The character traits that have made Jim Tressel a successful football coach and a beloved figure in Ohio are numerous and frequently cited. Former NFL coach Tony Dungy has praised Tressel's "integrity" and said he is the kind of man you'd want your son to play for. Eddie DeBartolo, the former 49ers owner, has said that Tressel's "steady" demeanor and knack for relating to young men reminded him of Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
This is an article from the June 6, 2011 issue
Tressel has often been described as senatorial, an adjective rarely applied to a football coach; in fact, one of his nicknames is the Senator. He has been lauded for his sincerity and his politeness, and people who admire his faith in God often mention the prayer-request box on the desk in his office at Ohio State.
The 58-year-old Tressel benefited from the fertile recruiting grounds of Ohio, but supporters always believed he got the most out of players because he was—as the title of a 2009 book about him declares—More Than a Coach. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes often sat together before meetings or at the start of practice for 10 minutes of "quiet time" to read about virtues such as humility, faith and gratitude. Tressel liked to say that his teams "play as hard as we can play" but also "respect as hard as we can respect."
Yet while Tressel's admirable qualities have been trumpeted, something else essential to his success has gone largely undiscussed: his ignorance. Professing a lack of awareness isn't usually the way to get ahead, but it has helped Tressel at key moments in his career. As coach at Youngstown (Ohio) State in the mid-1990s, he claimed not to know that his star quarterback had received a car and more than $10,000 from a school trustee and his associates—even though it was later established in court documents that Tressel had told the player to go see the trustee. In 2003, during Tressel's third season in Columbus, Buckeyes running back Maurice Clarett was found to have received money and other benefits. Even though Tressel said he spent more time with Clarett than with any other player, he also said he did not know that Clarett had been violating the rules. A year later an internal Ohio State investigation (later corroborated by the NCAA) found that quarterback Troy Smith had taken $500 from a booster. It was the second time the booster had been investigated for allegedly providing improper benefits to a star player, but again Tressel said he had no knowledge of the illicit payment.
On Monday—after months of turmoil during which he had first claimed to be unaware of violations in his program and then acknowledged that he had known about them—Tressel resigned. (He had four years left on his estimated $3.5 million-a-year contract.) In his 10 seasons Tressel was the most successful coach in Columbus since Woody Hayes, having led the Buckeyes to three BCS title games, the 2002 national championship, a 9--1 record against Michigan and a winning percentage of 82.8%. But like Hayes, who was fired after hitting a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl, Tressel exits ignominiously, all of his many accomplishments tarnished. "After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach," Tressel said in a statement. "The appreciation that [my wife] Ellen and I have for the Buckeye Nation is immeasurable." The school named Luke Fickell, 37, as interim coach for the 2011 season. The team's co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, Fickell is a Columbus native who played for Ohio State from 1992 to '96.
Tressel's most recent troubles began in December, when the Department of Justice, passing along information it had gathered in a raid while investigating the owner of a Columbus tattoo parlor for drug trafficking, informed Ohio State that at least six current players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had traded team memorabilia for tattoos or cash at the parlor. When those revelations became public, Tressel said he hadn't known what the players had done and expressed disappointment that they had not listened to what he called the "little sensor" inside them that knew right from wrong. Four of Tressel's highest-profile players were found to have committed major NCAA violations, yet the coach's supporters insisted that those were isolated incidents outside his control.
Then, on March 8, Tressel stood before TV cameras and confirmed a Yahoo report that he had been aware of the memorabilia-for-ink scandal and had not informed Ohio State officials when asked about it in December. Tressel said he had first learned that players were breaking NCAA rules almost a year earlier, in April 2010, when a Columbus lawyer e-mailed him. Rather than alert his superiors, as NCAA regulations require, Tressel said he "couldn't think" whom to tell. It was later reported that he had told one person, a hometown adviser of Pryor's. By ignoring his own "little sensor" and failing to be forthcoming, Tressel protected key players from being ruled ineligible for much of the 2010 season, in which the Buckeyes were a popular pick to reach the BCS championship game. (They ended up going 12--1.)
A failure to disclose potential violations is considered one of the NCAA's cardinal sins and almost always leads to a coach's dismissal or resignation. Yet Ohio State supported Tressel and continued backing him despite weeks of negative press and calls by prominent alumni for him to be replaced.
