Andy Gottesman / Lantern photographer
For nearly three months, Jim Tressel’s punishment progressively grew more severe, despite a lack of NCAA instruction or new hard evidence further faulting the coach. What started as a slap on the wrist – a two-game suspension and $250,000 fine – ultimately became an indirect pink slip – his forced resignation.
Ohio State planned to keep Tressel until the backing for such a measure eroded and external pressure heightened, said athletic director Gene Smith, who voiced his support for Tressel for most of the 12 weeks the coach was under siege.
“Our intent was to retain him as our head coach,” Smith told The Lantern on Tuesday. “When you look at his body of work and what he accomplished, you look at this one action and try to take that in total perspective. I felt that (retaining him) was the best thing for the kids who he had recruited to his program and who were here.”
The two-game ban didn’t last long. Nine days after a March 8 press conference in which Tressel admitted to his role in covering up OSU’s offseason scandal, Tressel asked for his suspension to be upped to five games.
“I request of the university that my sanctions now include five games so that the players and I can handle this adversity together,” Tressel said in a statement on March 17.
The coach and his players never got the opportunity to deal with the adversity together. On May 30, Tressel resigned, though not until OSU released its response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations last Friday did the university publicize that it “sought and accepted” Tressel’s resignation.
“The University eventually determined that it was in the best interest of the University and Tressel for Tressel to resign, and he agreed to do so,” OSU’s response to the NCAA reads.
Outside pressure forced the university’s hand, Smith said.
“As we went on and had conversations about expanding it to five games and then ultimately asking him for his resignation, the support had deteriorated for Jim,” Smith said. “The brand of the institution was now at stake in a greater form. We were constantly under attack, and so when I sat down with him that Sunday night and had that conversation, there was no hesitation on his part when I asked him for his resignation.
“It was a process, and we moved to a point where we just felt that the brand of the institution was at stake and we just needed to separate our employment relationship and try to restore the brand of the institution.”
Through email conversations with former OSU walk-on Christopher Cicero, now an attorney, Tressel knew of Terrelle Pryor and DeVier Posey’s involvement in selling memorabilia to Eddie Rife, owner of Fine Line Ink tattoo parlor. Cicero warned Tressel that Rife dealt drugs. Heeding that warning, Tressel kept quiet. Rife pleaded guilty on June 28 to charges of selling marijuana and laundering drug money.
When university officials discovered the email chain between Tressel and Cicero, OSU suspended Tressel for two games for his failure to pass along his knowledge to the appropriate university figureheads. Tressel reached out via email to Ted Sarniak, Pryor’s mentor from his hometown of Jeanette, Pa., but never contacted Smith, President E. Gordon Gee or anyone in the OSU compliance department.
In Tressel’s response to the NCAA Notice of Allegations, his attorney, Gene Marsh, wrote, “He prioritized those concerns as his focus on the safety of the student-athletes, the gravity of the federal criminal investigation, and the request for confidentiality made by the individual who provided the information. At the time, those concerns trumped any thought he had relating to possible NCAA rules violations.”
Smith said when he learned of Tressel’s wrongdoing, he was understanding given the coach’s precarious situation.
“I kind of understood it for a while as I first looked at it,” Smith said. “I said, ‘OK, I see that.’ But obviously, the infractions are sitting right in front of you, so I couldn’t get by that. You have a responsibility as an NCAA member to ensure compliance. To make that decision on your own without at least bringing it to me or university general counsel, I have a hard time with it.”
Tressel spent a decade as a luminary figure in Columbus, supported by OSU fans appreciative of the program’s winning tradition and of his influence in the community. That’s what made his actions so difficult to swallow, Smith said.
“I was totally shocked and surprised and really disappointed when I first heard of his decision and saw the emails,” Smith said. “Every single level of emotion went through me. I was dumbfounded as to why he would make a decision on his own and not share that information and ask for help.”
Smith touched on a number of topics during his interview Tuesday with The Lantern.
On his confidence in the athletics compliance department:
“I never wavered on them. There are things that we can do better and we have been creative, you saw some of those things in our response that we’re going to implement and they’re focused on particular issues, not broad-based compliance.”
On whether the NCAA needs to adapt some of its rules to coincide with today’s world:
“A lot of the rules in our books need to be modified to where we are today. There’s a number of rules in our books that were put in place in the ‘80s, some even in the ‘70s. They’re not applicable to today’s culture and today’s reality.”
On how he went about selecting media members to attend a private press conference last week to discuss OSU’s response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations:
“We just focused on people that I’d worked with for a long time and wanted to have a discussion and that’s what we did. In the moment at the time, I did what I felt what I needed to do relative to the message.”
OSU will start its season Sept. 3 against Akron under Tressel’s replacement, Luke Fickell.