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Flawed Diamonds and Perfect Pebbles - Thoughts on the End of the Jim Tressel Era

A little before 7:00 a.m. this morning, Pacific Standard Time, I was awakened by a familiar sound: a text alert from the Blackberry sitting on my bedside table.  This wasn't anything unusual, I often forget to turn the ringer to silent before I go to bed, and since most of my acquaintances live back East, I'm used to early morning interruptions.  But as I turned over to go back to sleep, the phone chimed again...and again.  Although I was only half conscious, curiosity got the better of me.  I reached for the phone and saw this simple message:

End of an era.

I immediately knew what had happened.  In some ways, I've been waiting for this since March 8th, when Jim Tressel stood at a podium dressed like Atticus Finch in a room that looked more suited for a real estate seminar than an athletic press conference, and admitted that he had knowledge of players trading memorabilia for tattoos eight months before he originally claimed.  There was none of the traditional Ohio State insignia in sight, no checkered "Block O" Backdrop, or Medical Center helix.  In hindsight, the simple surroundings foreshadowed the University's ultimate strategy -- to put as much distance between the program and its leader as possible, although at the time, Tressel appeared unassailable.  Of course, deep down, we all knew better.

I got out of bed, fired up my laptop, read the headline story on ESPN and took a few minutes to let it sink in.  Then I logged onto Facebook, and posted this simple status update:

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. Thanks for the memories, Jim...

Sure, I stole it from Confucius, but the proverb underscores my utilitarian belief that ultimately Jim Tressel's legacy will be a positive one.  Fifteen hours later, and at least that many phone calls, I've come to the following realizations:

1. Tressel needed to resign

I know the old guard out there thinks Tressel's resignation is an outrage, but the reality, as Jim Delaney so eloquently put it, is that "serious mistakes have serious consequences."  And make no mistake, lying to a regulatory tribunal is a serious mistake.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, the reason guys like Jim Tressel get paid millions of dollars a year is for their decision making ability.  Tressel's silence cost him is job.  And for that, he has no one to blame but himself.

At the end of the day, I suspect even the most ardent apologist can admit that the program is bigger than any one person.  In many ways it seems that Tressel's last act of good will was to fall on his own sword, (hopefully) saving Buckeye Nation from a tarnished legacy for years to come.

2. Tressel's Resignation is either a light at the end of the tunnel for Ohio State, or an oncoming freight train

Today's news means one of two things for Ohio State fans.  Either, we can move on as a program, out from under the auspice of the most serious NCAA (Rule 10.1) violations, or (as SI's George Dohrmann would have you believe), it's the beginning of a brave new world, where the NCAA revisits the charges against us, and comes back with the dreaded lack of institutional control label.

But don't kid yourself...

3. Sports Illustrated's "exclusive" investigation is more smoke than fire

Look, I have a lot of respect for George Dohrmann, but I'm disappointed in his latest adventure in investigative journalism.  This morning, Dohrmann smugly took to the airwaves and all but declared that he (and his much-hyped article) were the catalysts for Jim Tressel's resignation.

I'll admit, I was a little concerned, especially after Gene Smith cryptically referred to the potential for more charges in his videotaped reaction to the resignation.  But after reading Dohrmann's story twice, I'm still wondering "where's the beef"?

The biggest bombshell Dohrmann drops is that at least 28, not 6 Ohio State players, have traded trinkets for tats since 2002, and a handful of the outstanding violations are still within the NCAA's statute of limitations.  To be sure, that's not good news, but it's also not the smoking gun Dohrmann promised.

That's because what Dohrmann really wants you to take away from his "investigation" is that Jim Tressel is a master manipulator who has been cheating since his days as an assistant coach, and who up until now has been able to hind behind the "ignorance" defense.  To substantiate this, Dohrmann points to rigged raffles and allegations of improper benefits spanning Tressel's entire coaching career.

The one thing the feature doesn't concretely point to is evidence that Tressel knew of any of the alleged improprieties.  Nevermind the fact that most of Dohrmann's anecdotes were vetted and cleared by the NCAA.  Still, Dohrmann hopes you'll see a pattern.  After all, his book sales depend on it.

Here's my question.  Can anyone name a major FBS head coach that's been around for more than two decades who hasn't dealt with allegations of improper benefits or compliance issues?  My hunch is you can count them on one hand.

4. Trading team memorabilia for tattoos is malum prohibitum

In law school, you learn about crimes that are malium in se, or wrong in themselves, and crimes that are malum prohibitum, or wrong only because they're prohibited.

As you judge Jim Tressel and his program, I encourage you to remember that virtually every misdeed Ohio State stands accused of falls into the later category.

We're not talking about points shaving, academic fraud, drug trafficking, violence, or performance-enhancing drug use.  We're talking about players who sold memorabilia for benefits.  Admirable?  No.  But it's not exactly the kind of thing that deserves society's solemn moral condemnation.

Really, the only malium in se violation in all of this is Tressel's individual decision to lie to the NCAA.  And he paid the ultimate price for that mistake.