That support crumbled suddenly over Memorial Day weekend. Tressel was forced out three days after SPORTS ILLUSTRATED alerted Ohio State officials that the wrongdoing by Tressel's players was far more widespread than had been reported. SI learned that the memorabilia-for-tattoos violations actually stretched back to 2002, Tressel's second season at Ohio State, and involved at least 28 players—22 more than the university has acknowledged. Those numbers include, beyond the six suspended players, an additional nine current players as well as nine former players whose alleged wrongdoing might fall within the NCAA's four-year statute of limitations on violations.
One former Buckeye, defensive end Robert Rose, whose career ended in 2009, told SI that he had swapped memorabilia for tattoos and that "at least 20 others" on the team had done so as well. SI's investigation also uncovered allegations that Ohio State players had traded memorabilia for marijuana and that Tressel had potentially broken NCAA rules when he was a Buckeyes assistant coach in the mid-1980s.
Last Friday, SI informed Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch of the new allegations and asked that Tressel be made aware of them. Lynch said the school would have some comment by the end of the day. No comment came, and on Saturday, Lynch told SI to contact Tressel's lawyer, Gene Marsh, for any response from the coach; Lynch also said he could not confirm that Tressel had been apprised of the new allegations. The implication was clear: Ohio State was distancing itself from Tressel. (E-mails from SI to Tressel and to Marsh and multiple phone messages for Marsh went unanswered.)
For more than a decade, Ohioans have viewed Tressel as a pillar of rectitude, and have disregarded or made excuses for the allegations and scandal that have quietly followed him throughout his career. His integrity was one of the great myths of college football. Like a disgraced politician who preaches probity but is caught in lies, the Senator was not the person he purported to be.
To understand the arc of Tressel's head-coaching career, start with its blue-collar origin in the Steel Valley. Youngstown State hired Tressel in December 1985. He had grown up mostly in Berea, about 90 minutes west, as part of a noted Ohio football family. Jim's father, Lee, coached at Baldwin-Wallace in Berea for 23 seasons—Jim played quarterback for him from 1971 through '74—and in 1978 led the college to the Division III national championship.
Since the late 1970s, Youngstown had hemorrhaged steel-industry jobs. The more its longtime source of pride slipped away, the more important the Youngstown State football program became. Tressel's decorous manner and his appeal to area blue-chippers were just what the town craved. His first team finished 2--9, but the next one went 8--4 and won the Ohio Valley Conference. In 1990, with hometown hero Ray Isaac under center, the Penguins went undefeated in the regular season. In '91 they won the Division I-AA national title.
"The community took great pride in that team," says Leslie Cochran, who became the university's president in 1992. It took equal pride in Tressel. He wore his Christian values on his sweater vest and founded a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Tressel was especially skilled at taking troubled kids and molding them into a team. "A lot of [players] came from broken homes," Cochran says. "They'd see [Tressel] as a fatherly model."
But there was a seamy underside to the Penguins' success. In 1988, according to court documents from a jury-tampering trial involving Mickey Monus, a wealthy school trustee and the founder of the Phar-Mor chain of drug stores, Tressel had called Monus about arranging a job for Isaac. The player and the CEO had never met, but Isaac told SI that he had heard of Monus's "philanthropist-type hand" from two basketball players. At his first meeting with Monus, Isaac received $150. According to the court documents, by the time he left Youngstown State, in 1992, Isaac had collected more than $10,000 in cash and checks from Monus and Monus's associates and employees.
In January 1994 the NCAA's director of enforcement sent Cochran an ominous letter. It said that according to an anonymous source, Isaac had been driving a car provided by a local business, which would turn out to be Phar-Mor; 13 Penguins had had jobs with Phar-Mor during the season, in violation of NCAA rules; and nonscholarship student athletes were being illegally paid by the university's director of athletic development.
Over the next month Cochran quizzed football staff members in informal meetings. He believed that if anybody was aware of what was going on in the program, it was Tressel. But Tressel told Cochran that the tipster was just a disgruntled former employee. Given Tressel's sterling reputation, Cochran felt confident relaying a nothing-to-see-here message to the NCAA.
