I've held off on this issue for a long time, but I have to get it off my chest. I get that lots of people don't like Ohio State, and I am well aware that I'm a homer when it comes to the Buckeyes, but what the NCAA and the sports media did to Jim Tressel is unforgivable.
No words will adequately capture what it means to Tressel and Ohio State that the NCAA ran him off the way they did. We all know that most of major collegiate sports is a business, and that certainly applies to Ohio State. But not to Tressel and Ohio State. Put simply: he was in his dream job.
And when I say dream job, I do not mean that as a man he wanted to be a well-paid head coach of a major college football program. I mean that all the way from boyhood, he dreamed of being in some way connected to Ohio State (and probably Cleveland Browns) football. His dad was a college coach at Baldwin Wallace in a suburb of Cleveland; he played at Berea High School before going to play college ball for his dad. (As a matter of full disclosure: Berea was the rival of Midpark High School, where my folks went to school. Tressel played against my dad in high school, and my dad had a nodding relationship with Tressel's father.)
Football is religion in Ohio, and when it comes to college football, Ohio Stadium is the only temple that counts. I moved away from Ohio when I was 12, and I only had one cousin who even attended OSU. And I'm a 34 year old man who knows the words to Ohio State's fight song because I learned them as a little kid. Tressel never went to Ohio State, he never played at or against Ohio State, he only assistant coached for Ohio State for two years in the early 1980s before going to Division 1-AA Youngstown State. But you can be damn sure he knew the fight song. He knew the alma mater too, and reinstated the tradition of the players singing the song with the student fans at the end of every game, win or lose.
That's why he didn't have to be told what mattered most on the field every fall. That's why the first thing he did as coach was something out of character but necessary: guarantee that the Buckeyes would beat Michigan the next year. The Big Ten championships were nice, competing for national championships made every season a blast, but you could tell that the whole team leaned into that game against Michigan every year. Tressel made sure that his teams knew that they better be ready for the highest of holy days, and all the rest of Ohio knew it too. Think of it: nine wins against only one loss in the big game, and after 2-10-1 for John Cooper, a guy who could not have gotten Ohio State football less.
None of this is to say that he did not do what he was accused of doing. He did not report that someone emailed him about players supposedly trading their own memorabilia for tattoos. Then he told NCAA investigators that he did not know about this violation. That's it. No, really. That's it. He didn't pay players, he didn't cover up bad grades, he didn't pay family members, or condone misbehavior. He half-assed covered up for some players who stupidly broke a stupid rule that was designed to keep such sales from being a backdoor way of paying players. To be clear, this all has to be the most pathetic reason ever to ruin someone's career.
Terry Pluto had it right:
Ohio State was ranked No. 5 in all of Division I football by the latest NCAA Academic Progress Report. The Buckeyes were at 985, the best of any nationally ranked program. The others ahead of OSU are Northwestern, Rutgers, Northern Illinois and Duke.And now idiots want to pile on--to treat this ridiculous affair like Tressel was running some sort of crime syndicate. They have already piled on, and forced a guy out of his dream, out of a job he was meant to have, when a slap on the wrist would have been just fine.
When Tressel took over for John Cooper, the Buckeye graduation rate had sunk into the 20th-percentile. He has been at 60 percent most seasons. Tressel is not losing his job because of academic fraud. He's not losing his job because there were systematic payments by boosters to players. He's not losing his job for recruiting violations.
He's losing it over what a coaching friend of mine called, "Knucklehead cheating, minor league stuff."
Oh, I know, I'm being all misty-eyed and romantic about the whole thing--Tressel and his boys were just going out there and doing their best for people all over the great state of Ohio. But I'm not alone. The prevailing mood in Ohio isn't anger. It's more like a sort of resigned sadness. Everyone senses that this whole thing is a waste, whether it's when Tressel shows up at a Browns practice, and his former rivals go out of their way to praise him; or when his former players try to show a tiny bit of support and get smacked down by a university that has no idea where the NCAA's witch hunt will go next; or when high school football coaches all over the state spontaneously band together to show that they still honor the coach.
But damn it, they should be mad. This whole thing is like a practical joke in bad taste that has gone on way too long. Jim Tressel was the right man to be the coach for Ohio State University's football team, for every reason that counts, for every good reason we care about sports at all. That the NCAA hounded him out of that job, because he couldn't bear to see what it was doing to the school and the program, and that that association continues to hound the university, is proof to me that it's time that Ohio State make a stand against that authoritarian pseudo-government. Starting a National Collegiate Football Association, and rehiring Coach Tressel, sounds like a great start.