Three Cups of Deceit

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm

A year ago this morning I woke up early and shot baskets in the driveway with some visiting guests from Ohio. Then I drove them to the airport for their flight home, unintentionally leaving my phone out by the hoop.

When I returned I found a half-dozen missed calls and twice as many text messages waiting, which would have been odd for any morning, let alone early on Memorial Day. The first text I read was from Allen Kenney, who runs a popular Oklahoma Sooners blog

It was a confusing message. I don't remember exactly how it was worded, but he was seeking some sort of reaction from me to the big news.

I figured he was making some reference to the podcast/interview I recorded with him prior to the weekend where I discussed how Ohio State would survive its first five games without its suspended head coach, Terrelle Pryor and the rest of the Tatgate Five. Then they would return for the final seven games, where they would unleash all of their collective frustrations on - 


And that was how I first learned that Jim Tressel was gone.

The other texts were similar; from friends, other bloggers, my mother - all except for the one from the friends whom I had just dropped off at EWR who remembered something funny that had happened when we were all in Manhattan on Saturday I don't know hold on what is this wait a second - Tressel is no longer Ohio State's coach? I was still standing in my driveway talking to a static text message.

That night I would read George Dohrmann's since-discredited Sports Illustrated bombshell, constructed exclusively off of decade-old rehash, anonymous (and subsequently skittish) sources, wholly unverifiable hearsay and - most famously - an allegedly-rigged football camp raffle from the early 1980s that Dohrmann felt compelled to include in his narrative to better illustrate what he had embarked on from the outset: It wasn't just one lie: Tressel sat on an entire throne of them.

I cobbled together a rambling blog post eulogy out of several anecdotes that had been lingering in my notes file for too long, previously destined for off-season topic chum. It was the second-hardest post I've ever had to write, only because I had to author my Florida/BCS piece through one bloodshot eye at 3am.

Then I tried to comprehend how a man who had published two books about virtuous living and who had $21MM left of guaranteed money on his employment contract - which would now be rendered down to one final $50,000 salary check - could be so complicit in allowing his career to unravel on account of petty cash violations by star players.

A year later I've stopped trying, because you cannot pin down a lie. It will never be submissive enough to bring you peace, so there's really no point to pursuing absolution.

It's very easy to stay angry at a lie. A lie is a constant in space that is violates the truth into eternity; the impure marriage of Newton's First Law with the only correct - but categorically untrue - answer to "does my ass look fat in these pants." Conversely, it's nearly impossible to stay angry at the truth. The truth is practically welcoming, even when it stings.

Tatgate was built on a lie that spawned a sea of mistruths, and Tressel ignited the fuse. Then came the news of the multi-year bowl ban - and the television ban that Jim Delany was heroically negotiating down in exchange for non-conference games: Lies that distracted you from the central lie.

Once it was widely reported as fact that Pryor made $40,000 signing autographs from secret junkets where he was paid to appear (the dollar figure obviously came from his secret accountant) Buckeye fans were in a blind rage. Dohrmann's pre-determined venture into unabashed narcissism was the climax.

Perhaps the pressure was too much for the Board of Trustees and they caved to the court of manufactured outrage. Perhaps if Nevin Shapiro would have just squealed a year earlier, or if the years of lies-by-omission from several layers of Penn State's administration - including its most untouchable ambassador had surfaced sooner, the violent current from the sea of mistruths that Tressel drowned in might have been calmer.

And if only more people gave a crap about North Carolina football: Maybe ESPN would have been forced to split its obsession and the external pressure might have been lessened. Maybe Tressel survives.

Or maybe he never deserved to, and that media circus was window dressing on a valuable and quickly-forgotten lesson in hubris.

All of those lies, including Tressel's - which was the dumbest one of the lot - are easy to stay angry at until you spiral into a Brian Kelly-tinged heliotrope tantrum. The media led the spectacle that became the outrage parade before and since this anniversary of consequences, and for Ohio State that's simply one of the reliable spoils of being a program that matters.

However twisted you get over the media responsibility in covering news, at the core of it all is Tressel's big fib. Staying mad is just too easy for your fragile psyche.

The pen isn't red. At some point everyone finds out.

On the flip side, anger directed at the truth has all the staying power of a fart in a monsoon. Ohio State had successfully pitched its Tressel/lone gunman theory to the NCAA and was set to receive a scholarship reduction plus probation until a more damaging truth reared its ugly head: Bobby D was on the loose and the university not only knew it, it permitted it.

This was organizational, grassy knoll-type stuff, but with supporting evidence.

And there's your bowl ban. Ohio State had fortuitously eluded the Repeat Offender whammy until it Repeat Offended right in front of everyone's face. That's your truth and its home-for-the-holidays consequences.

Truth is easy; lies are hard as hell. Lies require commitment and maintenance. You have to lie in perpetuity to make it work. You tell the truth once and then its echoes do the work for you.

Tressel lied all summer, fall and winter up until Ohio State dug around in his email archives and found a yellowing message from a well-intentioned but undeniably obtuse attorney describing the Tatgate scheme. Then they found Tressel's acknowledgement to that message, which was a damning precursor to several denials that it existed.

What made Tressel's departure more difficult was that it wasn't the end of Ohio State's headaches. It was just the end of Tressel, and while he felled himself to save Ohio State there was unambiguously very little that was sacrificial about his dismissal, unless you've ever heard of a lamb that brings its own lighter fluid and matches to the pyre.

That's a truth that's easier to accept one year later. Tressel is gone because of Tressel. The foolish lie that served as the catalyst for his removal is still harder to accept. It produced - or exposed - a whole slew of other problems, least of all the one that removed him from Ohio State.

One year later the football program has Urban Meyer running things with a superior staff to any Tressel had since the Joe Daniels/Mark Dantonio days. He is now being attacked for lying about his health to get out of Florida, a top-five job in college football.

Those accusations fall largely on deaf ears: Ohio State Got The Last Laugh Dot Com Slash Haters Gonna Hate. It's a pageviews stunt that succeeds less often than it fails. Tatgate spread like a media virus; Meyer's character assasination attempts remain in the same predictable silos, just as long as the truth remains his ally.

Tressel's been out for a year, today. His legacy is far too complex to be one-sided: You should remember him both as the great coach and ambassador for Buckeye football that he was for a magnificent decade as well as how disgracefully and needlessly he caused his own termination.

Or you could remember him exclusively by only the former or latter. And you would be lying to yourself.

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