Commentary

Jim Tressel saga: Catalyst for reform?

Updated: May 31, 2011, 12:50 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Jim Tressel resigned Monday morning, and my mind immediately went to a strange place: a high school parking lot in Jeannette, Pa. It was the fall of 2007, Terrelle Pryor's senior year at Jeannette High, and the scene one afternoon at dismissal time fit perfectly with the overall theme of big-time college athletics and the near-impossibility of policing them under the current system.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Charles LeClaire/Getty ImagesEven before signing day, there was a flurry of interested parties around Terrelle Pryor.

Pryor is a pivotal player in the clumsy, slapstick drama that ended with Tressel's resignation. It's a pretty safe leap to link the beginning of the end for Tressel to the days leading up to Pryor's decision to attend Ohio State.

And the many people who played a role in that decision.

There were guys hanging around even then. They weren't trading signed gear for tattoos, but when you're the No. 1 high school player in the country, you attract a wide array of people. Some have pure motives; others don't. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Among those drawn to Pryor was Tony DeNunzio, then 78 years old, a local restaurant owner who openly told me he provided Pryor and his teammates with meals at his establishment.

But what separated DeNunzio from the average old-guy glad-hander came the fall day the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published its high school football preview and put Pryor on the front in a photo illustration that depicted him wearing a football uniform on one half of his body and a basketball uniform on the other. (Remember, Pryor was once a top-100 prep hoopster, too.)

And on that same afternoon, the afternoon I remembered when Tressel resigned, DeNunzio went to gas stations and grocery stores in Jeannette and bought every single copy of that newspaper. And then DeNunzio, remarkably energetic for 78, drove his Cadillac to Jeannette High school and passed out every one of those copies to the students leaving school.

DeNunzio and I were sitting in his restaurant as he detailed this scene -- I was in Jeannette reporting a story on Pryor for ESPN The Magazine -- and he must have sensed my astonishment. He had already told me stories of picking up Pryor and his friends to drive them to and from the mall. (Waiting in the car while they shopped, even.) But the successful businessman-turned-PR paperboy story took the story of a grandfatherly mentor to a different, disturbing level.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Charles LeClaire/Getty ImagesAs a high school player, Terrelle Pryor was an all-around athlete who left little doubt in people's minds that he had big things ahead of him.

And then, without being asked, DeNunzio told me not to get the wrong impression. "I'm not Terrelle's agent," he said, even though nothing of the sort had been remotely suggested.

How does anybody -- the NCAA, Ohio State, even Pryor himself -- control stuff like this? Forget control; how does anybody even monitor stuff like this? There's an old man sitting in his Cadillac outside the mall while a bunch of 18-year-olds hang out. He'll sit there until they're done, and then he'll drive them home. If you're a kid without a ride or someone to provide it, it's worth hanging out with the old man to get what you want.

And if you're the old man with a few bucks and some civic pride, it's only natural for you to want to be a part of the biggest thing your depressed town has seen in your lifetime. You might be a big deal in a small place, but you're smart enough to identify and attach yourself to someone who's destined to be a big deal in a big place.

Pryor's coach at the time, Ray Reitz, expressed his frustration with the swirl of interest Pryor was attracting from high-profile locals. He mentioned DeNunzio and another successful businessman who decided to expand his role when the best high school football player in the country appeared in his small town. It turns out that Ted Sarniak, a local glass-factory owner, ended up being central to the Tressel investigation.

When Tressel received emails from a Columbus attorney warning him that Pryor and others were selling memorabilia and doing gear trades for tattoos, he didn't forward them to the NCAA or Ohio State officials. He forwarded them to Sarniak, who suddenly became described as Pryor's "mentor" in every media report.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Terry GilliamTerrelle Pryor played in 39 games for Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

Kind of the same way DeNunzio described himself to me.

Kind of the same way Tressel liked to describe his relationship to his players.

It's a big see-no-evil all the way around. For many years, Tressel managed to profess his closeness to his players while somehow remaining ignorant of nearly every non-football aspect of their lives. He wrote books about integrity while displaying very little. He looked for back-alley solutions, like handing off to Sarniak, instead of taking on problems eye-to-eye. He made a big show of saying he allowed Pryor and the other three memorabilia-tainted players to compete in the Sugar Bowl only after they promised to serve their five-game suspensions next year and not bolt for the NFL.

Now? He's gone, and they're left to sit out the first five games or -- as Pryor might -- look into an opt-out method of getting paid for real.

And the system that promotes this type of corruption continues. If there's ever been a time to take a serious look at all the well-meaning but traditionally ignored proposals for reform, now might be it. Maybe a public airing of some of the more reasonable suggestions? This could be a seminal moment to decide whether college sports at the highest level continues on its duplicitous course or admits the obvious and becomes a full-fledged minor league system for the NBA and NFL.

Because somewhere, there's a kid who's going to be wanted by every school in the country and a hundred coaches ready to chase him. And not far behind the player, for reasons that may or may not be altruistic, there's a man out there thinking about doing something you and I might find more than a little sad.

Like passing out newspapers in a high school parking lot.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com