Still, Andy Geiger, then Ohio State’s athletic director, favored Tressel over Minnesota coach and former Buckeyes linebacker Glen Mason for the job after John Cooper was fired in January 2001.
Cooper was let go ostensibly because the program lost direction, with several off-the-field problems. But perhaps more damaging was his 2-10-1 record against rival Michigan and 3-8 mark in bowl games.
Introduced at an Ohio State basketball game in 2001, Tressel vowed that fans would “be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community and, most especially, in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Mich., on the football field.”
Tressel’s first team went just 7-5, losing the Outback Bowl, but upset 11th-ranked Michigan 26-20. But in his second year, with a team led by freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, the Buckeyes won everything. They went 14-0, winning seven games by seven or fewer points. Ranked No. 2, they took on top-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS national title. In the second overtime, Clarett bulled over the middle for a touchdown, and the Buckeyes held to clinch their first national title since 1968. After the game, Tressel held aloft the crystal football.
The following summer, Clarett reported that a used car he had borrowed from a local dealer was broken into and that he had been hit by thousands of dollars in losses. Clarett’s call to police came from Tressel’s office. Clarett admitted he had made up the break-in call and later took a plea deal. But the NCAA began looking into Clarett and the team. Soon after, he was declared ineligible. He would never play another college game.
The Buckeyes went 11-2 in 2003 and followed that with an 8-4 mark in Tressel’s fourth season. There had been a stream of players getting in trouble, but in December 2004 backup quarterback Troy Smith was suspended for the bowl game and the 2005 regular-season opener for accepting $500 from a booster.
Smith would go on to win the 2006 Heisman Trophy, leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record and a season-long No. 1 ranking. Despite being a heavy favorite in the national title game, the Buckeyes were routed by Florida 41-14.
A year later, Tressel guided the Buckeyes to the national championship game but lost again — 38-24 to underdog LSU.
The Buckeyes were national contenders each of Tressel’s next three seasons, with off-the-field problems mixed in. In 2005 offensive coordinator coach Jim Bollman was reprimanded for trying to arrange for a car and a loan for a recruit. Several other Buckeyes players were arrested on a variety of charges.
But the Buckeyes continued to win and play in rich bowl games. That was enough until his latest brush with the NCAA.
Ohio State announced in December during what would be a 12-1 season and a top-five national ranking that it would suggest to the NCAA that five players — most of them top players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor — would sit out the first five games of the 2011 season after they admitted they had received improper benefits.
They had sold memorabilia such as championship rings, uniforms and, in the case of Pryor, a Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award, for cash or discounted tattoos at a Columbus parlor. The violations came to light in a U.S. attorney’s investigation into drug trafficking involving the owner of the parlor, Edward Rife. When federal agents raided his home and the parlor, they came across hundreds of signed Ohio State items.
A 10-day investigation by Ohio State resulted in the self-imposed five-game penalties and the players paying the money they gained to charity. The NCAA allowed the players to play in the Sugar Bowl, a move many observers said showed the national governing body put the money interests of the bowl ahead of routine punishment in other similar cases.
Tressel had learned that Pryor and wide receiver DeVier Posey were involved in the memorabilia deals when he received an email from lawyer Christopher Cicero, a former Ohio State walk-on and letterman in the 1980s, back in April 2010.
It was not until Ohio State began to work on an appeal of the five-game suspensions for the players that investigators came across the emails between Cicero and Tressel. The coach then finally admitted that he knew of what has been called Tattoo-Gate by local media.