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Tressel's Con In Plain Sight

In retrospect, Jim Tressel was just an actor. Just like Bill Cosby, or Randy "Macho Man" Savage - an actor, playing a part.

Wrestlers, of course, create bigger than life personas inside the ring of simplistic good-or-evil characters, often designed to deflect, like an illusionist, the reality behind what people were seeing.  That's the lot of the wrestler - and the actor.

And Tressel - seen here, back in his days as a I-AA national championship winner with some of his dominating teams at Youngstown State - was no different from those who make their living making it seem like they're someone else.

Whereas Macho Man wore crazy getups to make one doubt his sanity (in the ring), Tressel played the role of dad. A good, Christian dad, wearing suits and ties to games. Looking like a cross between Woody Hayes and Pat Riley. At once looking like a clean, quasi-militaristic vintage 1960's coach, exuding control.  He looked almost too much like the part of a head football coach.

Bill Cosby made a career in television wearing sweaters. Tressel seemed made his career wearing that red cardigan - making him look, well, respectable. It's almost as if seeing was believing. He looked like "dad" - so, how could he have done all those bad things they've been saying about him?

This Memorial Day, however, with the NCAA, Yahoo! and, finally, Sports Illustrated finally hot on his trail, the movie in which he made himself a starring role finally came to an end - as the ugly truths behind his success at Ohio State and Youngstown State finally came to light.

That guy that looked just like somebody's dad - wearing that tie and the red cardigan - sure as hell wasn't Mister Rogers. (more)

Many people may not know is that Tressel had left a smoldering pile of slag at Youngstown State when he left there in 2000 - and those at Ohio State either didn't know, or didn't care, about the swirl of accusations about him at that time.

You could make a case for Tressel's 1994 Youngstown State team being one of the best in FCS history. The Penguins that year, led defensively by linebacker Reggie Lee, had an amazing defense whose starters didn't let up more than two touchdowns in a game that mattered.  (They gave up more than two touchdowns only in the tail end of blowouts.)

In the first round of the playoffs, they bottled up hobbled Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair and pounded the Braves, 63-20.

Tressel would out-duel I-AA powerhouse Eastern Kentucky of the OVC and legendary head coach Roy Kidd twice - first in a big game in the regular season, 13-6, and later in the playoffs, 18-15.

In the championship game in nearby Huntington, West Virginia, Youngstown would dominate Boise State 28-14 - who was on their way to I-A the following year, after a successful stay in the Big Sky Conference.

In many ways, that 1994 team was the pinnacle of the Youngstown State empire.

Tressel took a school with a modest, small-college football history and made it into a source of pride for the community - which had been decimated by a flood of destroyed jobs, thanks to the closure of local steel mills. Stambaugh Stadium had six or seven home games a year, including home games against I-A opponents. With schools packed with hometown talent, they were one of the top drawing teams in I-AA.  In 1994, they won three of four championships in a row - and only lost in 1992 to Marshall, 31-28, playing in their hometown of Huntington.

By their glory season of 1994, success had become so commonplace that the Youngstown Post Office made commemorative national championship envelopes even before their Penguins made the national championship game.

All in all, the Penguins won four I-AA national championships in the Tressel era, adding a fourth national title in 1997, and developed a reputation as being a perennial powerhouse.

But that's not the only reputation Tressel had among those in the know at Youngstown.

"It was always more than a little too hard to believe that he never knew what kind of mischief his players and boosters were getting into right underneath his seemingly clean nose [at Youngstown]," David Coulson at the College Sporting News opined this week. "One coaching contemporary, whose name I'll keep to myself, referred to Tressel as 'the Teflon Don', an alllusion to Mafia boss John Gotti and Tressel's ability to walk away from scandal without being scathed."

At about the time of their best-ever team in 1994, an anonymous tipster had brought to light a relationship between Tressel, local hero and star quarterback Ray Issac, and influential booster Mickey Monus, then the head of the up-and-coming Phar-Mor drugstore chain.

What would eventually emerge from the wreckage, thanks to an ESPN investigative report in 2004, was that he got $10,000 cash, got assigned a bogus, do-nothing job, and the free use of a car on campus during his time at Youngstown.

More importantly, though, it appeared that Tressel was the one who introduced Issac to Mr. Monus.

"This much is certain, based on an ESPN review of legal documents and other sources: Monus was no stranger to Tressel," the report says. "A huge sports fan, Monus could be found on the sidelines during Penguin games. He was on the university athletics committee that hired Tressel. And, according to court testimony that eventually brought the Isaac payments to light, it was Tressel who directed Isaac to Monus at the start of his freshman year. 'I got a call from Mr. Tressel,' Monus told a jury, 'and I believe the call was that he wanted me to be introduced to Ray and to work out some kind of job for him.'"

