The Beautiful People

By Ramzy Nasrallah on August 2, 2011 at 1:00p
Championships, decades of greatness, probation & a bowl ban

Ever since Jim Tressel was caught covering up his players' felonies improper trinket and equipment sales which led to his subsequent dismissal resignation retirement, the outside world has been aghast at Ohio's reaction to its shamed coach: They still respect this liar?

Every tribute from a planned sideline apparel nod by Ohio high school coaches to respectful online gestures to planned marches on Tressel's domicile has been met with eye-rolling scorn over a man who has hoodwinked a state of nearly 12 million people into thinking he is anything but a serial cheater.

How deluded could Ohioans be to still think fondly of a guy who was caught lying every single day of his life between April 2010 and this past February?

As the sentimental eulogies of the Tressel era emerged following his abrupt termination, the flagship Michigan blog changed its tagline to, "save us the hymnals, cooler poopers." It's a two-pronged jab juvenile enough to send Buckeye scribes scrambling for new, fun ways to describe the perspiration that seeps like drawn butter from Brady Hoke's floppy jowls as his sloth fills the ample void left by Charlie Weis' absence. But those are fat Fred Flintstone-jokes for another day.

It is a fair question, however: Why are Buckeye fans - albeit resentful of his sloppy complicity in exacerbating the mess that otherwise wouldn't have led to his demise - still fond of a proven cheater? Yeah, yeah, the good outweighed the bad, he did so much for Ohio, etc, etc, etc - you've heard this before, and it's absolutely true. But it doesn't seem to be an acceptable reason.

Sometimes questions are best answered with other questions: Why shouldn't Tressel, Ohio State football's greatest program steward, also be lauded the same as other legendary coaches?

the Bear & Lou Holtz

You cannot escape Paul Bryant in Tuscaloosa. There is a huge stadium, a museum - that's on a street - and a university building that all bear his name. Alabama has a storied history of NCAA violations (there have only been four seasons since 1995 when the Tide weren't on probation or facing sanctions) yet Bryant isn't readily associated with cheating. He's associated with winning.

Before coming to Alabama in 1958, Bryant was at Texas A&M. He arrived there from Kentucky in 1954 and quickly found out what everyone else already knew about College Station: Nobody good wanted to go there, for a whole bunch of valid reasons. No chicks. Military uniforms. No spotlight. No chicks. A&M was rarely good. And most of all, no chicks.

By 1955, Texas A&M was significantly tougher, better-coached, successful and also on probation with a postseason ban for recruiting violations that occurred on Bryant's watch, or what SWC programs commonly referred to as "the usual."

Bryant later admitted that A&M boosters "probably paid some of the boys" as the rest of the conference took notice that Bryant's initial recruiting haul was strikingly different from the usual crop of Aggies.

Boosters used to be intimately involved in the recruiting process without most of the restrictions that schools have today. Bryant's only documented NCAA troubles came from that brief stint in College Station, but consider the most prominent branches of his coaching tree:

1) Jackie Sherill, who played for Bryant at Alabama, later coached Texas A&M just as his mentor did. On his watch the NCAA hit the Aggie football program with Lack of Institutional Control, unethical conduct and improper benefits, leading to Sherill's resignation. He eventually found his way back into coaching at Mississippi State, which was hit with four years of probation while he was there. In both instances, it was always a third party responsible for cheating. He retired in 2003.

2) Pat Dye started his coaching career under Bryant at Alabama, where he stayed for eight seasons. He eventually took over at Auburn, where he won over 70% of his games. His career ended when the NCAA caught AU boosters - and Dye's AU assistants - paying a player, which put the school on probation. He was both the AD and head coach at the time. As with Sherill - and his mentor, Bryant - it was a third party responsible for the cheating. Dye retired in 1992. The playing surface at Auburn is named for him.

3) Gene Stallings was one of Bryant's "Junction Boys" at Texas A&M and also coached under Bryant at Alabama. He was the Crimson Tide's head coach for six years during the 1990s. Alabama was found to have committed four major violations on his watch, including his complicit involvement with his athletic director to falsify the eligibility status for defensive back Antonio Langham. As you might suspect, there were vacated wins, probation, postseason and conference championship game bans levied.

4) Charley Pell played and coached for Bryant at Alabama. He and his staff committed major recruiting violations when he was in charge at Clemson, which resulted in the Tigers getting two years of probation after Pell left to take over at Florida. He was eventually fired as the Gators' head coach after the NCAA found he and his staff committed 59 (!) violations which led to scholarship reductions, probation, a postseason ban and a two-year live television ban.