In 1995, Monus was convicted in federal court of 109 felony counts of bank, wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of stolen goods related to his looting of Phar-Mor's corporate coffers. Three years later Monus was on trial for jury tampering in the government's first prosecution of him, which had ended in a hung jury. During this trial (at which Monus was found not guilty) Monus and Isaac, who had pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe a juror on Monus's behalf, disclosed their financial dealings while Isaac was a student and alleged that Tressel had set these in motion with that first phone call.
A reporter covering the jury-tampering trial called the school and reported Monus's and Isaac's testimony, prompting an internal investigation. That probe revealed that Isaac's car was the worst-kept secret on campus. According to NCAA documents, all of Isaac's teammates who were interviewed "except one" knew about the car or had suspicions about it. Even people outside the football family knew. Pauline Saternow, then the school's compliance officer, had such misgivings about the car that she recused herself from the investigation committee because, according to Cochran, she did not feel she could be objective. Everyone raised an eyebrow—except Tressel.
Today Isaac runs High Impact Football, a quarterback-coaching business in Cary, N.C. He is quick to call Tressel his "surrogate dad." The two were once so close that Tressel invited Isaac to a football camp, even after Isaac had been indicted for jury tampering. They text-messaged psalms back and forth, according to Isaac, who says the coach taught him his most important life lessons. "He never let me take the path of least resistance," Isaac says.
Tressel was aware of the car. At times, Isaac told SI, he asked the coach for help in getting out of traffic tickets. "He'd slot out two hours to meet and say, 'Ray, I need you to read this book and give me 500 words on why it's important to be a good student-athlete,'" Isaac says. Afterward the ticket would sometimes disappear, which, if Tressel intervened, would be an NCAA infraction.
In February 2000, 11 months before Ohio State hired Tressel, Youngstown State acknowledged numerous football violations and announced self-imposed sanctions, including the loss of two scholarships. Because it was satisfied with those steps and its statute of limitations on the violations had run out, the NCAA allowed Youngstown to keep the '91 national title, one of four Tressel won with the Penguins. Cochran, who is now retired, still shakes his head over Tressel's contradictions. There was the Christian who lifted kids out of troubled neighborhoods and built a football "family," Cochran says, and there was the coach who claimed to have been kept in the dark after he had assiduously avoided the light. "What bothered me was that the family knows," Cochran says. "Inside the family everyone knows what's going on."
Columbus may be north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and Ohio State may be a Big Ten school, but the manner in which the city's inhabitants seek to associate with members of the football team is seen more often in Southeastern Conference towns such as Tuscaloosa and Knoxville. The legendary Hayes had a group of boosters—initially called the Frontliners—who scouted and courted recruits. There was also a Columbus car dealer who gave Hayes's players generous discounts in exchange for tickets to games. But the NCAA ban on such assistance in 1983 marked the end of such groups, though some of the former Frontliners kept their sense of purpose. They continued to do favors for recruits and players—a free dinner here, some cash there. "In this town there almost needs to be, like the security screening at the airport, something that beeps and lets you know that a booster has a bad moral compass," says Columbus lawyer Geoffrey Webster, an Ohio State alumnus and donor who was given a 2002 national championship ring by Tressel.
Stepping into that environment in 2001, Tressel had two options. He could set a hard line with his players and the boosters, or he could go with the flow. The first indication of Tressel's choice came in 2003, when the NCAA investigated Clarett for receiving improper benefits. Clarett was evasive, answering "I don't know" to many of the investigators' questions. The NCAA and Ohio State eventually ruled that he had received improper benefits, including taking money from and allowing his cellphone bill to be paid by a man who lived near Youngstown. Ohio State suspended Clarett for the '03 season.
A year later, after he left the university, Clarett told ESPN that he wasn't forthcoming with the NCAA because it would have meant ratting on teammates and coaches. He alleged that Tressel had arranged cars for him to use and that the coach's older brother Dick, who was then the Buckeyes' director of football operations (he is now the team's running backs coach), arranged lucrative no-show jobs for players. (Jim and Dick Tressel have denied the allegations.) Clarett added that coaches connected him with boosters who gave him thousands of dollars.