Funneling a player to an influential booster is a serious NCAA violation, so the NCAA started a probe of the Youngstown program.  "That probe revealed that Isaac's car was the worst-kept secret on campus," the damning Sports Illustrated report revealed this week that ultimately was the cause for Tressel's resignation. "According to NCAA documents, all of Isaac's teammates who were interviewed 'except one' knew about the car or had suspicions about it."

In addition, SI's report reported specific claims from Issac that Tressel also made parking tickets for his star quarterback "disappear".

Interestingly, at Youngstown State Tressel's power and influence over the athletic department was compounded by the fact that he was also the athletic director - something that meant that it would be he, himself, that reported these violations to the NCAA in 2000 at the tail end of their nine-year investigation.

"Tressel told school president Leslie Cochran that there wasn't anything to them, that they were from a disgruntled ex-employee," Coulson says. "Because of Tressel's reputation, Cochran believed him and convinced the NCAA that while there was smoke, there was no fire."

That's a neat trick - if you're the athletic director, you have a lot more control over what is shown to the investigators. Plus, you're much more cozy with the university president.

Was his move to athletic director seemed designed to cover his tracks?  It's certainly possible.  Any NCAA investigation would have to go through him.  At a bare minimum, there is a conflict of interest.

Ultimately the NCAA investigation, by all accounts, was a "sham". "So little diligence went into pursuit of truth that Malmisur never confronted Monus with the allegations, nor apparently did Tressel contact Isaac, as Cochran said he had instructed them to do," ESPN's report said. "Tressel, in a December 2003 interview, declined comment to on most aspects of the case but said he can't remember if he discussed the Monus allegations with his former player. Isaac is more definitive: 'I didn't talk to nobody.'"

That's not surprising.  It's the athletic director who would normally be the one who needs to prod the coach to cooperate with investigators.  When they're both the same person, it makes it easy to cover up the crimes.

The metaphor these days is to compare Tressel to Richard Nixon - a guy who authorized dirty tricks, and then lied to cover them up. I think it's probably more accurate to say that Tressel's defense of these - and his future - actions recalls more of Ronald Reagan's defense during the Iran Contra hearings: "I didn't hear about it, and I don't remember."

Dragging out the investigation and "selective memory" served Tressel very well. It allowed the statute of limitations to run out on the suspension of their 1991 I-AA national championship, allowing Youngstown State to retain their title in 1991 (and, as far as I can tell, their subsequent championships as well). It also allowed Tressel to keep his reputation together long enough to capture the one of the sought-after jobs in college football - coaching The Ohio State Buckeyes.


In this brief report of Tressel's hiring in 2000, only a paragraph is mentioned, buried deep in the article, about the serious violations levied against his player (and him) at Youngstown. "As athletic director, Tressel reported the violation himself," the article blithely claims, not mentioning the specific nature of the violations nor Tressel's alleged involvement with the whole affair.

Nor did anyone connect the dots with Tressel and troubled running back Maurice Clarett much later at Ohio State until the SI piece:

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.

It's almost a mirror image of the Youngstown days with Mickey Monus. Clarett, who knew Tressel as a kid growing up in Youngstown (and whose brother was recruited by Tressel), appeared to be steered towards money, cars and no-show jobs, just like Issac did with the Phar-Mor king. (Monus would later be convicted of 109 felony counts of bank, wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of stolen goods in 1995. For good measure, he was also tried twice for trying to buy off members of the jury three years later.)

When pressed, Clarett gave the "I don't remember" response - eerily similar to Tressel's and Issac's testimony in the Youngstown case.

Seen in the light of these two earlier situations - both investigated by the NCAA, mind you, with Tressel incomprehensibly being excused of any wrongdoing - the final straw with Tattoogate and the latest group of players at Ohio State becomes completely unsurprising.

First came the allegations that Ohio State players, including superstar quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were trading memorabilia for tattoos. Then came the cover-up: Yahoo! discovered that Tressel knew, but did nothing to stop them, thanks to the magic of emails.  The investigative team found multiple emails from Tressel himself acknowledging that he understood something fishy was going on at the tattoo parlor - but did not tell the NCAA, the University president, or anybody.  He didn't even punish them internally, allowing his star players to play.

You know the rest of this story, as profiled in the SI investigation:

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.

All through the mud - through the allegations of eight years of wrongdoing, the Clarett case, and even the Issac case at Youngstown - Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee stood by his coach, who had turned Ohio State into perennial winners over their hated rival, Michigan, and brought the school countless riches in the form of BCS Bowl appearances and TV money.

One of the funnier revelations in the SI investigation was that kids had discovered for years that the Ohio State football players were coming to Fine Line Tattoos to hang out and party, so they staked out the place looking for autographs. If you believe Mr. Tressel's ignorance of the matter, the kids knew more than Mr. Tressel did.