That old expression about apples not falling far from the tree is one of the reasons that Michigan State has been pro-actively defensive about distancing Mark Dantonio from his disgraced mentor. As for Bryant, that's a lot of bad apples. Four of the most notorious cheaters in college football history played and/or coached for him.

There's a reason the Bear's legacy isn't defined by having multiple assistants on the NCAA's naughty list or having the justice hammer come down on his famous A&M squad: It shouldn't be. If you think Tressel's Youngstown connections or Ted Sarniak always seemed shady, you don't know much about Texas oil men or southern boosters today, let alone during the relative lawlessness of Bryant's era.

Bryant won a whole bunch of national championships and was successful everywhere he coached. At each of his stops where he coached he's considered the best coach in school history. Sounds familiar?

Lou Holtz was supposed to replace Woody Hayes. The problem was that Holtz publically stated his desire to replace the guy who replaced Woody Hayes. At the dawn of the Earle Bruce era, Holtz was at Arkansas, where he would eventually be terminated by Frank Broyles for "losing the fan base."

Notre Dame's statue for the probationiest coach in CFB history

After Arkansas, Holtz's coaching career demonstrated remarkable consistency:

1) He took over at Minnesota, which eventually earned NCAA probation and a postseason ban after multiple violations that included Holtz paying players.

2) He then took over at Notre Dame, which eventually earned NCAA probation and scholarship reductions after Holtz and his staff learned of improper benefits and deliberately did nothing to stop or report them. (Doing what Holtz did today turns your school into a cesspool.)

3) His final stop was at South Carolina, which eventually earned NCAA probation for ten violations, including Lack of Institutional Control for impermissible tutoring and offseason workouts (or what Michigan might dismiss as "too much stretching.")

Holtz, just like his mentor Hayes, retired abruptly after an unfortunate fight against Clemson.

Despite a career littered with transgressions, earlier this summer Notre Dame awarded Holtz - irony alert - an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. This came three years after the statue of him that you see above was unveiled in South Bend.

And to think that you might feel conflicted about admiring Tressel's 25-year career. Holtz is a subject that George Dohrmann, Notre Dame graduate and Sports Illustrated investigative reporter, never touched in his career. (How deep did that go, George?)

You're Not Allowed to Speak Ill of John Wooden

The Wizard of Westwood, who died last summer, still has an active Web site. It's sponsored by McDonalds.

Wooden: A rich, sophisticated & more successful man's John Calipari

If NCAA sports had an undisputed King of Willful Ignorance, it would be Wooden and second place would be vacated out of respect for how successful he was in ignoring how Sam Gilbert delivered him the nation's best talent for the better part of ten NCAA titles.

Lost in the story of Wooden, legendary teacher, coach and one of basketball's most beloved patriarchs is that he coached for 15 years without notching any national titles. Enter Gilbert, who helped deliver the country's best talent to UCLA and all of a sudden this previously unremarkable coach wins the national championship in 10 out of 12 seasons. Explanation: It was wizardry!

Part of a legacy is how the public at large decides how you'll be remembered. The public - and especially the NCAA - decided that Wooden was a wizard, not a willfully ignorant accessory to a ten-year recruiting racket.

Bobby Bowden also benefited from this kind of treatment, albeit more of a coach class variety, that has him enjoying a reputation as America's folksy grandpa despite scandal after scandal occurring on his watch in Tallahassee. "How was he supposed to know that over half of his team was emptying the shelves at the local Foot Locker?"

While both ambitious and lazy journalists dig up and remind the masses of Tressel's past (even the tale of indefinitely-unverifiable fixed football camp raffle from 30 years ago is immune to the noble copy editor's delete key) Bowden, Wooden, Holtz - who is employed by the company that controls the American sports narrative - and many others have been deemed untouchable. That's probably a good thing.

Sports, especially of the college variety, could easily become an exhausting exercise in trolling historiography if we're going to retroactively go back and find all of the warts that were overlooked either deliberately or via cognitive dissonance. The contributions of these coaches to their schools and the game that they coached at large significantly outweigh their transgressions.

We're very selective in how we choose to remember coaches. John Cooper couldn't beat Michigan (never mind all of his other games, where he beat nearly everybody). Lloyd Carr couldn't beat Ohio State (except when he did, or that one time when he beat everybody). Fielding Yost wasn't a shady, sore loser; he's the guy that basically created Michigan's athletic department. Bob Knight threw a chair. Woody punched a player. If these guys were topics on Family Feud, you just read each of their top answers on the board.

