Ink. Reading through the transcript of Tressel's interview with NCAA investigators, it's obvious Tressel knew he was breaking the NCAA's rules by playing Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey, who were named in the e-mails. Tressel, with a team capable of competing for the national title, calculated the risk of getting caught versus the reward of playing at full strength for the entire season. If not for bad first and third quarters at Wisconsin, Ohio State probably would have played for the national title for the fourth time in Tressel's 10 seasons. That's a huge reward.
Tressel might not have made the same choice had he correctly calculated the consequences of his actions. Another thing the interview transcript makes clear is that Tressel didn't realize at the time that he was risking his job by playing ineligible players. Coaches across the nation must make similarly murky ethical decisions every day. Sometimes they choose wisely. Sometimes they don't. Rarely do they get caught.
Tressel did. And after some initial resistance on Ohio State's part to throw the beloved coach to the NCAA wolves, Ohio State officials realized the program had to be bigger than the coach. Then they threw Tressel under the bus, ran him over and backed up to run him over again.
Tressel, ever the loyal Buckeye, took all the blame. Other than to say "We're done" as he walked out of the hearing, Tressel declined to comment Friday on the hearing or the show cause penalty the COI almost certainly will slap on him when it reveals its findings in 8 to 12 weeks. He did release a written statement. As opposed to the Ohio State statement, which came on fancy letterhead, Tressel's came on a plain white sheet. Even the office supplies reinforced the separation of coach and school. "Again, I would like to apologize to the Buckeye nation," the statement said, "most especially to the players, staff and fans who remain so dear to me."
Don't feel sorry for Tressel. He made an awful lot of money coaching at Ohio State. He knowingly broke the rules. He paid for that sin with his career and with his reputation.
On the other hand, don't say Ohio State came out without a scratch. The Buckeyes will move on with another coach, but the odds suggest that coach won't succeed like Tressel did. Wins and Big Ten titles were as certain as the sunrise under Tressel. They aren't anymore.
No matter what the COI decides, Ohio State got creamed. The hammer fell Friday when a man who dominated college football was reduced to just another guy at the valet stand asking for directions to the Interstate.