‘He’s our coach, and we trust him implicitly.” That’s what Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said about Jim Tressel during a March 8 news conference. It was a strange statement, considering Smith was in the process of announcing Tressel’s two-game suspension and $250,000 fine for, essentially, being dishonest.
Smith’s bad judgment regarding Tressel is just as disturbing as Tressel’s bad judgment on OSU players and a tattoo parlor, which ultimately led to the coach’s resignation Monday after 10 seasons on the Buckeyes sideline. Maybe Smith was just following the lead of OSU president E. Gordon Gee, who made an incredulous (and telling) attempt at humor March 8 when asked whether he considered dismissing Tressel.
“Are you kidding?” Gee said. “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me. His integrity and the body of his work is quite remarkable.”
No, what’s remarkable was lauding the coach’s integrity after he lied to superiors and the NCAA. What’s remarkable was expressing trust in the coach who chose to hide damaging information that put the program at risk for major sanctions.
Less than two weeks ago, after ample time to reassess and reconsider, Smith still didn’t get it. He continued to express full support for Tressel. “Oh, definitely, no question,” Smith said at the Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. “I haven’t changed. I haven’t changed.”
If he still feels that strongly, if he still believes that Tressel is an honorable man of high integrity who deserved to remain in place, there’s only thing to do: Follow him out the door.
Among the defenses offered by Tressel’s supporters is the curious notion that he withheld information of NCAA violations to “protect” his players. Instead of immediately notifying Smith and OSU’s compliance officers of incriminating emails received in April 2010, Tressel kept quiet and feigned ignorance. In doing so, he broke his OSU contract by not passing along information pertaining to known or potential NCAA violations. He also lied in signing an annual NCAA document in September 2010 that stated he knew of no possible violations.
There’s no justification for a coach protecting his players in such a manner. That’s no better than tidying up their crime scene, wiping off their fingerprints and concocting an alibi for them. True character - and having his players’ best interests at heart - would lead a coach to cooperate with authorities, not engage in a cover-up.
As is often the case, attempts to conceal the wrongdoing can be worse than the wrongdoing itself. And that’s what made Smith’s emphatic backing of Tressel so confounding. Tressel practiced deception twice - by not revealing what he knew in April 2010, and continuing to withhold information when questioned by school officials in December 2010, shortly before quarterback Terrelle Pryor and five other players were suspended.
Tressel didn’t come clean until February, admitting he knew it was “inevitable” that players named in the emails had committed NCAA violations and would be ruled ineligible.
But Smith kept his faith in Tressel, presumably because of the 2002 national title and 106-22 record at OSU. It appeared they were ready to weather the storm together until just recently, when former player Ray Small alleged a culture of NCAA rule violations and reports surfaced regarding suspicious car sales to OSU players and their relatives.
Tressel’s resignation at this point doesn’t stanch the damage of his hanging on the past few months.
“After meeting with University officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach,” he said in Monday’s statement released by the university.
That meeting and agreement seemed certain as soon as Tressel’s deception was revealed. Making matters worse was Tressel’s well-polished image as a high-ground moralist, author of “Life Promises for Success: Promises From God on Achieving Your Best” and “The Winners Manual For The Game of Life”