Posted by Adam Jacobi
It's fitting that Jim Tressel's nickname was The Senator. In Columbus and around the rest of the nation, that nickname was used as unironic praise, a testament to the Ohio State coach's maturity, open faith, and businesslike approach to running his football program. The name stuck because it fit. It also stuck because people conveniently forgot that Congress is and always has been one of the most reviled institutions in American history, one whose abysmal approval ratings are fueled by an institutional history of corruption, hypocrisy, and mistruths. Oh, Jim Tressel is a senator, all right. People just didn't really know it.
Back in 2010, Senator Tressel made the grave error of placing his players, his program, and himself above the law of the NCAA, and that's why we're here today (here's the full timeline). He found out that QB Terrelle Pryor and several teammates had been receiving impermissible benefits back in April, and hid the evidence from his athletic department. Astonishingly, there isn't a guarantee that the compliance department would have punished Pryor or would have withheld him from the 2010 season; after all, the department ordered memorabilia dealer (and purported Pryor payer) Dennis Talbott away from the program during the season, but Pryor was allowed to remain eligibile.
So now, not only is Tressel out of a job and likely facing a mammoth punishment from the NCAA -- not an ideal situation for a newly unemployed, 58-year-old coach to find himself in, to say the least -- but Pryor is gone from the program now as well, right on the heels of a major NCAA investigation into his relationship with several prominent Columbus figures, and there's even been some speculation that AD Gene Smith's job is on the line too, along with president Gordon Gee.
There's also a distinct possibility that the NCAA forces Ohio State to vacate some or all of the 2010 season's victories. Tressel knowingly used several players who, under NCAA statutes, were ineligible to play. And if the NCAA does indeed come down hard and takes away the 31-26 Sugar Bowl victory -- the bowl for which the "Buckeye Five" had controversially been allowed special eligibility -- oh, how the cackles of glee will ring forth from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and throughout the rest of the Southeast. The one thing OSU had been able to hang its hat on from the 2010 season that it never could before is that elusive bowl win over the SEC. It's one thing for Arkansas fans to claim that the Buckeyes only got that win by cheating, after all; it's another for the NCAA to agree with them.
Still, it's worth reiterating that since the NCAA investigation is ongoing, it's impossible to know precisely how the story ends just yet. With Tressel and Pryor both gone from Columbus and thus no longer obligated to comply with the NCAA investigation -- though if Tressel ever wants to coach in the NCAA again, complying would be a wise idea -- the NCAA doesn't have as much to work with. That's not to say OSU's going to get off easy, though, since the NCAA probably has enough to justify significant penalties. How bad we're talking here remains to be seen.
As far as on the field goes, 2011 might be a little rough. Luke Fickell is the interim coach for now, and while there's probably a reason why Jim Tressel had named the 37-year-old his assistant head coach back in March, there's virtually no chance that Fickell has the gameday coaching chops, players' respect, or recruiting skill that Tressel had. No first-year head coaches do, for that matter. Fickell's going to have to make sure all hell doesn't break loose on that roster, keep as many recruits in the fold as possible, and also try to keep the team motivated for 2011 even if Ohio State receives some sort of postseason ban (an apt possible punishment, considering the strings pulled to keep Pryor and everyone else eligible for the game).
Meanwhile, under center, the loss of Terrelle Pryor could be disastrous. The long-running joke in Columbus was that the depth chart had been "Pryor and Prayer," and now Buckeye fans will have to prostrate themselves in front of the football gods in search of mercy. Left on the depth chart are four quarterbacks whose benefits scarcely outweigh their drawbacks at this point, and it's unlikely that any of them will be given a long leash in 2011 until a clear No. 1 QB emerges. Braxton Miller has the highest upside, but the kid is 18. Joe Bauserman was the backup last season, but he might not actually be any good -- and he's already 26. Neither Kenny Guiton nor Taylor Graham seems ready to start yet. Yes, this motley crew was going to have to take care of the offense for the first five games no matter what after Pryor was initially suspended by the team, but now there's no cavalry coming -- and Big Ten defensive coordinators know it.
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The biggest consequence of Ohio State's fall from glory, though, might have nothing to do with Ohio State itself. Now, every compliance department is under increased scrutiny, whether from outside media sources or from within the program. There's no shortage of secretly terrified athletic directors who look at what's happening in Columbus and now have to double-check that their own athletic departments are actually on the up-and-up or if there's the possibility of serious malfeasance. Colt McCoy's wife gave the city of Austin a collective minor heart attack when she went on the radio and described the uphill battle Texas' compliance office faces, but she stopped short of actually saying any violations had ever occurred. Is that because none had occurred, or she just knew better than to publicly admit anything? That's the type of million-dollar question every major football program faces now, thanks to Tressel and Ohio State.
And yet, regardless of what happens from here on out, the fall of Ohio State is still going to be an endless topic of debate in the 2011 season -- just as it has been already. Everyone's got an opinion on Tressel, and everyone's going to have an opinion on what the NCAA ends up doing to the Buckeyes. Once football season rolls around, all it'll take is one "how about this Ohio State situation" from a play-by-play announcer, and all of a sudden the guys in the booth have something to talk about for the rest of the fourth quarter of some inconsequential September blowout. Most of the opinions aren't exactly going to be positive, though Tressel will probably remain something of a sympathetic figure among the talking heads. He is not a crook, they will say, and they will be correct. Tressel is not a crook. He is a senator, and one whose senatorial hubris brought down his entire football program. Other powerhouses should take heed.