There is no shame in remembering and admiring Tressel for his contributions to Ohio State and football beyond his ten months of deliberate silence. The entire episode received an egregiously disproportionate amount of media attention to which LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Texas, Oregon, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Carolina all benefited. On behalf of Ohio State: You're welcome.

Some programs, especially those whose conferences have certain media partnerships, are considered untouchable. Similarly, some public figures are just deemed uninteresting. Tressel and Ohio State are neither.

It's understandably challenging for some people to grasp that the Ohio perspective of Tressel doesn't completely overlap with what they've read and seen in the coverage over the past several months: He was never their beloved coach. Perhaps they might feel differently if he was.


Comments Show All Comments

The Vest-er's picture

Great read. My in-laws (rabid sUK fans), always claimed wooden was crooked. I just thought is was sour grapes (still do). They are just jealous that wooden out-cheated rupp. They don't have to worry about that now that they have calipari.

Fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless.

thorvath22's picture

*begin slow clap*

Enzo's picture

Ramzy knocks it out the park yet again.  What's this I hear about 'Bama and "suitgate?"  Move along nothing to see here.

theDuke's picture

Yes. Once again a good read, Ramzy. I've examined that "certain media partnership" with exactness since Dec. 22, 2010.  I think it is something the media hungry masses should be made more aware of. 


BucksfanXC's picture

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

I won't remember what ESPN said, I won't remember what UofM fans say, I won't remember what his reputation will say. I know what I'll remember, and I'll remember what I know. I know that Tressel was a great coach, a great man, a great person.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

BED's picture

So much this.

The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

Kalamazoo Steve's picture

Thank you.  I still have a picture of Tressel in my office.  I get many questions as to when I will be taking it down.  My answer of "when I'm not in this office anymore" gets the bitter beer face stare, I will just show them this article and tell them to move along.  Great points, great read.

Pam's picture

I have my Buckeye corner in my office. Along with my autographed pic of Archie posing with his two Heismans (To Pam: Keep rooting for the Buckeyes!) I have a Jim Tressel/Troy Smith bobbleheads. Kroger sold them as a set (Woody/Archie, Coop/Eddie). A guy asked me why I still had JT's. Suffice it to say, the look on my face made him hightail it back to his desk.

Bucksfan's picture

Like everything, it will heal with time.  When you lie, you put everything good you've done into the garbage for a while.  It will take time for people to be able to trust the fact that he did things the right way, and it will take testimonials and retrospectives to do that.

Remember, this scandal didn't involve just any 5 players.  They were 5 offensive starters.  In the crazy world of hero worship in college football, it's hard not to think this is a program-wide deal if 5 of your most high-profile players were doing this and getting away with it.  And if not for the shear shadyness of the guy they dealt with, and the subsequent federal investigation, no one would have EVER known about it.  Then, Tressel lied repeatedly about it.  It feels slimy because it feels like there's more to it.

There might very well be nothing more to it.  But like we've said, Ohio State's (Gee, Smith, Tress) behavior has been one of confusion, half-answers, strange press conferences, and unintelligible testimonies in front of the NCAA.  If honesty is the best policy, it has FELT like Ohio State is not being honest..

Tressel's legacy will heal.  But I guarantee you that once it does, many of us will be in very heated debates as to the true magnitude of his accomplishments.  There were significant portions of the fanbase calling for his head well-before any of this stuff happened.  That stretch from January 2007-January 2010 where he went 0-5 against Top-5 opponents (3 of which were routs, 2 of which were hand-gifted in straight Tressel-ball style) was extremely embarrassing.  The Rose Bowl was critical for him keeping his job, in my opinion.  For me, Tressel is one hell of a coach, one hell of a person, but despite his great character most of the time, the character of his players cost him 2-3 additional opportunities at national title runs (Clarrett, Smith in 05, Pryor in 2011).

William's picture

Excellent post Bucksfan.

btalbert25's picture

I agree with a lot of what you said there Bucksfan.  I loved Tressel and was proud of the team.  Never understood those that wanted him fired for big game failures.  I agree that the problems with the program were probably much more wide spread than just a couple of players getting free tattoos. 

acBuckeye's picture

You could add Smith and some seniors in January of 07 as well for the reported divisiveness they caused before the Fla. blowout. Great post.

btalbert25's picture

I have a feeling that many of the coaches with long and storied careers probably had some aspect of their career where they went into a gray area of the rules or just completely cheated outright.  I think JoePa's statement the other day where he essentially said he isn't sure how Penn State has avoided the NCAA's wrath, he guesses they just got lucky, was a hilarious and telling statement.  All coaches will have their legacies.  Some are fair, some are exaggerated, and some are blown way out of proportion. 