The NCAA never sanctioned Ohio State for any of those allegations. Clarett didn't respond when investigators tried to contact him after the ESPN story, so they weren't able to proceed. Like the Youngstown State whistle-blower years earlier, Clarett was dismissed as disgruntled.
Now NCAA investigators and Ohio State are both looking into the use of cars by several current Buckeyes, including Pryor, who, a source close to one of the investigations told SI, might have driven as many as eight cars in his three years in Columbus. (Ohio State declined to make Pryor available for comment.) Former Buckeyes basketball player Mark Titus posted on his blog on May 24 that it was common knowledge among students that football players were driving cars too pricey for their means. "You'd have to be blind to not notice it," he wrote. Former wide receiver Ray Small confirmed last week to The Lantern, the Ohio State student newspaper, that he got a "deal" on a car from a Columbus dealer, but he did not provide the terms.
"As fans we always write off what goes on behind the scenes," says Webster. "We say it is no big deal because we so enjoy watching these fellas play. But maybe we need to pay more attention to what is going on behind the curtain."
Webster got a peek in 2004 while working as an attorney for Poly-Care, a Columbus-based supplier of health-care products. He says an employee informed him of a phone conversation involving Poly-Care cofounder Robert Q. Baker during which Baker talked of a payment to Smith, the Buckeyes' quarterback, and said, "Now I own him."
Some have portrayed Baker as a rogue booster who committed a single forbidden act. But Tressel and Ohio State had reason to suspect that Baker had violated NCAA rules almost a year earlier. The Dayton Daily News reported that Chris Gamble, a cornerback and wide receiver who now plays for the NFL's Panthers, was paid by Baker in the summer of 2003 for a job that consisted of little more than showing up and signing autographs. The Columbus Dispatch wrote that Gamble accompanied Baker on golf outings and even called Baker at halftime of the '04 Fiesta Bowl.
Baker isn't an Ohio State grad, but he owned a share of a luxury box at Ohio Stadium. On the wall of his Poly-Care office, Baker hung a picture of Lee Tressel, for whom he played at Baldwin-Wallace.
Ohio State's investigation of Gamble's relationship with Baker found no wrongdoing; school officials accepted Gamble's explanation that his job included tasks other than signing autographs. Still, Tressel could have forbidden his players to interact with a die-hard booster such as Baker. Instead, about a year after Gamble's relationship with Baker was brought to Tressel's attention, Smith went to Poly-Care looking for a job and left with $500. After a tip from Webster, the university investigated and suspended Smith for the 2004 Alamo Bowl; the NCAA later banned him for a second game.
The Clarett and Baker scandals were further evidence that Tressel was, at best, woefully ignorant of questionable behavior by his players and not aggressive enough in preventing it. At worst, he was a conduit for improper benefits, as Clarett alleged. The latter interpretation is suggested by a story that has long circulated among college coaches and was confirmed to SI by a former colleague of Tressel's from Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting. At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won—a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
On the corner of West Broad Street and Rodgers Avenue in West Columbus, in a neighborhood appropriately called the Bottoms, sits a shuttered storefront. It has been vacant for some time, but a spray-painted board still hangs above the door, informing passersby that the building was once home to Dudley'z Tattoos & Body Piercing.
Ohio State fans are more familiar with another tattoo parlor, Fine Line Ink, a few miles west. That is where Pryor and several current teammates traded signed memorabilia for tattoos and cash. Buckeyes supporters have been led to believe that the wrongdoing was limited to Pryor and his five suspended teammates and took place only at Fine Line Ink beginning in 2008. "We're very fortunate that we do not have a systemic problem in our program," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said last December. "This is isolated to these young men and isolated to this particular instance."
In reality, Ohio State players have been trading memorabilia—including items bearing Tressel's signature—since at least the coach's second season, according to multiple sources. The number of players involved is also much higher than what has previously been disclosed.
