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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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."