Mr. Clean

By Ramzy Nasrallah on April 26, 2011 at 1:00p

Yesterday we were reminded once again that keeping a lid on bad news is against NCAA rules, and that getting caught in what amounts to an eight-month lie is an embarrassment that carries significant consequences. 

Tressel must have known Gatorade baths are cold, yet here he is acting surprised.

Granted, emptying your bowels into your trousers in Ohio State's south endzone, throwing a temper tantrum during a press conference or openly professing your love for Josh Groban classics are also embarrassing, but they're a lot less expensive than what lying is costing Jim Tressel and Ohio State. 

That's despite the fact that [/begins channeling Terrelle Pryor] everyone shits themselves, everyone throws temper tantrums, everyone loves them some You Raise Me Up and everyone lies [/quickly erases eyeblack].  The NCAA is a lot like your parents, except more exploitive, less forgiving and just as crotchety.

Tressel may still be able to win 10 games every season while keeping only 30% of the Ohio State fan base unsatisfied, but if there's one area in which his program stewardship skills seem to be experiencing atrophy, it's in keeping the lid on things. 

This used to be a Tressel specialty: From none of the things that Maurice Clarett claimed ever being proven to Troy Smith's $500 payment from Robert Q. Baker (the only cash handshake ever!) Donald Washington's mysterious status changes toward the end of 2007, how drug test results are handled, the "punishments" for DUIs, players receiving discounted furniture and driving more rental cars while in college than you'll drive in 20 years, Tressel and his staff have handled all of the particulars in a manner that has kept Ohio State football relatively unscathed, up until now.

Every tragedy has a well-intentioned idiot, and this one is no different.  From the moment that Columbus attorney Christopher Cicero created a paper trail to Tatgate, Tressel had his work cut out for him.  While he had options and could have acted more covertly, it's now abundantly clear that Tressel tried to abort Tatgate before it gestated into Tatgate.  Immediately notifying the compliance department would have effectively birthed Tatgate last April.  While he failed in the noble endeavor to ultimately make it go away, he kept it obscured until the Feds finally shot their publicity ray at it.

You know how many other FBS coaches would have hoped or tried for this episode to erase itself rather than give a glimpse of it to their compliance departments?  All of them.  This isn't the cop out of "it happens everywhere."  This is the fundamental principle of risk mitigation that says if you think you can make trouble disappear rather than deal with its consequences, you make it disappear. 

That was the gamble Tressel likely made and he obviously lost.  I assure you that he and every other coach worth his salt have won similar battles before.  Behind every clean coach is an effective "laundromat."  If you don't fully believe that then you must think college football is a relatively clean enterprise. 

As for the effervescent trolling and rooting interest of sanctimonious douchebag X who is feverishly ridiculing Ohio State in your presence for being clumsy enough to get caught knee-deep in what they believe to be business-as-usual in Columbus, there's not a lot that you can or should do.  Surely you've driven by the guy in the midst of the roadside sobriety test with some degree of schadenfreude.  It's just like any bad medicine; you take it, you squint, you move on.  This is the squinting part. 

Personally, I don't get all twisted up over off-the-field stuff like players selling possessions for discounted tattoos, selling their game tickets on the secondary market for a nice profit or occasionally getting free appetizers at crappy chain restaurants because while it's all not permissable by NCAA rules, genuinely giving a crap about it happening at Ohio State or anywhere else just because it's an NCAA violation isn't enough to make me care. 

It's just my personal belief system that leads me to despise most NCAA rules - especially the draconian one about not being able to capitalize on your own likeness - and root for players from all programs to do so without getting caught.  Plus, if there's a time to look stupid, act stupid and say stupid things, it's in college.  The NCAA frowns on that essential rite of passage, and I in turn root against the NCAA as though it wears a winged helmet in November.

Still, when the NCAA does come looking for your dirty laundry it's scary what impact that can have on your favorite escape.  That's what makes an NCAA investigation so terrifying.  It's the equivalent of putting a policeman's radar gun on your car at all times: It's virtually impossible not to get caught speeding, and that's just no way to comfortably drive.  That's what made l'affaire de Clarett so remarkable: The NCAA showed up twice and didn't write so much as a parking ticket. 

This time around they're buying Ohio State's lone gunman theory that the Tatgate coverup began and ended with Tressel.  Supoenas may uncover phone records and emails, however they're still largely ineffective at shedding light on unrecorded conversations or innermost thoughts.

