The sweater vest was gone, replaced by military-style camouflage as Jim Tressel prowled the sideline Saturday in Ohio State’s annual spring game.
An odd uniform to be sure, even on military appreciation day. There was no truth to the rumor that university President E. Gordon Gee was ready in the locker room to shine Tressel’s boots if they got dirty.
You might remember Gee for his part in a farcical news conference last month where Tressel got his hand formally slapped by the university for NCAA violations. Gee was the one who almost gagged at the suggestion that he might fire the football coach for his transgressions.
“Are you kidding?” Gee said. “Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Funny guy, that Gee. Nothing like a little humor to help keep the sweater from unraveling even more.
But you have to wonder who’s laughing now.
Certainly not the NCAA, which served notice Monday that it was going after Tressel for withholding information and lying so that his star players could remain eligible. Included in a harshly worded 13-page letter sent to the university were charges that the coach “failed to deport himself … (with) honesty and integrity.”
Surely not Tressel, either. He’s now, at least in the eyes of the NCAA, both a liar and a cheat and there may come a time soon where even the university president who adores him so much may not be able to save him.
The real problem for Tressel is that it’s all very clear cut. There isn’t any ambiguity about what happened, only what might happen because of it.
Already, Ohio State will be without its star quarterback and four other players for the first five games of next season. Tressel won’t be on the sideline, either, after extending the university’s original two-game suspension of him to five games in a supposed gesture of solidarity with his players.
But it goes farther than that. Tressel is now damaged goods and the Ohio State football program has also been badly wounded. Fans may still back the man who brought the Buckeyes their first national title in 34 years, but the parents of 18-year-old recruits may think twice about entrusting the future of their sons with a man who clearly has some issues in the character department.
Consider that Tressel knew he was doing something wrong himself when he said late last year that his players must have known they did something wrong by selling jerseys, Big Ten championship rings and other memorabilia to the operator of a tattoo parlor.
“I suppose that would be something rattling around inside the head of each of them individually,” he said at the time. “We all have a little sensor within us, ‘Well, I’m not sure if I should be doing this.’”
Apparently that little sensor malfunctioned in Tressel, especially on Sept. 13 of last year. That’s when he dated and then signed his name on a one-page NCAA form that declared he had reported any violations he knew of to his superiors.
At that point, Tressel not only knew about the memorabilia sales by quarterback Terrelle Pryor and others, but had made numerous phone calls and sent emails to other people about it. Even after Pryor and the others were punished, it wasn’t until confronted with the emails in January that Tressel admitted to NCAA and school officials that a violation had occurred.
And this from a coach who preaches responsibility and integrity in his book, “The Winners Manual For The Game of Life.”
Tressel might try reading the book himself, especially where he quotes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as saying: “It takes less time to do the right thing than to explain why you did it wrong.”
Trouble is, Tressel hasn’t spent much time explaining what he did wrong. At the same March 8 news conference where Gee and athletic director Gene Smith were declaring their undying loyalty to the 10-year coach, Tressel never admitted to anything other than poor judgment and never apologized for knowingly breaking the rules.
With the arrogance only a $3.5 million a year football coach can muster, he declared he was his own biggest critic and that “I don’t think less of myself at this moment.”
Others are beginning to think less of Tressel, though, and the NCAA is not done with him yet. The tone of Monday’s letter suggests there will be penalties greater than Tressel’s five-game suspension, and they could be aimed at Tressel himself instead of the university.
By then, maybe the higher-ups at Ohio State will figure out there are other football coaches who can beat Michigan, too. They’ll send Tressel packing and find a coach who can win without having to lie.
But probably not until the university president is done shining Tressel’s boots.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org