Tressel told NCAA why he didn't come forward.

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Last updated: 07/24/2011 8:19 PM

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Tressel Told NCAA Why He Didn’t Come Forward
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With all the drama surrounding Ohio State in recent months, the single most confusing aspect of the “scandal” may be understanding why Jim Tressel chose not to come forward with the tip he received from Columbus attorney Chris Cicero last April.

Jim Tressel
Photo by Dan Harker
Jim Tressel

His detractors will say it’s because he did not want to miss a potential shot at another national championship because two of his star players were ruled ineligible for selling memorabilia.

His supporters will say it’s because he was looking out for the best interest of his players, even to the extent of putting his own reputation—and ultimately his job—on the line for them.

In reality, very little was known about Tressel’s true motives behind allowing Terrelle Pryor and DeVier Posey to play during the 2010 season despite knowing they had likely committed major NCAA violations.

Until now.

On Friday, the NCAA released a 140-page transcript of their Feb. 8 interview with Tressel. There was no lie detector attached to him and he was not under oath, but what Tressel told NCAA investigators may help to shed some light on the events that ultimately led to the end of his otherwise sparkling decade in Columbus.

During his interview, Tressel spoke candidly about the e-mails he received from former player and attorney Chris Cicero last April, including his initial reaction to the first one sent on April 2, 2010.

“I’m sure as I read the first one, I’m thinking, ‘What in the devil are you sending this to me for?’ This is not my league,” Tressel said during his sit-down with the NCAA.

In that first e-mail, Cicero indicated that football student-athletes, including who we now know to be Terrelle Pryor and DeVier Posey received free tattoos from a man named Edward Rife.

According to Tressel, this was hardly the first time he had received a concerned tip about one of his players, but the fact it came from Cicero admittedly held extra weight in the mind of Ohio State’s former head coach.

“The reason I say he’s looked out for us, he came in, he talked with our team (about five years ago),” Tressel said of the former Ohio State walk-on, who played during Tressel’s previous tenure as an assistant coach under Earle Bruce.

“He was in doing a seminar with a judge and a policeman and so forth that we had for the team, talking about, you know, how do you handle situations with the law.”

Cicero left his card for the players in case they ever had any problems with the law, but Tressel said he could not remember any further interaction with the Columbus attorney before he received the e-mails last April.

“As I thought it through, I think he probably sent it because he played here and he’s concerned about our guys, and that he wanted me to know that this is a bad guy,” Tressel said of Cicero.

After the initial shock of finding out that two of his star players might be involved in some dangerous—and potentially illegal—activities, Tressel admitted that his first thoughts were not surrounding the implications of potential NCAA violations.

“When I got it, the first thing that jumped out at me was, ‘Federal government raid.’ You know, so that was, you know, frightening,” Tressel said during his interview.

“But probably the thing that knocked me off my socks was at the bottom when there was a little description of this criminal…There’s a homicide. There’s drug trafficking. There’s possession of criminal tools. This is a bad situation…This is frightening.”

Though he was aware of proper protocol from his days as the athletic director at Youngstown State, Tressel wasn’t sure what to do or where to go with the information he received from Cicero.

“I know what our process has always been is that, we take it to who we think is the proper channels which usually if we’re uncertain about something, we’ll go to the compliance office,” he said.

“If we’re certain that something doesn’t look or feel right, we’ll go to either the compliance office or in my case, my reporting administrator is Mr. (Gene) Smith.”
But Tressel didn’t go to Smith with the information, at least not according to his interview with the NCAA. He didn’t go to anyone at the University; despite the fact he admitted to NCAA investigators that he knew violations had likely occurred with both the selling of memorabilia and the exchange of free tattoos.

“I can’t say that I thought about going to Doug (Archie) or Julie (Vannatta) or Gene,” he said.

“I can’t sit here and say to you that I consciously said, ‘Yes, I should,’ and then, ‘I shouldn’t.’”

At this point Tressel was speaking directly to Chuck Smrt, an outside consultant hired by Ohio State, but NCAA investigator Chance Miller interrupted them.

“After you received the name, why didn’t you let the university know,” Miller asked.

“I guess it was because I said I wouldn’t,” Tressel responded.

All along, Tressel has maintained that he was protecting the confidentiality of Cicero, who now faces legal trouble for the information he shared. Tressel said he even went as far as to text Cicero in December to let him know he had not violated confidentiality by going to Gene Smith or compliance.

“I didn’t think that that would be appropriate in light of the gravity of what the whole thing was about,” Tressel told investigators.

“’Cause to me, it wasn’t simply an NCAA rule. And I’m not belittling the importance of an NCAA rule. But it was way beyond an NCAA rule. I mean, it was a security issue. It was a federal criminal issue. It was a narcotics issue. You know, where do you turn?”

Why Sarniak?

In the weeks following the e-mails from Cicero, Tressel said he ramped up his education on whom players should be around and what they should be doing. He also decided to forward the e-mails to Jeanette, Pa. business man Ted Sarniak because he had a “high awareness” of Pryor’s vulnerability.

