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Tressel’s legacy not written in ink

Lauren Hallow / Lantern photographer

Three national titles, 13 Big Ten championships and 205 wins.

These numbers, Ohio State coaching records set by Woody Hayes, for many years were all that stood between Jim Tressel and his place as the best OSU football coach in history.

Things are different now.

The numbers most often talked about have become the lengths of suspensions, the value of trinkets and tattoos, the dates on email messages and how long he knew without saying a word.

Six players are suspended for games next season for selling OSU-issued gifts on Tressel’s watch, and the coach has received a university-imposed five-game suspension for his failure to report the violations. He has also been fined $250,000, and the university will meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12 before a final ruling is made.

The legacy of the coach dubbed the Senator, beloved for beating Michigan and synonymous with sweater-vests, hangs by a thread.

“I think anytime you have something of this stature, the bad part about it is, it’s always going to change someone’s legacy,” said Mike Nugent, who played for Tressel from 2000–04. “I would hate it if this is how people remember coach Tressel.”

Tressel has one national title, seven Big Ten championships and 106 wins on his OSU résumé. That last number could drop by 11 if the NCAA forces OSU and Tressel to vacate last season’s victories. That also would remove one Big Ten title, and further diminish Tressel’s place in OSU history.

“If the NCAA decides to vacate the victories … I think that would affect his legacy a little bit more than if that doesn’t happen because that would always be in the record books for people to see,” said OSU football historian Jack Park.

Bill Benoit, a professor of communications studies at Ohio University who focuses his research on image repair, said that will be a challenge for Tressel.

“I think it will be very difficult for him to repair his image,” he said. “There are a couple of competing interests here. Most universities want successful sports teams … but they also want to have an image of honesty and integrity. If the allegations are true, it appears that (Tressel) is not always honest and does not always have integrity.”

Adding three games to the university’s initial two-game suspension was “the right kind of thing to do” for Tressel, Benoit said.

Further sanctions aside, some students say they don’t think Tressel’s place in history will be affected.

“He’s been a coach here for a long time. I don’t think (the NCAA scandal) will have an effect on his legacy,” said Ben Zucker, a third-year in biology. “It seems like it’s getting a lot of publicity as a current event but it will die down.”

Tressel has been at the helm for the Buckeyes since the 2001 season, and is the fourth-longest tenured football coach in OSU history. His win total puts him third in the Buckeye history books behind Hayes and John Cooper, who won 111 games at OSU.

Like Tressel, the man at the top of those lists had a muddy off-the-field record.

“Ohio State was put on a one-year probation by the NCAA in 1956, and could not go to a bowl game that year,” Park said. “Woody Hayes was giving some of his own money to players that were in need.”

Hayes was fired after he punched a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl.

Though far from the first OSU offender, Tressel often was lauded for his integrity away from the field. The current NCAA violations bring that part of the man’s personality into question.

In its notice of allegations and letter to OSU President E. Gordon Gee sent Thursday, the NCAA said Tressel “knew or should have known that at least two football student-athletes received preferential treatment from and sold institutionally issued athletics awards, apparel and/or equipment … but he failed to report the information to athletics administrators and, as a result, permitted football student-athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics competition while ineligible.”

Park said that, although Tressel deceived the NCAA, his history of integrity will soften the blow of the violations.

“I think based on his record up until this, that warrants him the opportunity to remain as head coach if he chooses to do so … mostly his off-the-field record and what he has done for people and the good that he’s done,” Park said.

Nugent said his opinion of Tressel is unwavering.

“No matter what, he’s one of those people that I would still do whatever it takes to help out. … I would do anything for him,” he said. “Not only was he such a great coach, but he’s a very good friend also. … Hopefully in the end this is just a bump in the road.”

Though the NCAA could recommend the coach’s dismissal, the university has fully supported Tressel until this point.

Some students think the anger about the sanctions will go away with the right results on the field.

“If we have a winning season, this will all go away,” said Mary Vincent, a third-year in pharmacy and anthropology.

But Benoit said winning won’t solve everything.

“There are some things that are just so bad that you can’t fix them,” he said. “I think Tressel has taken some initial steps in the right direction and, depending on how serious his wrongdoing really is, he may need to do more. And even if he does do more, there is no guarantee that he will be forgiven.”

Kristen Mitchell and Jeffrey Tyndall contributed to this story. 

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