SI investigation reveals eight-year pattern of violations under Tressel
Since 2002 at least 28 OSU players are alleged to have traded or sold memorabilia
Ex-Buckeye tells SI he and 'at least 20 others' swapped memorabilia for tattoos
Source tells SI that four Ohio State players traded memorabilia for marijuana
This story appears in the June 6 edition of Sports Illustrated. To purchase a digital version of the magazine, go here.
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.
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.