Blaming the student messenger at OSU
Zack Meisel is paying a stiff price for a story that helped bring Jim Tressel down
Jim Tressel's 10-year, disingenuous reign at Ohio State was undone by lots of people.
By the FBI. By a Columbus, Ohio, tattoo parlor owner. By an OSU senior majoring in economics and journalism. By the so-called "Senator" himself, whose clumsy, panicked and defiant cover-up contradicted the myth of Tressel as someone who -- how did the 2010 Ohio State football media guide put it? -- "emphasizes organization, planning and accountability as not just important in football, but as skills for life."
Wait, an OSU double major?
That would be Zack Meisel, a 21-year-old Buckeyes senior who in less than two weeks will pick up his diploma at the same Ohio Stadium where Tressel defeated Michigan last November -- unless, of course, one emailer follows through on his threat to track down Meisel on campus and beat him up.
"I've learned more about journalism and the way the media works in the last 72 hours than I did probably in my first 21 years of living," says Meisel. "It's been a whirlwind."
Meisel is the editor-in-chief of The Lantern, Ohio State's student newspaper. Thursday's edition was only 12 pages, but it featured an interview with former Buckeyes wide receiver Ray Small that instantly made national news and further confirmed that Tressel and Ohio State had lost control of the football program.
Small told Meisel and staff writer James Oldham that while playing for OSU, he sold a pair of Big Ten championship rings and assorted Buckeyes memorabilia for cash, received special players-only discounts on cars and that "everyone was doing it." This is what the NCAA calls an "improper benefit."
Small later accused Meisel and Oldham of twisting his words, but too late -- The Lantern had the audio tapes of the interview and made them available online. Small didn't have a denial to stand on.
Four days after the Small story appeared, Tressel's OSU coaching career disappeared. But not before an emailer wrote Meisel and predicted that The Lantern editor and Oldham were the most likely candidates to be found dead in the nearby Olentangy River.
"I did read through most of them, if not all of them," says Meisel. "There were definitely more than 100. Some were, 'Thanks for trying to take down our program.' For all the fans who reacted negatively, half wanted me to move to Michigan, half wanted me to move to Nashville with Kirk Herbstreit. I wish there would have been a consensus."
ESPN's Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, moved from Columbus to Tennessee earlier this year because he was weary of the criticism he and his family received from a vocal minority of OSU supporters. But Meisel is staying put. He'll walk across the stage during the June 12 graduation ceremony and then spend the summer covering the Cleveland Indians as an associate reporter for MLB.com.
Meisel and Oldham (who graduates in August) took no special pleasure in helping seal Tressel's fate. Meisel is from a Cleveland suburb and Oldham is from the Columbus area. They rooted for OSU football success as much as the next person.
In fact, Meisel conducted about a 30-minute interview with Tressel in mid-February. It was a chance for Tressel to reflect on his 10-year career at Ohio State, which began in 2001 with the newly hired coach telling a Buckeyes basketball crowd, "I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field."
Meisel's story appeared on Feb. 17. Sweater-vest hell didn't break loose until several weeks later.
"At that point," says Meisel, "I didn't know he was covering up the entire scandal."
We know it now. And a Sports Illustrated story published Monday details even more alleged widespread incidents of NCAA violations by Ohio State players during Tressel's cough watch.
Meisel received a call from his faculty adviser Monday morning telling him to check his email. When he did, there was a copy of the Columbus Dispatch story detailing the news of Tressel's resignation. There was also a copy of OSU president Gordon Gee's email to the Ohio State faculty members.
The resignation wasn't much of a surprise to Meisel. He had already written a "Tressel Resigns" story in anticipation of the inevitable announcement. When the Dispatch broke the news, Meisel finished his own story and filed it to The Lantern. I talked to him Monday, when he answered the phone at the newspaper's office.
"It's definitely sadness," Meisel says when asked to describe the mood on campus. "I think everyone here knows the type of person he is. The guy's so involved in community service. No matter what he did, there's going to be an aura of sadness. But there's going to be a sigh of relief. I think this is at least one shoe dropping. It's a little bit of solace for the fans."
So Meisel will leave Columbus with a double major in economics and journalism, with half of a hellacious scoop and with an Ohio State degree he'll cherish. He has the MLB.com gig in the summer, but then he goes hunting for full-time employment.
"What would be your dream job?" I ask.
"Nothing to do with economics," he says.
Meisel was walking across campus recently when something unexpected happened. A fellow student recognized him and actually congratulated him for The Lantern's work on the Small story.
Hey, beats floating face-down on the Olentangy.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.