Just as the national media swiftly used Monday afternoon to predictably take its predetermined boilerplate breathless outrage out on Ohio State once again, ESPN talking head and full-time Fake Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit's reaction was as shallow, vindictive and stupid as anyone following his broadcasting career would come to expect.  Herbstreit said that Tressel should "quit recruiting players like Clarett and Pryor," a suggestion borne from the benefit of selective hindsight and revisionist history. 

While both Clarett and Pryor were five-star recruits by anyone's measure who could have attended the schools of their choosing, Clarett also graduated from high school early and Pryor is a repeat offender of Academic All-Big Ten honors.  Clarett still holds the all-time freshman rushing record at Ohio State and to date has never caused Ohio State to face any kind of punishment for his actions; just the pain of two NCAA investigations, the wrath of ESPN's tabloid fury and several years of needling from your hater friends. 

Ultimately, Clarett simply wrecked his own life, ended up in the clink and is now known as being one of the greatest cautionary tales in school history.  Any coach would have recruited him in 2001 because every coach did.

Herbstreit does have a point about Tressel not recruiting a player like Pryor though.  He should have had the vision to see Pryor for who he really is: The Parade National Player of the Year, a two-time preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, a Rose Bowl MVP and a Sugar Bowl MVP who will probably become the first quarterback in Ohio State history to go 4-0 against Michigan. 

On occasion Pryor says and does painfully stupid things in the public eye, but he has no criminal record or rap sheet to speak of.  Herbstreit's right: Why would anyone recruit a guy like that?  Herbstreit as an Ohio State quarterback was a poor man's Joe Bauserman with a lucrative broadcasting career as his runway.  It's only natural for him to resent a feckless talent like Pryor.

I want my team's coaching staff to recruit as effectively as any other staff.  I don't want them giving $6000 to shitty players like Jim O'Brien did, I don't want them replying to emails about players selling their possessions for discounted tattoos from their Ohio State email accounts and I definitely don't want them forwarding said emails to anyone who could be described as a "mentor." 

I'm not so much as interested in Ohio State football being clean as I am in Ohio State football operating a safe distance from the NCAA's autumn-ruining machine.  They've been pretty good at that; one of Baker's colleagues reported his $500 handshake after Baker gloated about it.  Cicero created the Tatgate paper trail.  The technical term for those things is "loose ends." 

Illegal recruiting, lousy recruiting, point-shaving and bad coaching get my attention.  Playing illegal players like Tressel did gets my attention.  But being "clean?"  Ask any NBA player from the last three decades if John Stockton was the game's best point guard because he played clean.  Dirtiest player, possibly ever.  Watch Wisconsin's offensive line block - they're coached to do that.  I want that offensive line

It's very difficult to get all sanctimonious about a coach not being clean.  Tressel's eight-month lie wouldn't have bothered me at all had it not extended into and through the season, yet his coverup was cheating in the eyes of the NCAA from the moment he failed to report what he knew.  His coverup was cheating in my eyes the moment the Marshall game kicked off.  Operate a safe distance from the NCAA's long arms and the media's endless shame loop.  Figuring out a way to quietly dispose of Tatgate last July would have satisfied that, and none of us would have had the pleasure of knowing just how satisfied we should be.

The spotlight on Tressel and Ohio State is enormous, and it's not because of the student population.  UCF is actually bigger than Ohio State is now, but if its coach (it's George O'Leary - don't look it up) failed to notify the NCAA of some players who should have been ineligible the hammer that would come down on him would be ball-peen to Ohio State's sledge.  The party who would be hurt most by that hypothetical crime would actually be O'Leary's almost-former employer, Notre Dame, since the media would have to remind everyone why they care about O'Leary. 

Spotlights are funny like that.  Bemoaning it should be repudiated in favor of expecting and embracing it.  The media isn't making this any bigger than it should be, it's simply constructing a story befitting of its subject.  This is all Ohio State's - er - Tressel's doing.

If you're like too many Buckeye fans, you've intertwined Ohio State's success with your own personal well-being, which means you're in the throes of a struggle to just get out of bed without crying.  When the Buckeyes win, you're on top of the world with them, and when they lose, well, you're a loser. 

As you struggle to deal with it all, try and occasionally remind yourself that Buckeye football does not reflect upon you personally.  Your personal uncleanliness, flaws and misgivings and Tressel's parturition are mutually exclusive.  You didn't suddenly become a liar when Tressel got caught.  You already were one.

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