Rfahncke's picture

BOOM. Nailed it.

"Have you earned your buckeye today?"

cjkanski's picture

Well said sir.  Simply perfect.

"I could *BLEEP* forever. *BLEEP until I drop" - The Count


Scott K's picture

So JoPa's legacy will always feature his fumble in The Shoe?  Or was it an illegal formation.....illegal motion?  Unnecessary roughage?

Probably wasn't the kind of "blow out" he was expecting...

"There's a fine line between stupid, and....clever.  David St. Hubbins/Nigel Tufnel

nickma71's picture

Nice article. I am still disappointed and suprised Jim Tressell isn't the coach. I am disapointed in Gene Smith reading an SI article and going with it. The press saying it, doesn't make it so.

741's picture

Gene Smith does not have the authority to make a call like that. Further, the conclusion that JT had to go had little (or nothing) to do with the SI article.

buckeyedude's picture

Viva Tressel!



Ultrabuckeyehomer's picture

Ramzy, good piece, but the apparent disparity in treatment between the afroementioned coaches and JT is three-fold:

1. JT's scandel is too recent to properly evaluate how the nation will view him long-term.  It seems different because no one is writing or talking about any of those coaches.  And, it's not like those of us that have been following college football for a while don't remember the scrutiny that Bowden came under on mant occassions.  it is at least conceivable that, as time wears on and stories change, that JT will be remembered in a better light.

2. When most of those coaches were engaged in their improper activities the internet and sports media were not nearly as prominent, especially with respect to college football.  Remember, it has only been in the last decade or so that college football has become a "national sport."

3. None of those coaches actively portrayed themself as JT did. Like it or not, when you decide to make money off of your reputation as being a family-oriented, christian, honest man ... you will pay the price more than others .... this goes back to Bowden. People may think of him as ol' grandpa, but no one ever thought of him as a beacon of integrity.  The benefit of low expectations is that when you live up to that, no one blinks an eye

Kalamazoo Steve's picture

I think Tressel didn't make a dime from his books. Any proceeds were donated, if I'm not mistaken.

Pam's picture

Correct. The money was donated to the Ohio State Library.

Ultrabuckeyehomer's picture

Did I mention anyything about books.  I have personally attended speeches where he was paid. You can't deny that

SchankHaus's picture

If nothing else, its an excellent reflection on why Ohio State is so great.  Its OSU against the world.  In football, in education, in friends, just like its going to be in life.  For the vast majority, we alumni have carved out our own piece of the pie, are self-made, and when things get bad, we figure it out.  The values of the midwest, corny and rockwell-esque as they are, are clearly maintained through the general feel of the program. 

This is true across the B1G, where we support our fellow programs, but are not as rabid an SEC team is about the SEC.  We are not invested in Michigan.  They're our rivals.  When they lose, good, and for the remainder of the year, we think about beating them again. 

SEC rivalries, as best I can tell, are important the week they're played, and afterwards, there will be 51 weeks where bringing up the Saban bowl is laughable.

Maybe thats over the top, almost to the point of small-scale xenophobia.  But if you're Ohio State, nobody's helping you, everybody resents you, and you have to plow the damn field yourself.

E2Brutus's picture

Jim IS the man! He will forever be my favorite coach. I grew up watching Cooper and when The Vest stepped in and took us to the promised land it was glorious! I love everything he did for tOSU and all his contributions to Ohio as a whole. If people don't respect that then let them hate, they don't understand the man he is and I've got no room in my heart to hate them. GREAT READ!

nvbuckeye's picture

It still amazes me that 25 years after his death and 34 years after he coached his last game the national media still hate Ohio State because Woody Hayes was its coach.  It all started in the 50s when Coach Hayes had a little run in with a reported at the Rose Bowl and the media has been against Ohio State ever since.
Part of it is jealousy over the great sports program that is tOSU.  Part of it is jealousy because tOSU has the greatest fan base in the world.  Part of it is ignorance.
I will always have the upmost respect for Coach Tressel and his contribution to tOSU sports and academics.  If not for the selfiness of a few players he might still be coaching tOSU football.
Just my veeble thoughts on a beautiful Monday afternoon in the west.  *issgain still sucks.