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.