Dustin Halko was an artist at Dudley'z from the fall of 2002 until early '04, and he says that players regularly visited the shop and handed over signed jerseys, gloves, magazines and other goods in exchange for tattoos. Halko says he personally inked at least 10 Ohio State players—he clearly remembers tattooing guard T.J. Downing, tight end Louis Irizarry and wide receiver Chris Vance—and in return he was given autographed memorabilia. (Downing denies ever entering Dudley'z and says that if his memorabilia was there it had been stolen out of his locker; Irizarry and Vance could not be reached for comment despite extensive efforts to contact them.) Halko says that more players, including Clarett (who declined to comment), traded with other artists, and he estimates that at least 15 players violated NCAA rules at Dudley'z just as Pryor & Co. did at Fine Line Ink. Two associates of Halko's who hung out at the shop—they asked not be named because they fear reprisals from Ohio State fans—confirmed Halko's account that players commonly swapped memorabilia for tattoo work. One said he saw "at least five" Buckeyes conduct such transactions; the other said "at least seven."
"What they brought in depended on the kind of tattoo they wanted," says Halko. "If it was just something small, it might be a signed magazine or something like that. If it was a full sleeve, they might bring in a jersey." (Tattoos range in price from less than $100 for simple designs to several thousand dollars for more elaborate ones like the full-sleeve inkings of some Buckeyes.) Halko says those working in the shop preferred receiving items with multiple autographs. His most memorable acquisition was a scarlet-and-gray training jacket with between 10 and 15 signatures on it, including Tressel's. Halko says he also traded tattoo work for a magazine bearing the coach's autograph.
According to Halko and both of his associates, Dudley'z became a social hub for the athletes. On a Friday or Saturday night a dozen or more Buckeyes could be found in the large back room of the parlor. They danced to music spun by a deejay and sipped drinks or smoked marijuana that was provided by people at the shop.
Darrell (Dudley) Ross, who owned Dudley'z, initially told SI that Halko was lying in saying that Ohio State players were tattooed there and partied there, and that Halko was "just trying to get his name in the paper." Ross later acknowledged that he might have tattooed some Buckeyes but said that Halko did not and that the players always paid for the work. Ross said that Halko worked at Dudley'z for "three or four days" and said of himself, "Look, I am a career criminal, but I've only been convicted of one felony. I'm not a drug addict like [Halko]."
Megan Zonars, who says she lived in an apartment above Dudley'z for about six months beginning in June 2003, contradicts Ross's account that Halko was employed only briefly at the tattoo parlor. She told SI that Halko worked at the parlor "every day" while she lived there. Like the two associates of Halko's who spoke to SI, she also confirmed Halko's account that many Buckeyes frequented the shop. "I met Chris Vance and Maurice Clarett and others," she said. "And it wasn't just [Halko] who needled guys. A lot of people worked on Buckeyes."
Halko does have a troubling background and, like Clarett, is easily impeached by those unsettled by his allegations. In 2005 he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to 180 days in jail. In '08 he was convicted of misdemeanor theft and possession of drug paraphernalia, and last year he violated a protection order. In March he was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of three felonies: attempted burglary, breaking and entering, and domestic violence. He spoke to SI in a series of phone calls from Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, Ohio. He said that in addition to his legal trouble, he has had a drug problem in the past, "but I'm not lying. Why should I lie?"
After Halko left Dudley'z in 2004 he opened his own shop, which he operated for about a year. Then he pleaded guilty to assault and served time in prison. After his release, he bounced around, eventually landing a job at, of all places, Fine Line Ink, in 2009. Halko was at first surprised to see Ohio State football players regularly come through the door, but it made sense. Dudley'z had closed, and the Buckeyes needed a new hangout.
Halko worked at Fine Line Ink for only a few weeks and says he did not witness the transactions involving the six Ohio State players who would be suspended. Nor did he see the drug trafficking that would lead federal prosecutors to indict owner Edward Rife. In a plea deal last Friday, Rife pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, offenses that carry a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $2.5 million.
In its letter to Ohio State, the Department of Justice linked Rife, 31, to Ross, the Dudley'z owner. The letter listed transactions between the two involving six pieces of signed memorabilia. There was also a footnote: "Ross is a friend of Edward Rife, who deals in sports memorabilia." Asked about his relationship with Rife, Ross told SI he knew him but couldn't comment further.
On what would be his last day at Fine Line, Halko says Rife accused him of stealing some cameras, which Halko denied. He also says that Rife, the man who would become close with many of Ohio State's best players, then pointed a gun at him and ordered some of his associates to take him outside and beat him. Halko says he ended up in Mount Carmel West Hospital with multiple injuries, a description confirmed by one of Halko's associates. Rife's lawyer, Stephen Palmer, told SI that Rife denies pulling a gun on Halko or having him assaulted.