“I view him as a guy that gives a young person the right advice for the right reasons, and more important than anything, in my mind, is that he has the trust of this young person in particular,” Tressel said in reference to Pryor.

Tressel told investigators he would get a call from Sarniak—who spoke with Pryor 4-5 times a day—whenever Pryor was feeling down or in need of a pick-me-up. Tressel painted Sarniak as a “father figure” and said that sometimes the head coach’s message doesn’t resonate as loudly as someone from the outside.

Why Silence?

Along with contacting Sarniak, Tressel also pulled Pryor and Posey aside for a brief 2-3 minute conference. During those individual meetings, Tressel maintains that he did not mention Rife or the tattoo parlor, Fine Line Ink, in part because he could not remember the names. Also because he did not want them reporting back to Rife that someone was ratting on him to the head coach.

“I’ve also had a player murdered. I have a player incarcerated. I have had a couple guys get sucked into the drug culture. I’ve had a player who served a ten-year suspension [sic] for obstruction of justice, you know? And those things, just like games, you remember the bad play in the game that cost you the game. You don’t remember the 77 good plays,” Tressel told investigators.

“I don’t want to be dramatic, but I would have a hard time having a second guy murdered or a second guy get incarcerated.”

While he was worried for the safety of his players, Tressel also made it very clear during his interview that he had serious concerns that Pryor, and possibly Posey, were involved in criminal activity.

“From mid-April to that point, obviously the things rolling through my head were, ‘Hey, are our guys drug trafficking? Are they being tracked to go catch the next guy up the ladder? Do they have drug problems,’” he said.

“And we drug test pretty frequently. And I thought, ‘Man, you know, I don’t see that in their behavior,’ but you can’t discount it.”

NCAA investigator Chance Miller then asked Tressel, “If you were scared, did you ever think of following up with Cicero on whether (Pryor) was involved with criminal activity?”

“You know, I didn’t. And I guess I just assumed that he might follow up, you know, that it wouldn’t be just left at that,” Tressel responded.

Lesser of Two Evils

But it was. Cicero never contacted Tressel to let him know whether any of his players were involved in the criminal side of the federal investigation, but Tressel said he always knew that eventually things would take care of themselves.

“When the feds are ready, we will find out the extent of our guys’ involvement,” Tressel remembered thinking.

“The worst-case scenario, they’re going to prison with Eddie Rife. Maybe they’re selling drugs. Maybe they’re using drugs. I guess best-case scenario, they’re selling memorabilia and we’ll take care of that. They know better than that.”

According to Tressel, he said nothing to anyone other than Sarniak, including his assistant coaches and even his wife. He allowed the investigation to play out and allowed both Pryor and Posey to participate in the 2010 season while preparing for what he calls the “inevitable.”

“The inevitable is are we gonna be drug traffickers? Are we gonna be drug users? You know, are we gonna be a group of folks that sell their memorabilia, you know, as cash to buy my drugs that I gotta have? Who knows,” Tressel said.

“Are we gonna be a group that violated selling memorabilia, which we know we can’t do? Inevitably, something’s gonna come from this. And I’m rooting for the least.”

He knew they had likely committed violations, but never considered the fact he was committing a violation himself by allowing them to participate in the 2010 season.

“No, I didn’t think of it like that. You know, I didn’t take that progression of thinking,” Tressel told investigators.

“I mean, I knew that inevitably they were gonna have a problem. I can’t sit here and say I thought, ‘Oh, these guys are ineligible.’ I didn’t think it of it that way.”

When Ohio State finally received notice from the U.S. Department of Justice in Dec. that players were involved in potential violations, Tressel was actually relieved. He refereed to it as the “hallelujah letter” because none of his players were being indicted on criminal charges.

Priorities and Punshment

Tressel said he felt there was a hierarchy in place with the federal investigation taking precedence, but he was relieved to find out his players were going to have to pay for their mistakes.

“I guess it goes back to my – I don’t know what you’d call it – old-fashioned thinking that, you’re gonna get as your works deserve,” Tressel said.

“There’s no such thing as getting away with something. It’s not gonna happen.”

According to Tressel’s testimony, he still did not come forward with the exact information he received from Cicero because he was still protecting the attorney’s confidentiality, although he later said he could not even remember Cicero’s name when talking to Julie Vannatta in Dec.

“I said that I got a tip from this attorney who was a walk-in [sic] back when I was here 25 years ago, and so forth and so on. I can’t remember his name, but that did occur,” Tressel said.

Tressel also told investigators he believed the e-mails he received from Cicero were no longer relevant now that four other players—Boom Herron, Mike Adams, Solomon Thomas and Jordan Whiting—had been implicated along with Pryor and Posey.

“I guess in my mind I wasn’t sure what the relevance was, because at this point in time, what I knew was that there was a whole bunch a guys involved in this,” he said.

“The e-mails were behind the times. I didn’t think of it that way, but I guess their relevance didn’t dawn on me.”

Tressel maintains that he did not tell anyone about the specifics of the Cicero e-mails until they were discovered by Ohio State in January.

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