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Jim Tressel Resigns: Why He's Gone, What It Means

It's The Cover Up, Stupid

As clear and serious a violation as was Jim Tressel's original course of action following the selling of memorabilia, his subsequent sins are the reason that as of this morning he is no longer the head coach at Ohio State. He made a big mistake, and he was going to pay a price for it, but he probably would have survived had he not lied about it, repeatedly. It's always the cover up.

The reactions from Ohio State fans range from misplaced anger to resigned sorrow. Some blame the players whose mistakes were the first domino to fall, but that's a red herring.  Although the players' misdeeds are a but-for cause of Tressel's resignation, the proximate cause is Tressel's behavior in the aftermath -- first in non-reporting the issue, then in playing the players in the Fiesta Sugar Bowl, and finally, and most damningly, in the lies he told to try and cover it up.

Over at the superb OSU blog Eleven Warriors, Alex summarizes the chain of events with an analogy:

We can thank one little mistake that I compare to pulling a loose thread on a t-shirt. In lying by omission about his players selling their memoriabilia and executing the worst press conference in the history of press conferences to go public about his actions, Jim Tressel fed himself to the hounds.

I think that's basically right, although (1) it perhaps understates things a bit, and (2) shouldn't it be a sweater? More accurate might be to say there was a really big, conspicuous thread hanging from Tressel's sweater, and instead of fixing it he tried to stuff two feet of yarn down his pants and hoped no one would notice. But much worse was his response when people started asking questions.

Reporter:  Coach, can you comment on the big thread hanging from your sweater?

Tressel:  What thread?

Reporter:  The one you tried to stuff down your pants.

Tressel:  The... party. With the... with the pants. Party with pants?

Reporter:  I love that movie.

Tressel:  I love lamp.

Both:  [long laugh]

Reporter:  Seriously, though: what about that thread?

Tressel:  Which thread? Where?

Reporter:  [reaching for the thread]

In that sense, Alex is spot-on: Tressel invited the media to begin tugging on his sweater the moment that he began dodging and lying about the violations.  But make no mistake, that's what should have happened, and if Tressel could have survived owning up to one torn sweater, by lying about it he invited everyone to rummage through his entire wardrobe. As I wrote a month ago:

Is that not the situation that we're in with Jim Tressel?  That is, even if we can somehow concoct a justification for Jim Tessel not getting fired for this incident, does it not damningly suggest that we should wonder whether there are other incidents that he has successfully covered up?  Personally, I think his actions in the present case warrant a dismissal, but even if one were to conclude that these particular violations are not, on their own, enough to fire him, what about the way that he tried to cover them up?  And much more damningly, the way that he then lied about them?

Are we really to believe that this was it?  That this was a lone incident?  Even if it was, how can we know?  How can we know when Tressel demonstrated his willingness to lie?  And then when confronted with new evidence, to lie again

Lo and behold, the digging has been done, a damning Sports Illustrated article is set to publish this week, and Jim Tressel is forced to resign on Memorial Day.

What It All Means

Speaking of which, it would be downright un-American of me not to include a little moralizing in this post, no? And in any event, Jim Tressel's resignation is a very big deal. Ask yourself what kind of odds you would have gotten last September on Tressel resigning amidst a scandal within the year. 100-to-1? 250? Although handled differently Jim Tressel could have survived with his "good, clean guy" reputation mostly in tact, as it happened the chain of events is one of the most significant recent off-field events in college football. So what did we learn?

1.  There are lots of ways to be dirty.

Not all college football miscreants are alike. There is The SEC Cheat, who goes about his dirty work straightforwardly. It's practically a civic duty, for boosters and coaches alike.  "If buying players cars is so wrong, why'd the mayor give me a key to the city for it then? Nuff said." 

A related breed, of course, is The USC Cheat, who is similarly straightforward, but adds a seductive flaunt to the approach. "Hey, it's L.A., baby. We're just having fun here. Come on, let's go get a drink and do some winning."

But quite distinct from those first two is The Lookaway Cheat, and in Jim Tressel that club has a new poster boy. Reading reactions from OSU fans, you hear a whole lot about what a good man Tressel is. I don't have any reason to doubt that he is, nor do I think this scandal necessarily speaks to his character. He is flawed, of course, but we're not talking about Dave Bliss here. Tressel seems like a genuinely good person -- one who, like the rest of us, makes his fair share of mistakes.