On the second floor of the nondescript building that houses Fine Line Ink, Rife created the ultimate Ohio State--themed man cave. Huge photographs hung on walls painted scarlet and gray. Images of Hayes and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler sandwiched a picture of Ohio Stadium. There were shots from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, where the Buckeyes won the national title, including one of Tressel. Signature-covered jerseys were displayed, and on a small table was an autographed helmet encased in glass. A large sectional couch sat in front of a big flat-screen television that was hooked up to a PlayStation3.
"It was a cool place to hang out," says a former Rife employee. "Everybody could just relax and have a good time. The players were catered to. Eddie would tell people, 'Go get them some chicken' or 'Run to the store and get them something to drink.' Whatever they wanted." The former employee, who worked for Rife from the fall of 2008 until last summer, agreed to speak to SI on condition that he remain anonymous; he fears that Rife or one of his associates will seek retribution for his disclosures. He will be referred to in this story by the pseudonym Ellis.
Ohio State has conceded that six current players committed an NCAA violation by trading memorabilia for tattoos or cash at Fine Line Ink: Pryor, tackle Mike Adams, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Jordan Whiting. Ellis, who spent time in and around the tattoo parlor for nearly 20 months, says that in addition to those six, he witnessed nine other active players swap memorabilia or give autographs for tattoos or money. Those players were defensive back C.J. Barnett, linebacker Dorian Bell, running back Jaamal Berry, running back Bo DeLande, defensive back Zach Domicone, linebacker Storm Klein, linebacker Etienne Sabino, defensive tackle John Simon and defensive end Nathan Williams. Ohio State declined to make any of its current players available to respond to SI.
Ellis claims that two players whose eligibility expired at the close of the 2010 season—safety Jermale Hines and cornerback Devon Torrence—also conducted at least one transaction with Rife involving memorabilia or autographs before the season ended. When asked by SI to respond, Hines, who was picked by the Rams in the fifth round of April's NFL draft, said, "I did nothing illegal." Torrence's agent, Jim Ivler, said his client "is adamant that the allegations are false.... He can tell you where he got all his tattoos and it was not [at Fine Line Ink]."
From the 2008 team, Ellis alleges that cornerback Donald Washington traded memorabilia for tattoos. Washington now plays for the Chiefs; his agent, Neil Cornrich, did not return SI's calls requesting comment.
Among those whose Ohio State careers ended after the 2009 season, Rose, Small, defensive end Thaddeus Gibson, running back Jermil Martin, wide receiver Lamaar Thomas and defensive lineman Doug Worthington made trades or sold memorabilia before their eligibility expired, according to Ellis. Gibson, now with the 49ers, and Worthington, now with the Buccaneers, declined comment through their agent. Repeated attempts to locate Martin, including calls, Internet searches and Facebook messages to past friends and coaches, were unsuccessful. Thomas, who now plays for the University of New Mexico, said in a statement from that school's athletic office, "I'm aware of the investigation at Ohio State. I have not been implicated for a reason—because I've done nothing wrong." When asked about Buckeyes selling their players-only merchandise, Small admitted to The Lantern that he had done so and said that "everybody was doing it."
Rose has no regrets. "I knew how much money that the school was making," he says. "I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling.... It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot.... [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn't really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn't have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn't call home to ask my mom to help me out."
Ohio State's conclusion that only six players broke the rules is based in part on a list of the items the Department of Justice seized in raids of Fine Line Ink and Rife's home on May 1, 2010. But that list, which mentioned 42 football-related items that Rife bought, received or acquired in trades from players, covered only a small fraction of what he got from the Buckeyes, Ellis says. "Eddie had storage units all over town," he says, "and he also sold some stuff off to people." (Through Palmer, his lawyer, Rife declined to comment on his involvement with Ohio State players.) Ellis estimates that Pryor alone brought in more than 20 items, including game-worn shoulder pads, multiple helmets, Nike cleats, jerseys, game pants and more. One day Ellis asked Pryor how he was able to take so much gear from the university's equipment room. Ellis says the quarterback responded, "I get whatever I want."
