SI investigation (cont.)
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."