Tressel Left OSU Football Program Vulnerable to Scandal
By Brandon Castel
Maybe Jim Tressel really is exactly who he claims to be.
Maybe Tressel was truly looking out for the wellbeing of his players while keeping the confidentiality of a federal investigation. After all, Edward Rife was a bad guy.
Not only was he under investigation from the United States government for being a drug trafficker, but a former employee named Dustin Halko told Sports Illustrated that Rife pointed a gun at him before having his associates take him out back for a beating so bad it landed him in the hospital.
Maybe Tressel was worried about that when he decided not to tell any of his superiors about the emails he received from Chris Cicero. Maybe he thought Ted Sarniak had a better chance of keeping Terrelle Pryor safe than Ohio State’s Athletic Director Gene Smith.
Maybe he wasn’t thinking about the fact he would lose at least two of most important players in Pryor and DeVier Posey from a team that was loaded with enough talent to make another run at a national championship.
If not probable, it’s at least possible that Tressel’s behavior was consistent with what fans would hope for out of their head football coach. He didn’t pay any players out of his own pocket, or that of the university’s. He didn’t give them free tattoos or cheap car hookups.
What he did do, however, was ignore the obvious. In doing so, Tressel left himself vulnerable to the kind of scandal that ultimately brought a bitter end to his career at Ohio State.
Even if he is innocent of all other charges, Tressel was guilty of one fatal flaw. Whether he believed in his players too much or too little, Tressel’s apparent obliviousness to what was going on within his program was unacceptable, especially for someone who ALWAYS seemed to be in complete control of everything he lent his name to.
The warning signs were all there.
Though they could not be seen from the surface, they sparkled like a shiny new coin in a clear pond when hit with the right light.
To see them, one would have had to look closely, but that’s something Tressel seemed unwilling to do. He kept a fatherly watch over each and every player’s performance in the classroom, but once they stepped off campus, they were, for all intents and purposes, on their own.
Tressel left his players with the proverb “nothing good happens after ten o’clock,” but free tattoos and $500 handshakes can happen in the middle of the day.
Just how deep the rabbit hole goes and how many players actually followed the white rabbit we may never know. It is unfair to expect Tressel to know about everything that is happening with his players, but it is equally improbable to think he knew none of it.
Unless of course he wanted to know none of it.
In 1991, Ray Isaac helped Tressel win the first national championship of his career at Youngstown State. The Penguins would win three more Division I-AA titles in the next six years, with the last coming in 1997.
One year later, it was revealed that Isaac had accepted as much as $10,000 in cash and checks from a booster named Mickey Monus during his time as the quarterback of the YSU football team. According to Isaac, “Jim Tressel never ever knew anything” about their dealings, which included a car provided by the Phar-Mor drug store company founded by Monus.
According to the recent Sports Illustrated article, Isaac's car was the worst-kept secret on campus.
The argument of plausible deniability worked for Tressel, who was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing, but the incident should have served as a wake-up call. Whether he knew about Isaac’s relationship with Monus or not, one player nearly derailed his entire coaching career long before he ever made it to Columbus.
Buckeye Born and Bred
Three years later Tressel left Youngstown State to become the new head coach at the Ohio State University, where his father Lee had originally signed up to play for Paul Brown. In his second season with the Buckeyes, Tressel led the school to its first national championship in more than 30 years.
He was an instant celebrity in the state of Ohio, but once again there were seedy undertones to the 2002 season. The star player on that team was, of course, freshman tailback Maurice Clarett.
Before Terrelle Pryor, Clarett was the one player whose name would be forever linked to Tressel’s after he was suspended for his entire sophomore season for violating NCAA rules. Among the violations committed by Clarett was a breach of NCAA Bylaw 10.1, which happened to be the exact one that would later doom his coach. Clarett was eventually dismissed from the OSU football team.
After leaving Ohio State Clarett, who gained 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in his only year of college football, tried to tear down the university limb by limb. Many of his allegations seemed far-fetched at the time, but one that stands out now is his claim that Columbus car dealerships allowed him to use loaner cars after the transmission blew in his Cadillac.
“When you're hot in Columbus, you just go,” Clarett told ESPN The Magazine back in 2004.
“Somebody's going to recognize your face. You say, 'I need to use a car.' 'Okay, here you go.'”
According to Clarett, he would get new cars from McDaniel Automotive or The Car Store on Morse Road, including a Lexus SC 430 sports car, and “keep them for weeks,” until he “got tired of 'em.”
One of those cars, a loaded black 2001 Monte Carlo, was the vehicle Clarett was driving when it was burglarized while he was working out at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center (WHAC). Clarett said he only had the car for 12 hours, but claimed more than $10,000 worth of items were stolen.
Clarett was later accused of lying about the value of the items stolen from his vehicle. All of this was going on right under the nose of Tressel and his staff. If they weren’t culpable, they certainly weren’t interested in investigating why Clarett was driving a fully-loaded luxury car to team workouts.
Much like the Ray Isaac situation, it would seem like Clarett’s cars were the worst-kept secret at Ohio State, yet no investigation was launched by Tressel and his staff to determine why amateur football players were driving around cars they could not afford.
Had they done their due diligence back in 2004, the parking lot at the WHAC might look much different than it does today, where SUV’s and Dodge Chargers are the norm.
Maybe it wasn’t Tressel’s job to walk through the parking lot to check registrations and see who got out of what vehicle, but after the incidents with Isaac and Clarett, he should have made it his job.
Ohio State’s compliance office shouldn’t get a free pass either because it IS their job, but Tressel should have known better than to leave it up to anyone else.
Nearly seven years after Clarett’s comments about the easy access to loaner cars in Columbus, Terrelle Pryor is being investigated by the NCAA, and Ohio State, for the very same thing. Pryor and four of his teammates are already suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling memorabilia or trading it for tattoos.
Certainly Tressel did not arrange for Pryor and his teammates to become associates with Edward Rife, a known drug trafficker, but it doesn’t seem possible Tressel and his staff would not have been able to find out about Rife’s Fine Line Ink tattoo parlor with a little probing.
Tressel was eventually handed that information in the emails from Cicero, but his decision not to come forward with it left him exposed. University officials stumbled upon those emails in January, and this time there would be no plausible deniability for Jim Tressel.
His own blindness had led to his demise.
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