The Department of Justice alerted Ohio State to a transaction in which an unnamed player gave Rife a watch and four tickets to the 2010 Rose Bowl in exchange for a Chevy Tahoe. That player, Ellis says, was Martin: "Jermil came in to the shop and said, 'Are we doing this deal on this truck?' They went outside, and Eddie signed the title over and Jermil shook his hand and off he went." Martin did not give Rife anything at that moment, Ellis says, but a short time later Rife said in a telephone call to Ellis that he was in Pasadena and that Martin had gotten him tickets.
Martin was particularly close to Rife, Ellis says; about a year earlier Rife had given Martin a different car, a 2004 Jaguar sedan. "Eddie tossed him the keys, and off Jermil drove," Ellis says. (Through Palmer, Rife declined to comment.)
Ellis showed SI pictures of players—Pryor, Gibson, Herron and Solomon Thomas—being tattooed or showing off their artwork. Rife appears in one photo with a player. Ellis also produced a photo of 11 plastic bags filled with what appears to be marijuana; he says the photo was taken at Fine Line Ink. The letter the DOJ sent to Ohio State in December stated, "There is no allegation that any of these players were involved in or had knowledge of Mr. Rife's drug trafficking activities." Ellis says that is true but that he did witness four other Buckeyes trade memorabilia for weed. Three of those transactions involved a small amount of the drug, he says, but in one instance a player departed with what Ellis was told was a pound. (Rife's lawyer denies that his client provided marijuana to any players.)
Like Dudley'z years earlier, Fine Line Ink became the players' hangout. They gathered on the second floor, turned on the PlayStation and stayed for hours. Rife may have been about a decade older than most of the players, but, says Ellis, "Eddie was cool. He was funny and fun to be around. The players liked him." Rife regularly accompanied players to bars near campus; he took some to an MMA fight at the LC Pavilion; in May 2009 three players joined Rife at Cruisefest Nationals, an auto show. According to Ellis, Rife set up a mobile tattoo station and then shouted at potential customers, "Come and meet the Buckeyes."
How open a secret was it that scores of Buckeyes were hanging out at Fine Line? Ellis says players went in and out of the tattoo parlor so often that kids carrying paper and pen would bang on the door and front window and shout, "Are the Buckeyes here?" Employees had to shoo them away.
From fall 2002 through last year, first at Dudley'z and then at Fine Line Ink, at least 28 Ohio State players are either known or alleged to have traded or sold memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules. It is a staggering number, a level of wrongdoing that would seem hard to miss for a coach and an entire athletic department—one that includes an NCAA compliance staff of at least six people. Yet the university trusted the coach, and the coach says he knew nothing before April 2010, when the Columbus lawyer tipped him off in an e-mail.
He was ignorant of it all.
In August the NCAA's Committee on Infractions will review the alleged rules violations committed by Tressel and his players. Tressel violated NCAA bylaw 10.1—Unethical Conduct, one of the cornerstones of NCAA rulebook—three times: first by failing to act when tipped off about the tattoo scandal; again last fall, by signing a standard form given to all coaches declaring that he knew of no violations; and then, last December, by not being forthcoming with school officials. Tressel's violations will almost certainly lead to sanctions that will follow him to any school that might hire him, making it highly unlikely that he will coach a major college program again. Like Woody Hayes, the ruination at the end of his Ohio State career will tail him forever.
The university's search for a permanent replacement will surely include a call to former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who like Tressel was an assistant under Earle Bruce. Meyer has bristled at talk that he would become the Buckeyes' coach, and he and other top candidates will probably wait and see what the Committee on Infractions decides. Despite Gene Smith's insistence to the contrary, the school had a systemic problem and is likely to be hit with heavy sanctions, including the loss of several scholarships.
Ohio State officials will argue that the school should be spared, in part because they got rid of Tressel, the head of the program that has been so tainted by wrongdoing. For years, Ohio State benefited from Tressel's choirboy image. Now, the university is likely to paint him as a huge problem that has been eliminated for the betterment of the athletic department.
It is not the noblest of tactics, but it adheres to an axiom of big-time college football, one that Jim Tressel has heeded for years: You do whatever it takes to win.
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