Tressel, Buckeyes at crossroads
Jim Tressel is a big deal.
Big salary. Big reputation. Big winning percentage (.828 at Ohio State, second-best in Big Ten history for coaches with 10 or more years in the league, trailing only Fielding H. Yost).
He is not, however, bigger than Ohio State. Which is why the school should terminate its star football coach before it responds in the coming months to the NCAA notice of allegations that was made public Monday.
In that document, the NCAA charged Tressel with "potential major violations" related to his handling of what could go down as the most costly body art in college football history. The free tattoos and sold football memorabilia of five Buckeyes launched an investigation that could wind up bringing down The Vest.
And The Vest should go down.
Ohio State is stripped to its soul, and now we're going to see what the school is made of. Does it cherish its reputation more than its football prowess, or not?
To put it politely, The Ohio State University has a rather high opinion of itself. Buckeye Nation has always believed it stood for more than the average football factory. Its fans have long disdained the scofflaw status of the Southeastern Conference, even as SEC teams have taken turns beating the Buckeyes in big games over the years.
Now we'll find out what matters most.
The only bigger coach than Tressel in Ohio State history was Woody Hayes, winner of AP national championships in 1954 and '68 and the all-time leader in Big Ten conference victories with 152. Yet when Hayes shamed the university by punching Clemson's Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl, igniting a bench-clearing brawl, the school fired him the next day.
If Ohio State could fire its greatest football icon, it can fire Tressel.
Of course, Hayes' assault of Bauman was nationally televised; there was no mistaking or misunderstanding what occurred. It could not be taken out of context, glossed over or ascribed to any plot to take down the coach. A legend punched his way out of a job on live TV, leaving his employer no choice as far as how to act.
The Tressel transgressions carry no such visual payload, but that doesn't make them tolerable. The fact is, a coach who portrays and markets himself as something more than a coach -- a High-Character Leader of Men -- lied about what he knew, when he knew it and who he told about it.
In a clear attempt at damage control, as opposed to getting to the bottom of things, Tressel didn't consult with athletic director Gene Smith or the school's compliance department when he found out about Tattoogate. Instead, Tressel took the information to a guy named Ted Sarniak, a businessman from Terrelle Pryor's hometown who has a relationship (of some sort) with the quarterback. He also consulted with the lawyer who tipped him off to the federal investigation (former Buckeye walk-on Christopher Cicero), and with a member of the FBI.
When Ohio State announced its suspensions of the involved players in December, Tressel willingly played the part of a bewildered coach who was caught off guard by the whole thing. As emails were released in the ensuing months, it became obvious that wasn't the case.
At that time, Tressel said he kept the emails from Cicero to himself to avoid compromising the federal investigation of the tattoo parlor's owner. Except that wasn't quite true, either, since he forwarded them to Sarniak.
Which means Tressel did nothing that could have helped settle this little scandal in an above-board manner. Given a choice in how to handle it, he went under the table and then lied about it.
As the story got worse, Ohio State has grudgingly given ground -- trying to save face and save Tressel at the same time.
Players were suspended, but not the coach. Then the coach was suspended for two games in 2011. Then, when that looked like a soft response, Tressel asked for the suspension to be raised to five games -- commensurate with what the players got from the NCAA.
But with allegations on paper, that still doesn't seem like enough.
If recent history tells us anything, it's that the NCAA doesn't look kindly upon dissemblers. Ask former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, whose college football career ended by misleading the NCAA. Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl will find out the same thing eventually, when the NCAA could hit him with a show-cause order that prevents him from college coaching for some period of time.
Because he was a popular winner, Tennessee thought long and hard about keeping Pearl even after he was charged in September by the NCAA. The school was widely derided for that stance before ultimately coming around in March and firing him.
To many fans outside the SEC, the Volunteers' insistence in standing by Pearl for many months was seen as another example of the league's win-at-all-costs mentality. Ultimately, though, it did not last. Tennessee did what it had to do.
The Ohio State University finds itself in a similar situation now -- but the coach is an even bigger name, with a bigger salary and a bigger rep.
It's a tough position to be in. But Ohio State was faced with firing a football icon before, and did what it had to do. It should do so again -- not just as a message to the NCAA, but as a message to everyone about what the school is made of.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.