Few coaches over the past decade have succeeded like Jim Tressel. His record was 106-22 in 10 seasons. He reached the top of the mountain with the 2002 National Championship. Three times he was National Coach of the Year. In those 10 years, he made the golden financial circle of BCS bowl games eight times.
Through his leadership, OSU became Exhibit A of what is best about Big Ten football, and carried the heavy burden on its shoulders to justify the conference despite inept bowl game performances of its brethren. Against the only other historic competitor for conference primacy, the University of Michigan, he was 9-1. Even graduation rates rose during his tenure to a very respectable level.
There has been no better model of consistency. His team had the 5th most 10-win seasons among any school, and the longest run of double-digit wins of any team in the Big Ten. On those facts, it is reasonable to conclude the OSU brand was never better in its history, not even under the legendary Woody Hayes.
And few coaches had more of a professional aura. Only he could make a sweater vest look classier than an Armani suit. I doubt the media and most fans wondered who was telling the truth when Maurice Clarett accused the program of off-field abuses because only Tressel was presumed innocent. That is because Tressel walked and talked the language of integrity. He embodied and embraced it – until he faced head on the coach’s nightmare.
The nightmare starts with learning about player transgressions. Then you face the question, “Do I turn in my thoroughbreds and risk losing games, or keep the transgressions quiet and win? It is a risk analysis every coach must ponder and hope never to face so directly. He faced the hardest issue because he did not have the easy way out – a bad team or malcontent players as the transgressors. In either case, you may as well turn them in. He could tell himself, “Hell, they’re not helping me much anyway and may already be costing me my job.” But Tressel had one of the best stables of players in all of college football. One of the transgressors just happened to be his star quarterback, the only player that was absolutely necessary to championship opportunities. Less cynically, we should remember he spent more time with these players than his own family. So these players had to be like family to him. And he quite probably wanted to protect them. No one accuses him of being a heartless dictator. To the contrary, he has many players fiercely loyal to him.
Despite all that success and giving Tressel every benefit of the doubt in his protective intentions, there are at least two overarching lessons. First: No one is bigger than the university. In a March press conference, called to calm the swirl of alleged NCAA violations, OSU President Gordon Gee was asked whether he would consider firing the coach. His regrettable response was, “I hope the coach doesn’t fire me”. That sent a message that the tail was wagging the dog, and that President Gordon Gee bowed down to the Emperor – Tressel. Gee essentially said if the Emperor says he has no clothes (or NCAA violations) then the President dare not say otherwise even if the coach is nakedly violating NCAA rules. To OSU’s credit, they at least had the courage of their conviction that this football culture is unsustainable.
Lesson Two: Mistakes are forgivable. But covering up the mistakes and hypocrisy…not so much. Stated differently, selling memorabilia is one thing, but lying about it to the NCAA is another. What is it about us humans that make this a recurring pattern? History forgotten apparently is Richard Nixon, Martha Stewart and millions of divorced folks with text messages that uncovered other sorts of transgressions. Perhaps it is falling from grace through arrogance. Whether controlling one’s temper (Woody Hayes) or controlling the facts (Tressel), flaws can take you over the edge and cause one to forget just who is the Emperor. It is probably no coincidence that this occurs when both Hayes and Tressel had already reached a seemingly untouchable status. They had salaries bigger than the institution’s president, and far greater fame and exposure. Tressel is just another in a long line of similar cases. Reportedly 81 other coaches had this type of USA (United State of Amnesia). Seventy-eight of them had to contact realtors and buy a new wardrobe the next year.
Who’s most to blame for the Tressel fall from grace? Most will say the leading candidates are (1) the players who took and (2) the coach that lied. Chris Spielman, an ESPN analyst, told that network he would get 24-7 police surveillance on the kids. If he was the coach, he would not let the players jeopardize his career. Really? The coach’s career was successful in large part because of the players. He cannot get all the credit when things go well, and then take no blame when it goes south. All agree the Tressel transgression left the university with little choice. OSU may still have more Tresselized drama in this public relations nightmare.
But I say an insightful attribution of blame for a problem should start with root causes of the problem. The problem didn’t start with the players. It didn’t start with Tressel. Of course both made bad decisions but it starts with a failure of the NCAA in not giving adequate living expenses to players who work nearly full time, without real chances to make separate income. Would the players have been so tempted to barter property for pocket change, or for rent, to help pay a car note, if they were just given fuller living expenses? Realistically, they cannot even work for pay during the summer if they wanted to put in an honest day’s work and get paid like any other college student. The NCAA has known for years this was a problem. Just recently the Big Ten admitted they’re thinking about raising the living expenses. It doesn’t really matter if you call it a stipend, an enhanced scholarship or pay for play. NCAA rules prohibit players from receiving “extra benefits” beyond the ordinary student. But they know these players are in an extraordinary relationship with the university – a near full time job. Some cases have even held that players have had enough indicia of employees in terms of university control to be considered employees for workers compensation purposes. Until the NCAA fixes the inequity, there will be other items of value brokered by players for living expenses while they watch the university prosper from their labors.
Who’s the ultimate future coach? The interim coach for 2011 is Luke Fickell. He has paid his dues. For 9 of 11 seasons he has been an assistant, most recently as OSU’s co-defensive coordinator. That is probably a smart move now because it brings stability among coaching staff and play-calling for the players. Plus, top potential replacements may not accept an offer when NCAA sanctions are still uncertain. And some of those prime candidates already had spring drills and are committed to upcoming season.
More interesting to me than the person is the process. The person may be one of the big names with Ohio ties. Easy candidates are Urban Meir, Bo Polini at Nebraska, Gary Patterson at TCU, and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. The process is interesting because many schools hire someone new in reaction to whatever happened in the past. So the process will include many questions about how the coach intends to prevent NCAA violations. But no matter who becomes the heir, he will inherit the same nightmarish dilemma. He will recognize that no one wins a Kentucky Derby or a National Championship without thoroughbreds. And if the thoroughbred doesn’t have enough hay in the barn, he will face the same Tressel issue. Next time the bartered item may be a championship ring, a jersey, a helmet, or maybe autographed shoes. OSU will likely monitor that coach more aggressively and be more scrutinizing of every situation with a quicker hook than under Tressel. Until the roots of that problem are dug up, the weedy issue will continue to appear.
- Jim Tressel
- BCS bowl games
- Woody Hayes
- Maurice Clarett
- Big Ten football
- National Coach of the Year
- the University of Michigan
- President Gordon Gee