But all of that is largely irrelevant as pertains to evaluating his in/ability to operate his program within the rules of the system. If Tressel were a classless, puppy-hating grouch who nonetheless ran a crystal-clean program, he might have other problems (such as a much shorter leash with the fans and media), but NCAA sanctions wouldn't be among them. The only possible relevance of Tressel's character to the issues at hand is in the manner in which he cheated. He wasn't a blatant kind of violator, but he was perfectly willing to look the other way. And, as we're finding out, to help do a little dusting under the rug if need be.

It's a good thing that Jim Tressel had such a positive impact on the Ohio State community. He deserves all that appreciation and support. But he was a cheater. Maybe not the most blatant or unlikable kind, but a cheater nonetheless. Not only that, but a systematic one. He wouldn't have resigned otherwise.

2. If Tressel can go down, no one is untouchable.

Given the cover up, I thought Tressel wasn't going to survive this scandal, but now that his downfall is complete the symbolic importance is significant. As we just finished discussing: Tressel is a good guy who was beloved by both his fans and the media. It doesn't matter that he did enough wrong that he had to resign on Memorial Day morning: Tressel's downfall sets a precedent.

Unless we learn from the Sports Illustrated article that Tressel was doing Gary Barnett-type stuff, with some time the historical narrative will settle to a milder version of the facts, in which Jim Tressel -- "a really good guy, remember" -- made a few mistakes and resigned honorably. And at the end of the day, one of college football's thought-to-be "untouchable" coaches just went down. Might that have a lasting impact around the sport?

Perhaps not, but Titanic just hit an iceburg. The first way this could matter prospectively is the threshold for future coaches in hot water. "Well, if Tressel had to go at Ohio State, doesn't Coach X have to go at School Y?"  Especially given the way Gene Smith and the Ohio State athletics department came out looking from this shipwreck, it wouldn't be surprising to see indiscretions internally prosecuted with much greater formality and scrutiny. And (even more) lawyers.

3.  Journalists... being journalists? Whoa.

The second place Tressel's downfall might carry import relates to the media. As the details about Tressel's myriad transgressions come to light, there appears to be something resembling momentum in reporting about college football. It started when two reporters no one had heard of at Yahoo got the bright idea that instead of fluffing USC they could investigate what was actually going on. And most recently, the Columbus Dispatch did terrific work covering Tressel's problems, while there is what is expected to be a damning investigative piece on the same in this week's Sports Illustrated. With that said, we're not exactly in a muckraking rennaissance. News that bowl executives were taking schools' ticket money and lighting it on fire on yachts had to be broken by a political action committee, after all.

The most culpable media entity is ESPN, which devotes enormous resources to lazy, largely uninteresting opinion (Hello, niche for blogs), and most of what little budget does go to investigative reporting gets wasted breaking stories like: "Gambling On Youth Football In South Florida."  What?! You mean to tell me that drug dealers in an economically devastated South Florida city are gambling on the happenings in their neighborhood? What's next?? Rolling dice and betting on the outcome? The horror!

The one piece Outside The Lines did on college football covered the Cam Newton scandal, and it was soft and uncontroversial, featuring Eddie George telling us Newton's a good guy. For ESPN, breaking stories in college football means Craig James getting in a parent-coach fight.

Will the Tressel story have any impact on college football's media? On ESPN, I'm skeptical, not because they couldn't (with their resources, they could be fierce), but because their financial interest in the sport is so substantial; it's like expecting Berkshire Hathaway to share negative information about their companies when they are not obligated to. Not gonna happen. 

That leaves everyone else, but here, again, there appears to be some real momentum. From books like "Death To The BCS," to niche reporting like that done by Playoff PAC and, to good old fashioned reporting by big media companies like that done by Yahoo in covering Reggie Bush and street agents, an increasing amount of quality reporting is being done.  Indeed, there's been so much recent negative news about college football that Cody was compelled to devote a lengthy blog post to it all. At this time it's still more Pro Publica than New York Times, but that's changing, and there's an awful lot out there for journalists who are willing to look.