Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The passing of the Jim Tressel era

As an Ohio State Buckeye football fan, and a fan of Jim Tressel, it saddened me to hear news of his resignation yesterday.  What does this mean?  I dunno.  Everyone has an opinion.  I don't know what they've found, what they will find, or what is happening.  We'll have to wait and see.  When it comes to digging up dirt, the NCAA is about as efficient as one can get.  So I'm sure we'll know what happened down the road.  If the Sports Illustrated story I've heard about comes close to being true, it was not just a single event but an unfolding "culture of corruption" (blah, I hate that term) that had gripped OSU.  I'm sure there will be things and characteristics we'll never see focused on, but there will be enough to tell if it was really that bad, or just overblown.

In any event, no matter how widespread or not, Mr. Tressel appears to have handled it the way you never should.  He covered up, and then when it hit the fan, he attempted to twist the truth (dare I say, lie?) about his role in the events.  And that appears to be the big sin for which the NCAA is focusing on Tressel.  Did others know?  Did the athletic department?  Did those whose jobs it is to follow the ethics of the players know?  Did Mr. Gee?   Who knows.  We'll just have to wait and see.

But I do know this.  Why would a man who, by all accounts, is a grounded man with high ethical standards and strong moral convictions bale when something like this was going down?  My guess is two reasons.  First, the money.  There's lots of money in college football, especially at a school like Ohio State.  And money is the focus.  I'm sure Tressel didn't mind the hefty paycheck he got.  But he was also aware of the burden placed on him to deliver winning seasons.  Over and over and over again. 

And this was important, because it was clear that this was increasingly the focus of the school.  As an Ohio State alumnus, I was given the chance to get two tickets a year to a home game (and it used to be, multiple tickets to away games).  Basically, the seats were never great, but they often weren't bad.  Some seasons they were better than others.  But as the years went on, the seats tended to get better.  Well that was then.  A few years ago, everything changed.  Gone were your guarantee of tickets after being out of school for so long.  Now it was a lottery.  Gone were chances for away games at all. And gone were seats that weren't looking down on the flagpoles along the top of the stadium.  You would have to go down a hundred feet to get to the nosebleeds where these seats are.  Why?  Need you ask.  To make room for the big money, that's why. Hence, it's not hard to see that the emphasis on money expressed before the fan base must have reflected and equal, if not more passionate, focus on money behind the scenes.

Second, you have the Buckeye fan base.  I once knew a fellow from Indiana who said he would like to be a Buckeye fan, but he's not angry enough.  Buckeye fans want, well, beyond winning.  Tressel already wasn't liked by those who liked Cooper before him, by many who didn't like his puritanical/religious ways, and  by those who just don't like any coach no matter how many games he wins. 

Last year, after one of the games we won (I think it was the game against Penn State, though I could be wrong), a caller called into the after game show on 610 radio to suggest that: Tressel be fired.  Earl Bruce, former Buckeye football coach who followed Woody Hayes, came down on him like white on rice.  What do you want!, Bruce asked.  Tressel has had how many Big 10 titles?  He's won a National Championship, been to a BCS bowl every year, had how many winning seasons in a row, has beat Michigan how many times?  And he just won another game today!!  And you want him to go?  That attitude has to play a part. 

Also, the tendency of the national sports media to criticize and downplay OSU's accomplishments might also be a factor.  From saying the National Championship game we won was stolen because of one call (ignoring other calls that game), to insisting that OSU's problems in the BCS were proof that the BCS is working, while criticizing the BCS whenever OSU won, had to diminish that feeling of security in the team, as well as the coach.

In all, that's too much pressure for any man.  You must win, win, win.  You must more than win. You must bring in tons and tons of money.  And on the other side, no matter how much you win or how well you do, there will be a sizable part of the sports media and even the fan base calling for your head on any given Saturday.  Yeah, I can see why he did it.  That doesn't excuse him.  Wrong is wrong and you have to pay the piper.  Though I hope anyone found to be to blame will be equally dealt with.  I also hope we don't let the players off the hook, as some have suggested in the last 24 hours.  They were old enough to know what they were doing, and it's worth looking long and hard at them and the character of these players we offer the world to in order to bring in the big bucks. 

But I will hate to see him go.  I hope the next coach brings the same pride in OSU and its traditions.  And the same character we saw so often in Tressel, from charities to helping the troops to focusing on the students' well being. I hope the new coach doesn't make the mistake of Michigan's ex-coach Rodriguez who came in proud to dismiss its storied history.  But it won't be the same.  By all accounts, Tressel was a good man.  Maybe too good.  Good enough to let his players get out of control, and then not strong enough to stand up to the rabid fan base and naysayers of the media and say 'we'll take the losing seasons to do what is right, and if that costs me my job, so be it.'  Who knows.  In any event, farewell Jim Tressel, wherever you fair.

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