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Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has no one to blame but himself

Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel has no one but himself blame for reported NCAA infractions. | AP

Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel has no one but himself to blame for the reported NCAA infractions. | AP

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Updated: May 31, 2011 7:31PM

Jim Tressel’s resignation as Ohio State’s football coach Monday was the most likely outcome of the scandal thrust into national consciousness shortly before January’s Sugar Bowl. Still, it was a shocking turn of events if you consider just how mighty the fall.

The senatorial statesman skulking out of town disgraced. A carefully constructed reputation ruined. A storied program left to pick up the shattered pieces.

Tressel is the latest and most high-profile collegiate coach to learn the timeless lesson that, if you play with fire long enough, you’re going to get burned. He should have seen it coming, should have paid attention to the handwriting on the wall.

He didn’t.

A Sports Illustrated article was the final nail in Tressel’s coffin. It reveals more than 20 years of questionable decision-making by the former Buckeyes coach. It leaves us to believe one of two unsavory options.

Either Tressel was complicit in these nefarious acts, or he was oblivious to things he shouldn’t have been. I’m more inclined to believe the former.

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to cross-every-T-and-dot-every-I aura that followed him around during most of his time in Columbus. It’s diametrically opposed to the tenants of leadership laid out in his 2008 book, The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life.

It’s not that I take great pleasure piling on Tressel. There are no winners in this situation, except, perhaps, other Big Ten teams who now view a more wide-open conference race. The NCAA will continue digging and sanctions should be severe. A lot of honest athletes will suffer. A lot of dyed-in-the-wool fans will have their faith in the program frayed. The Ohio State University will always have The Scandal.

It’s very, very hard to defend a man who demanded his star players return to serve a five-game suspension while lying about his culpability in the matter. It’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy and over-run hubris. And it’s hard to believe that it all didn’t catch up to him sooner.

The particulars of the report are damning.

Three of the biggest stars to play for him—Troy Smith, Maurice Clarett and Terrelle Pryor—are accused of improperly benefiting. The SI article indicates their investigation revealed at least 28 players were involved. If you believe author George Dohrmann’s narrative, the off-the-books bartering was one of Columbus’ worst-kept secrets.

Tressel danced too close to the flame and he got burned. The man who bled scarlet and gray went beyond the gray area and branded his university as a result. Somehow, he ignored the post-Nixon world in which the coverup is worse than the crime.

Events do not happen in a vacuum. For every coach who gets caught engaging in NCAA violations, there are dozens more who elude detection. The pressure to win in a big-money business has the ability to corrupt even the most virtuous. It doesn’t make it right, it explains its prevalence. But before you attempt to explain this away with, “everyone’s doing it,” stop. Instead, accuse everyone else when there’s evidence.

It was only a matter of time before these actions caught up with Tressel and Ohio State. One might wonder how violations this widespread were able to take place for so long. The answer to that is simple.

Winning is everything. And Tressel won. He won against Michigan. He won against the SEC. He won big bowl games.

He won in a sweater vest, a spiffy beacon of truth and honor ... or so many thought. The events of the past six months suggest that there was a wolf in that sheep’s clothing. Or perhaps just a very clueless sheep.

An unnamed colleague offers this condemnation in the expose:

“In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids ... That’s Jim Tressel.”

His legacy will never, ever recover and it it’s not a result of a witch hunt or the poor choices of his athletes. It’s a result of terrible off-the-field decisions made by a coach who built a career on making brilliant on-the-field ones.

How he didn’t see this day coming, I don’t know. But his day of reckoning has come and gone.

And he’s got himself to blame.

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