|Ohio State might have been better off giving up the postseason in 2011. (Getty Images)|
Ohio State should be competing for a Big Ten title. Squint your eyes a little and maybe they would be good enough to get in the national championship conversation. Maybe.
More to the point, the Buckeyes are 6-0 halfway through Urban Meyer's first season and, for the most part, it has been a blast. It is an undefeated season built on promise -- wow, Braxton Miller! -- and hope. Meyer seems way ahead of schedule in building the program back up to accustomed levels.
But what should be a team looking forward to Indianapolis in December and beyond has an air of wait-till-next-year about it. Since Dec. 20, we've known this season was going to be an exhibition of sorts. A write-off. In terms of titles and hardware, the Bucks would be playing for Monopoly money. And that's a shame.
Ohio State is the best team you'll never see this season -- in a bowl.
It has been 10 months since the NCAA handed down its penalties in the Tattoogate case. And with each Ohio State victory, a nagging pain has to grow a little sharper inside those crazy Bucknuts. For them and their beloved football team, it didn't have to be this way. This could have been one hell of a season in Columbus. Instead, fans might have to endure a personal hell of watching Purdue in the Rose Bowl.
Don't blame the NCAA for the bowl ban. Blame the leadership that didn't see it coming. Worse, convinced themselves it wasn't a possibility. In that sense, they were almost daring Big Brother to bring the wood.
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Five days before Christmas last year, half of us couldn't believe the program had gotten off so lightly. The other half -- a lot of them in Columbus -- were outraged at the severity. Neither side read the NCAA infractions committee quite right. That happens a lot. The difference is, pundits don't have a multimillion-dollar enterprise to protect. They're not on the hook for what could be known as Ohio State's Year of the Missing Ring.
"We haven't discussed that," Meyer said this week. "That will probably be later on if we continue to have success, but that's not a point of conversation yet."
Anxiety has to be building. It's a brutal irony that bowl ban brother Penn State is not only in the same conference but also in the same division. Start your "Leaders" jokes now. King Football ruled at both places. There is no comparison between the two cases -- just a sliver of similarity in the penalties.
Penn State cannot go bowling for the next four years because a sick predator was allowed to roam free. Ohio State cannot go bowling this season because its leadership miscalculated on an infractions case. Its suits whiffed on what would have been an easy and sensible move at the time. Ohio State should have self-imposed a bowl ban last year.
Throw that season away, show the NCAA you're sorry while it is still contemplating those penalties. This is not Monday morning quarterbacking. I was calling for such a move a year ago. It wouldn't have been easy at the moment, but it would have been right for the future. The program was going nowhere in 2011. Look at the alternative. Is everybody happy with that Gator Bowl?
Meyer was hired for his championship pedigree, but you get only so many at-bats. The coach was part of three title chases at Florida -- 2006, 2008 and 2009. He won two. Based on his track record, more should follow.
Should follow. But who knows about injuries, upsets, roster shifts and the reputation of the Big Ten once that selection committee starts evaluating things in 2014? Yes, championships are fleeting. Meyer lost five games in Year 1 AT (After Tebow, 2010). Success is not guaranteed. Ever. Title chases should be valued like the crystal that is carved into the shape of that BCS trophy.
Instead, Ohio State's leadership showed scandal contrition in stages: Awkward suspensions -- first, two games for Tressel, then a total of five taken by the coach himself. Then, eventually, a firing. Returning Sugar Bowl revenue that obviously impressed no one on the NCAA infractions committee. It was chump change -- $338,000. Cutting five scholarships over three years wasn't enough. Applying a paper penalty -- vacating the 2010 season -- wasn't enough.
The school somehow found itself in NCAA double jeopardy -- going through an infractions committee hearing while dealing with an amended notice of allegations! That's not forethought. That's chaos.
And so Ohio State football is currently paying for the worst indecision of 2011. Athletic director Gene Smith and president Gordon Gee deserve the criticism along with the school's lawyers and consultants. Either they were stubborn or unaware or both.
The least Ohio State could have done was be proactive. The idea in these sorts of investigations is to get out front on them, mitigate and lessen the impact of the penalties (See: Miami, which has self-imposed a bowl ban this season).
The school made a convoluted argument to the NCAA about setting precedent with a bowl ban. One problem: When was the last time the infractions committee established any sort of pattern with its penalties?
A bowl ban would have been the best tactical decision. Assistant Luke Fickell took over as head coach of a team that was distracted and diminished. Would it have broken anybody's heart if last year's 6-7 team didn't go bowling?
Let's put it this way: How many hearts are breaking now that this team can't go to the Rose Bowl ... at least?
No one said these Bucks are perfect, but given the remaining schedule and momentum created so far, an unbeaten season looks possible. Meanwhile, Gee looks like an entitled fund-raising goof. Even if you can look past the "I'm-just-hopeful-the-coach-doesn't-dismiss-me" comment that stamped a label on the man, the school and its priorities.
You cannot ignore the fine reporting lately by the Dayton Daily News, which added more context to the story. We learned that $64,000 has been allocated since 2007 for the "branding" of Gee's signature bowties. The school president apparently entertains, travels and parties like a hedonistic rock star. The paper reported that Gee claimed $7.7 million in expenses in the past five years.
Where's the precedent for that?
The president of both Ohio State and the Bowtie Revolution was eventually responsible for signing off on the strategy that landed the football program in its current situation. To be fair, it is a tightrope walk for any school to self-impose penalties that are enough for the NCAA but not too much to damage the program. But in the end it's better to impress the NCAA rather than tempt it. Some higher-ups at Ohio State badly misread the situation.
That's why it's a shame that the program's seniors this season are playing only for the Leaders Division trophy. (At least they'll get that, according to the conference office.) But if Ohio State has the best record in the division, we already know a second-place team from the Leaders -- at best -- will be playing for the conference championship.
It didn't have to be that way. The worst indecision of 2011 assured it.