In the long, proud history of Ohio State football, Maurice Clarett's is but a few sentences. He arrived from Youngstown, Ohio, in 2002, a true freshman by classification but, at age 18, a fully grown man in shoulder pads and a helmet. He ran for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns and helped deliver the Buckeyes' first consensus national title in 34 years. He was a gift to the impatient Columbus faithful, and then he was gone, a one-year wonder.
Gone, that is, from the football team. In other ways Clarett still walks the sprawling campus on the banks of the Olentangy River, making his presence felt with much the same impact that he did two years ago. Last week a story appeared in ESPN the Magazine in which Clarett said that during his brief time in Columbus he was paid for booster-arranged jobs that he didn't perform, given cars by two local dealerships at his coach's request and kept academically eligible by generous teachers. In the same issue a former teammate told of being encouraged by advisers to take soft academic courses taught by faculty members who were friends of the football program. They are the type of accusations that, if proved true, can bring down a program.
After Ohio State's 24--17 loss at Purdue last Saturday, Buckeyes athletic director Andy Geiger vehemently denied Clarett's charges. "I hope there is the most thorough investigation in the history of intercollegiate athletics because this is so bogus I can't even characterize it," Geiger said. His wish was quickly granted: On Monday an NCAA representative arrived in Columbus to look into Clarett's charges.
Either Geiger or Clarett is deluded or, worse, lying.
How can we believe Clarett? Before he left Ohio State to unsuccessfully challenge the NFL draft rules, Clarett lied to police about having more than $10,000 worth of possessions stolen from him and was at the center of a university investigation into the academic treatment afforded athletes (which found no wrongdoing). Clarett says that he lied to the NCAA to protect Ohio State during a 2003 investigation into payoffs and booster perks--a probe that resulted in his missing the entire 2003 season due to suspension--but that now he is coming clean. His claim is reminiscent of boxing promoter Bob Arum, who once reversed a position overnight and told writers, "Yesterday I was lying, today I'm telling the truth."
Yet damning evidence springs from dirtier sources than Clarett every day in U.S. courtrooms. He was there in 2002, a star athlete from modest means at a powerhouse athletic university with deep-pocketed supporters. If something was going on, Clarett would have known about it. Why lie in 2003? Because he was still hoping to play for the Buckeyes. Why change his mind now? Because he no longer has any reason to protect anybody in Columbus, and he believes, perhaps misguidedly, that a lucrative NFL career is in his future.
How can we believe Geiger? The 65year-old AD is the man who hired coach Jim Tressel in January 2001. Since then 11 Ohio State players have been charged with crimes, including robbery and felony drug abuse. Before coming to Columbus, Tressel won four national championships at Division I-AA Youngstown State, but in 2000 his program was found guilty of major NCAA violations after a former player admitted receiving cash and the use of automobiles from a booster, a scenario that should sound familiar to Ohio State fans.
Geiger also hired basketball coach Jim O'Brien, who was fired last June after admitting he gave $6,000 to a recruit, leading the NCAA to launch an investigation into that program. (Last week O'Brien sued Ohio State, saying his contract stipulated he could be fired only if he was found by the NCAA to have committed a major infraction--which has not happened.) This is a rare double for Geiger; both of the flagship programs in his $80 million department have come under NCAA scrutiny. Also on Geiger's watch: In 1998 star linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer famously kept himself eligible for football by taking courses in AIDS awareness and golf.
"These types of things have been going on for a long time, but not just at Ohio State," says Robert Smith, a former Buckeyes and Minnesota Vikings running back who sat out his entire sophomore season in Columbus (1991, pre-Geiger) after accusing an assistant coach of telling him to skip classes to attend practice. "This problem is much bigger than whatever SUV Maurice Clarett is driving or whether he had his hands out to get money from some booster. The solution has to start with the university."
So far that hasn't happened. When Clarett launched his latest salvo, Geiger's response was to point out that Clarett had lied previously, hardly the high road for a man with more than four decades in coaching and athletic administration. Something is wrong at Ohio State. And while the AD and a former student conduct a public spitting match, a once-great program is being embarrassed.