Wow, kind of a gut punch for me this weekend. Honestly, I thought the Tattogate problem was isolated to just those five guys, maybe a couple more, but not to the extent that has been reported. What is developing is something along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy, at least from an Ohio State perspective. Jim Tressel is either the most ignorant, naïve head coach that ever stood the sidelines in Big Boy football, or he's dirty and wasn't able to put enough assistants between him and the crime.
So how will Jim Tressel be remembered?
Tressel's legacy, at least on the field, is set in stone. When you look at the allegations, I think Kirk Herbstreit summed it up best in an interview he gave to The Columbus Dispatch:
"I really feel like if you listen to everybody in the outside world, it's almost as if they're saying, 'He cheated - no wonder they won so many games. He cheated all along and that's why he won,'" said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback who did not play for Tressel.
"I take exception to that. His infraction was withholding information. He played ineligible players. He erred in how he responded to information; if you think about it, that's what he did. I personally will never let that impact his legacy - what he did and what he accomplished on and off the field."
I'm a little more to the right of that, but do I think he was directly funneling money and cars to players? No. I find it almost impossible to believe that he knew absolutely nothing of this, but Tressel's worst crime was not doing anything about it, and then lying about knowing it. He did cheat in that he knowingly played ineligible players, but was it something that went on from the beginning of his tenure? No, I don't think so. We're left in kind of a weird purgatory for the time being when discussing his overall legacy, but let's look back at what he accomplished on the field in his decade as the head coach.
7: Won or shared Big Ten titles in 10 years. That's impressive. He also had back to back outright titles in 2006 and 2007, and another outright title in 2009. His dominance in the Big Ten was such that since 2005, Ohio State has lost a grand total of 5 conference games.
5-3: Record in BCS games, with a 6-4 overall bowl record. Yes, two of those losses were in the BCS National Championship Game, but when you consider no other Big Ten team has made it to the championship game, and Tressel has more BCS bowl wins than the next closest Big Ten team (Michigan) has BCS appearances (4) and as many wins as the rest of the Big Ten combined, it really puts those accomplishments in a new light. For the most part, Ohio State shed the moniker of a team that couldn't win big games under Tressel, and although he didn't win them all, he won more than half.
9-1: The main reason John Cooper was fired was his inability to beat Michigan, and Tressel has done it with such regularity that it's not really a rivalry right now. Still, it will never be just another game for Ohio State or Michigan fans, and he set the tone for the decade in his first year. He took an unranked team to Ann Arbor and pulled off a 26-20 stunner, all while using a backup quarterback (Craig Krenzel). Tressel understood the uniqueness of the Michigan game like Cooper never could, and the next guy better ‘get it' like Tressel did. And like Brady Hoke does.
3: National Championship game appearances. The 2006 team is still one of my all-time favorite Buckeye teams, regardless of what happened in Arizona. The 2007 team was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes after they lost so much talent in 2006. When you take a team that is supposed to be ‘rebuilding' to the title game, you're doing something right.
1: National Championship, the Big Ten's only one in the BCS era. It was a game that Ohio State was supposed to get blown out of, yet it was arguably Tressel's finest moment, and the epitome of what became to be known as ‘Tresselball'. Offense is just good enough, minimize mistakes, good special teams, and let an overpowering defense make the difference. OSU detractors can bitch all day long about the Terry Porter interference call, but if they make the correct call on a Chris Gamble catch that wasn't, there never is an overtime. Gamble caught a third down pass for what looked like a first down late in the fourth quarter, but the referee said (incorrectly) Gamble was out of bounds. Make that call correctly, and OSU runs out the clock.
Terrelle Pryor: Let me be perfectly, crystal clear on this: Jim Tressel caused Jim Tressel to get fired, not Terrelle Pryor or anyone else. However, Terrelle Pryor has become the Tressel era in a nutshell-significant achievement on the field (30 wins as starting QB, undefeated against Michigan, three Big Ten titles, two BCS bowl wins, including the Rose Bowl) with constant trouble off the field. When you get to the root of the current problems at Ohio State, you'll find Pryor almost every time, and Tressel's inability or unwillingness to corral his prize recruit is the reason Tressel's head is on a silver platter today. With Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith, Tressel either cut bait (Clarett) or was able to get through to him and get a guy to figure it out (Smith). With Pryor, he did neither, and now it looks like Pryor might be in as much trouble as Tressel is. People will be quick to give Tressel a pass and try to foist all the blame on Pryor, and I think Pryor will be persona non grata in Columbus for a long, long time.
TattooGate: It all started unraveling when the free ink and the selling of memorabilia came out, and it's mushroomed into allegations that almost 30 players were involved in it over the course of several seasons. Pryor was the biggest name, and as the starting QB and as a leader, he was supposed to set the example, and he did. Just not in a good way, and Tressel's willful ignorance gave a tacit stamp of approval on their actions. All Tressel had to do was turn this over to compliance officials, the players in question would have been suspended, and this affair would be in the rear view mirror. But Tressel committed the Cardinal Sin, and he tried to cover it up.
Five years from now we'll look back on this and say...what a damn shame. I think Tressel has done a lot more good than bad as the Ohio State coach, but made a tragic, fatal mistake by trying to cover up what was a violation of NCAA rules. Once this is in the rear view mirror and time puts a distance between this sordid affair and the fallout, people in Columbus will look back fondly on this decade. Woody Hayes punched an opposing player and was fired in disgrace, yet is still beloved. Earle Bruce didn't win enough, but is still fondly remembered. Heck, even John Cooper is remembered well. Jim Tressel restored Ohio State to the top of the college football world, and in five years will be revered in Columbus like Woody Hayes was.
When I was in the Army (oh Jesus, here we go) we had a saying that one ‘awshit' cancelled out 1,000 ‘attaboys'. This is a helluva ‘awshit', to be sure, but Jim Tressel has built up many, many 'attaboys' over the course of his ten years in Columbus. One of the great things about this country that I love and cherish is our ability as a society to forgive.
And we will forgive Jim Tressel.