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Jim Tressel: A Referendum on Ohio State Athletics

I first noticed it when the only commentary the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors posted in relaying the NCAA's Notice of Allegations was, "Three cheers for there being no new bombshells."   And again with SBN OSU blog Along The Olentangy, who saw the news as "good," all things considered.  And even when Brian Cook at MGoBlog noted of the NCAA's alegations "...and that's it." 

To paraphrase Brian, "So much for the NCAA dropping the hammer with anything beyond what has already been conclusively established."

To sum the situation to date, Ohio State's Jim Tressel knew about his players committing violations, Jim Tressel did not properly handle those violations, and worst of all, Jim Tressel subsequently lied about what he knew and what he did about it.

Less interesting about the situation is what Tressel did and how Tressel's punishment is unfolding. As you may recall, whn the violations first surfaced Tressell tapped himself on the wrist with a minor suspension, then, as the cover-up details emerged, escalated the self-flagalation to a full-bore slap on his wrist, suspending himself for the same five games that his players received. After which the next big question was what reaction the NCAA itself would have to this whole mess.

At least from my perspective, the most interesting thing about the NCAA's "Notice of Allegations" was what it did not do. Or at least what it appears not willing to do. To its credit, the NCAA moved with unusual speed to confirm the violations that had already been established, but it notably did not go even a single inch further.  What it did, it seems to me, is confirm that there will be relatively serious repercussions for Jim Tressel and Ohio State, while simultaneously signaling pretty clearly that it will stop short of taking any additional steps. No lack of institutional control. No lack of oversight. No digging for any kind of pattern of repeat behavior.

In other words, the NCAA confirmed what was clearly established, and offered nothing more. And the point I would like to raise is that regardless of whether that was prudent and appropriate, I think the message is clear: With prestigious/important programs, the NCAA is willing to dole out some measure of punishment, but the real impetus is going to be on the violating program itself to deliver the fully proper response.  The NCAA is willing to vacate seasons, mandate suspensions, and cut some scholarships, but ultimately, with programs like USC and Ohio State, the heaviest lifting is left to the program itself. There will be no serious investigation into lack of institutional control and no serious consideration given to the harshest of penalties. The NCAA appears willing to indicate its displeasure, but unwilling to be the one to deliver the ultimate punishment.

That, in the end, is left to the institutions.

All of which would be fine to the extent that the end result was roughly the same, which is why I was so struck by the comments I've been hearing the last two days, none more telling than those of Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. During an interview on ESPN Radio Monday evening, the radio host -- who, incidentally, thought that after all this Tressel had to be done at Ohio State -- asked Lesmerises whether he thought Tressel would continue to be the coach at Ohio State through 2012. 

And though he hedged a bit by conceding the seriousness of the allegations, Lesmerises went out of his way to suggest that anyone who thought Tressel was done at Ohio State was kidding themselves.  For the issue, as he saw it, was not what Tressel had done in this instance -- which is by any standard inexcusable and has in virtually every instance dealing with violations of the same bylaws led to the firing of the coach -- but rather what Tressel has done in the past and whether the goodwill he's built up allows the fan base to dust it all under the rug.  At least to whatever extent the NCAA itself allows.

Listening to Lesmerises, as well as by reading the reactions from various Ohio State blogs, it became clear that this is what this whole thing comes down to. The NCAA is willing to confirm the known transgressions, and, presumably, offer some sort of punishment that hurts the school (think: vacated 2010 season, a bowl ban, and possibly a scholarship ding), but doesn't dare go so far as to implicate Ohio State as some sort of a serial offender -- nothing like a less relevant program that it can afford to send to the boonies (Hi, SMU!). 

No, the NCAA will offer as harsh a punishment as it dares and let the institution itself deal with the rest.  And though we can debate the merits of that approach, to the extent that we're realists, what this really boils down to is a referendum on Ohio State itself. What are they willing to accept as tolerable?  Is Tressel so untouchable that even this can be excused, so long as he serves whatever punishment he's forced to serve?  Or, instead, are his actions unacceptable, such that he cannot survive what's headed his way?

I raise this question because of the comments I heard on the radio this evening from the Cleveland Plain Dealers's Doug Lesmerises.  It was clear to me from his comments that he thought the Ohio State fan base was interested in putting this behind them with whatever punishment they had to deal with, but that there was little interest in extending the punishment further than what absolutely had to be done, which meant, in his view, allowing Tressel to ride out this wave as just that -- some kind of temporary aberration to be endured, and then moved on from.

Which brings the question to the Longhorns fan base.  It was clear from Lesmerises' analysis that his feeling that Tressel could ride this out had everything to do with Tressel's reputation and past accomplishments. With his having won a national title, consistently beat Michigan, and earned high esteem as a stand up guy among the faithful.

And I had to ask myself, what if this happened at Texas?  Would we approach this the same way?  It's easy to say that we would from the sidelines, but... really, I think that we would.  Hell, do you remember the heat Mack Brown felt during the jail-a-thon summer of 2007?  It wasn't anything that even got much national attention, but locally?  To Texas fans?  It felt unacceptable.

Now imagine if Mack Brown had done what Jim Tressel just did.  Not only botched the compliance aspect of some blatant, flagrant violations, but then lied about it?  Multiple times! 

I don't think Mack Brown could survive it.  It's possible, I suppose, but if I had to put odds on his surviving doing what Tressel just did -- lying included -- I'd put it at 15:1.  Because ultimately, the way the NCAA handles these things, the impetus is on the university to take the harshest steps.  Which makes this a referendum on Ohio State athletics.

Do they care enough about the violations to fire Jim Tressel?  Because it is bad.  It's not something that other coaches in other situations have survived.  And I don't think it's one that Mack Brown could survive at Texas.

What do you think?

I've followed up this post with another, more clearly stating what's eating at me with this situation.  Click here to read more on the Tressel situation.