Senior Writer

Ohio State mess latest example of college athletics gone wild


Bet Mark Emmert didn't sign up for this. The NCAA's still-new president couldn't have expected a spit storm, this steaming cup of latte dumped in his lap.

Emmert took the job for the odd bully pulpit appearance, to be the kindly, authoritative lightning rod on the issues of the day, to spin every story by using the term "student-athletes" at every possible turn. My, how his world has turned. All you have to know is that yesterday Emmert would gladly have sat next to Jim Tressel at some random state-of-the-NCAA forum/town hall meeting. Today, Emmert probably wouldn't take his call.

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What's the old saying? You're innocent until you're proven Bruce Pearl. That's where we are five months into Emmert's time on the NCAA throne. That train wreck of a news conference Tuesday at Ohio Stateconfirmed it. To argue that college athletics has never been at a lower point would be an insult to voles everywhere. There are now two sitting coaches accused of an NCAA mortal sin -- unethical conduct. Pearl lied. Jim Tressel knowingly withheld information after an attorney tipped him off that the names of two of his players had come up in a federal investigation.

That's where the wrongdoing started. Tressel kept quiet, allowing the athletes to play on without question or scrutiny. His explanation? He didn't know who to tell back in April. "I definitely didn't move forward ... I couldn't think as to who that would be." Well, he might try his boss, AD Gene Smith. Or he might try his own school's website that allows whistle blowers to report NCAA violations anonymously. But by the end of Tuesday those were only small points.

Tressel lost two games (suspended) and is out $250,000. Ohio State, though, lost a little bit of its soul. The Ohio State is now the latest example for players, coaches and administrators gone wild. At least you knew where you stood with Woody Hayes. Tressel could surpass even the old man's antics if he becomes the first Division I-A coach to be suspended for a season for unethical conduct. Think that's pessimistic? By now, Emmert and the NCAA enforcement division have to be in no mood for small talk on the issue.

They also have to know that both Tressel and Pearl still having jobs is laughable to some. Among the more painful ironies: The coaches will get their day in court from a system that doesn't provide that innocent-until-proven-guilty true due process. Emmert now sits at the head of an organization mired in its own contradictory filth. Since he took office in October, there has been an agent scandal, Camgate, the "Buckeye Five", Tennessee facing major sanctions in football and basketball and possible recruiting improprieties at Oregon.

Oh, and did we mention that Southern California is an appeals' denial away from those noble folks at the BCS ripping the school's 2004 national championship?

None of this is Emmert's fault. He inherited a few of these cases. He hasn't been in office long enough to affect the others. But he did ride into office on a get-tough platform. From here on, it's his ship to steer away from icebergs. There's no time to warm up. This cheating tsunami is defining college athletics today. They called a news conference at Ohio State on Tuesday night that could have been renamed, "College Athletics Out Of Control." Most of us already knew that, it's just the methods that make our skin crawl.

Tressel wasn't found to have withheld information until the school's office of legal affairs "discovered" -- the school's word -- one of his e-mails on Jan. 13. One thing led to another and soon, The Senator was up there Tuesday saying he didn't know who to tell. When asked if dismissal of Tressel ever crossed his mind, Ohio State president Gordon Gee was incredulous.

"No, are you kidding? I was hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me," Gee said.

That's the kind of blind loyalty that an .828 winning percentage will get for you. As is the case with Pearl, such talk might be a moot point. The NCAA has yet to weigh in on both men. For now, Ohio State should feel more than fortunate. The association has bent over backward up until now. It found some obscure, aged language that allowed those five players to participate in the Sugar Bowl.

In a dichotomy of shame and pride, Smith is -- at the same time -- overseeing this investigation while chairing the powerful NCAA men's basketball selection committee. One is embarrassing. The other signifies the pinnacle of a lot of AD's careers. Smith had to fly back from New York from an NCAA tournament publicity soiree to explain what the hell has happened to his football program. When the news conference opened with Smith having to say, "Wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach," you knew it was a bad, bad day.

If Emmert doesn't know by now, the overriding perception around the country is that the big guys get a free ride. Pearl lied and it took the SEC to finally sit him out eight games. Even if he is suspended next season, there is every reason to assume Pearl could be back at Tennessee in 2012-13. Tressel is missing two games you or I could coach. Ask yourself if it had been five Northern Illinois players selling their gear to a tattoo shop owner: Would they be allowed to play in the bowl game? I think we all know the answer.

This episode proves that if you're trying to tip someone off about wrongdoing in a major college football program, the coach is probably one of the last people to call. Urban Meyer has sounded absolutely prescient in his recent call for reform in the coaching profession.

"What I've seen the last five years is a complete turn in the integrity of the college coaching profession," he said. "It's completely turned the other way."

And then there is history, which is easy to bring up in this case. Two years ago the Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio State had reported 375 NCAA violations from 2000-09, the most of 69 schools surveyed by the newspaper. Tressel was hired in 2001 at Ohio State shortly after the Youngstown State program he oversaw was penalized. The NCAA said his quarterback Ray Isaac was paid in excess of $10,000 by a member of the school's board of trustees. Don't forget the Maurice Clarett fiasco or Troy Smith having to sit out two games after taking $500 from a booster.

Either a lot of bad stuff follows Tressel around or there is definitely a pattern here. A final piece of irony: At the same time Tressel was admitting guilt on Tuesday, his school is vigorously pursuing that Buckeye Five appeal. The school contends those five-game suspensions are too harsh. Note to all Buckeyes: If Emmert truly is going to crack down on the evil doers, by the time the NCAA gets done; harsh may not begin to describe the football landscape in Columbus.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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