And even the NCAA comes out stinking like six month old fish in the story:

After Ohio State alerted the NCAA of the memorabilia sales in early December, the NCAA’s student-athlete reinstatement staff ruled the players were banned from the first five regular-season games of 2011. The players also had to repay the improper benefits gained – $2,500 for Pryor, $1,505 for Thomas, $1,250 for Posey, $1,150 for Herron and $1,000 for Adams. Linebacker Jordan Whiting also had to pay $150 to a charity for receiving a discounted tattoo.

But in a controversial part of the decision – which included lobbying by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, according to Smith – the NCAA’s reinstatement staff ruled in late December that the five players were eligible for the 2011 Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas.

If there were any better indictment of the incestuous, money-hungry, corrupt world of BCS college sports, it would be millionaire Jim Tressel asking millionaire Jim Delany and millionaire E. Gordon Gee to cover up for the web of lies that were available to all who cared to look in order to secure that star players were to play in a meaningless exhibition game whose sole purpose was to ensure that billions of dollars continued to flow into the coffers of The Ohio State University. And millionare Mark Emmert, head of the NCAA, appeared to do what Jim Tressel, his superiors and countless other fans appeared to have done in the wake of serious violations - appears as well to have looked the other way, and given Tressel yet another free pass.

It's so sickening that even the suggestion of Delany earlier this week to implement the "full cost of scholarship" almost has to be seen in a different light. Could it have been a misguided attempt by the millionaire Mr. Delany to see Tressel as a victim of a system where kids need spending money that the scholarship system does not provide. I don't think it's coincidence that Pryor had to return $2,500 in benefits and Delany himself proposed increasing the full cost of scholarship to be nearly $5,000 per student. The numbers are too close and too similar.

But again, it was Tressel's act - his persona as the squeaky-clean coach that graduates his students and loves everyone as a dad loves his kids - that seemed to be what ultimately charmed everyone, from the president of Youngstown to the folks running the NCAA.


Looking back on this now, it's hard to believe that nobody caught on to this earlier.  SI mentions how hard it is to believe how Tressel seemingly didn't see the violations happening under his own nose.  I find it hard to believe that the university presidents, NCAA investigators - hell, even the commissioner of the Big Ten - didn't see the situation either.  Gee could have read the papers, and taken the original Youngstown State violations seriously.  It's as if they clearly saw the deception, but just didn't want to see it.

If I had a chance to talk to Mr. Emmert in a press conference over this - something that will never happen, with the closed nature of the NCAA - I'd ask him two things.

One, how much did you know about Tressel's actions at Youngstown State and Ohio State?

And two, what are you going to do to make sure something like this will never happen again?

It's clear what should happen.

Ohio State should be suspended for the next five years, in order to fully investigate the web of donors and contacts that seem to have been a part of Tressel's history - and the culture of The Ohio State University - for a long, long time.

An overhaul of the compliance department - who had to have been as blind as bats - is a given.

The suspension should, naturally, include a ban on the postseason and lucrative BCS Bowls for the Buckeyes.

The Ohio State University should be banned from appearing on TV, and should be cut out of the Big Ten's TV contract for the next five years. (Perhaps Ohio State/Michigan might be able to be televised, but only when Ohio State's share of the money goes towards a scholarship fund for underprivileged non-athletes.)

Tressel should also be blackballed from Division I athletics.

Finally, an admission from Mr. Emmert that he was misled by the folks at Ohio State and the Big Ten, from the president on down, would go a long way towards restoring a tiny bit of integrity in the world of big-time college football. (The words "My deepest, profound apology" would almost certainly be involved. Also, tears.)

Yes, that's my fantasy.

Don't count on it happening, though. Any part of it.

The words of the kids hanging around the tattoo parlor, trying to find the players, don't appear to mean as much the the NCAA as a personal lobby from Jim Delany.

The words under oath at Youngstown didn't mean as much as a squeaky clean-looking red sweater on the sidelines at Ohio State games.  After all, who cares if he really is squeaky clean, as long as he looks the part?

What is clear from the gumshoe work of the reporters is that all of this stuff was there, waiting to be discovered.  Coaches knew.  Folks at Youngstown State new.  Folks at Ohio State knew.  This was no secret - this was thousands of people, perpetuating the lie, because they don't want Dad to go down.

It's astounding how much Tressel was able to get away with simply because he looked the part.

But apparently, the words of a bad actor - and a lot of money - mean more to the NCAA than trying to prevent something like this from happening again.

Perhaps it will be a slap on the wrist; or maybe, just like at Youngstown, making the idiotic claim that "since Tressel has paid with his job, hasn't poor, poor, Ohio State suffered enough?"

Ohio State hasn't suffered enough.  If there's were ever a school that needs to suffer, for the sake of collegiate athletics, it's The Ohio State University.

But like so many people involved with Mr. Tressel over the last twenty years, Emmert, Delany and Gee will probably look the other way one last time.  After all, there are a cast of thousands to help a school break the rules, but only one guy who looks that good in a red sweater.


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