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Commentary: Ohio State football’s tarnished reputation worst punishment for NCAA infractions

Vacate the games. Slash scholarships. Fire the coach.

However the NCAA decides to punish the Ohio State football program can’t be worse than the damage that’s already been done.

The program’s previously impeccable reputation is dead, or at best, is on life support.

OSU hasn’t always been considered the best team in the country, but it was always considered clean and transparent.

Sure, there were a few bumps in the road, such as Troy Smith taking money from a booster and Maurice Clarett’s litany of offenses — but the issues were always dealt with and appeared to be isolated incidents.

The overall reputation of the program was upheld.

Until recently, the lowest I ever saw OSU fans was walking out of the Horseshoe after the Buckeyes lost to USC in 2009. After losing back-to-back national championships and a series of big games, OSU and coach Jim Tressel had the reputation that they couldn’t win the big one. They beat up on the weaker Big Ten teams, but when put on a big stage with some real competition, they choked because they just weren’t good enough.

Buckeye fans hated that reputation. It ate them up.

The USC game in 2009 was a chance for redemption and the Bucks lost on an 86-yard touchdown drive led by a kid fresh out of high school. It broke hearts. Walking out of that stadium, I remember OSU fans yelling and groaning in utter despair. One image that’s burned into my memory is two middle-aged OSU fans with their faces completely covered in scarlet paint nose-to-nose, ready to fight. I thought that was rock bottom for OSU. It couldn’t get any worse than that.

I was wrong.

At least OSU still had dignity. At least it still ran a clean program.

Or so we thought.

The Buckeyes might have had the reputation that they couldn’t win the big game in 2009, but it was still better than having the reputation of cheaters. Winning a few prime-time games and consecutive BCS contests can eliminate the “can’t win the big game” stigma, but cheating is an entirely different issue. Not only are the fans left to wonder if what they’ve cheered so passionately during the past 10 years was real, but the program’s reputation has been tarnished.

In college football, reputation matters. OSU has seen the benefit of a good reputation in the past. The Buckeyes have received BCS at-large bids over teams with similar résumés, and they often have gotten the edge in the polls over unproven teams with identical records.

Other factors obviously are in play, but reputation is a factor. Now that OSU’s image is in the gutter, these benefits may start to disappear.

OSU will truly have to earn everything. Nothing will be handed to the program.

It seems inevitable that the NCAA’s punishments will have some effect on the program’s future, but the damaged reputation will have lingering effects long after the punishments expire.

The cheating reputation is now a permanent facet of OSU football history, and that’s what hurts the most.

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