Commentary

Tressel's end fits with saga's pattern

Originally Published: May 30, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The last Vestiges of credibility were unraveling in recent days. Reports about car deals and sold rings kept trickling out. And the air was full of rumor about another big story that would further damage reeling Ohio State and its football coach, Jim Tressel.

And so it was startling but ultimately not surprising that Tressel resigned on Memorial Day. More accurately, according to the Columbus Dispatch, the school finally forced its superstar coach to resign.

That fits the pattern throughout this sordid five-month saga. Tressel and Ohio State only gave ground grudgingly, only when cornered, only when damage control was the last available option.

When the revelations of sold memorabilia and comped tattoos from an alleged drug trafficker first came to light in December, this was all about the players who broke rules and scoffed at Ohio State traditions. Tressel, at that time, was the blindsided guardian of standards and scruples who was disappointed that his players would do such a thing.

What a charade that turned out to be. Tressel knew for months what his players had done, and hadn't told any of his supposed superiors at Ohio State. When emails made that clear in March -- when the coach was cornered -- the school lamely offered up a two-game suspension in 2011.

[+] EnlargeGordon Gee, Jim Tressel, Gene Smith
AP Photo/Terry GilliamOSU president Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith and coach Jim Tressel's damage-control efforts at a March news conference revealed more flaws.

That was the news conference in which Ohio State president Gordon Gee was asked whether the school would fire Tressel. Gee uttered his obsequious comment that will live in infamy: "I hope he doesn't fire me." It was also the news conference in which Tressel couldn't quite get an apology past his lips, despite giving athletic director Gene Smith the indication that he would apologize.

The court of public opinion went wild. Sticking a finger into the air and seeing that a two-game wrist slap wasn't playing very well, Tressel made the damage-control move of volunteering for the same five-game suspension as his players. Only the gullible were impressed.

When the NCAA notice of allegations against the school came out in April, the language pointed very specifically at Tressel. I wrote then that Ohio State needed to fire its icon coach as unflinchingly as it fired its only bigger icon coach, Woody Hayes, when he besmirched the school's reputation. If The Ohio State University was going to live up to its grand self-image, it needed to do the right thing.

That didn't happen. Not only didn't it happen, but Smith publicly came out in support of Tressel at the Big Ten spring meetings just two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the media kept doing its job. Stories emerged about extensive dealings between Ohio State athletes and a specific Columbus car dealership, and rumors of major investigative stories by other media outlets percolated. Whether the prospect of more damaging reports made Tressel's sudden resignation a more convenient moment of reckoning is open to conjecture -- and my conjecture is that it absolutely did.

By now, Ohio State would do well to send Tressel's superiors/enablers out with him. Smith has not distinguished himself in the handling of this scandal, and neither has Gee. The school has only managed to do the right thing at NCAA and media gunpoint, not as a proactive display of integrity.

On one level, dogged defense of a coach like Tressel is understandable. He has won a national championship and competed for several others. He has owned hated rival Michigan. His .828 winning percentage at Ohio State is second in Big Ten history for coaches with more than 10 years in the league, trailing only Fielding H. Yost.

Coaches that successful don't come around very often, even at Ohio State.

But that's only understandable on the Winning Is All That Matters level. Beyond that, in the realm where Ohio State likes to say it resides, the school had to rid itself of a coach who cheated and lied his way into making a bad situation far worse. Staying in the fox hole with Tressel eventually became too costly to the school's reputation.

So this had to happen -- even if it happened late. And now we're left to appraise the legacy of an empty Vest.

The fans rejoicing around the Big Ten on Monday makes clear how thoroughly Tressel had dominated the league. His tenure was a spectacular success on the field.

But there will be an enduring and justifiable taint to Tressel. This is a guy who has always talked skillfully about doing all the right things, but hasn't walked it very well.

He won big and was dogged by NCAA violations at Youngstown State in the 1990s. Now the same is true at Ohio State.

And now Tressel has been forced out of his dream job, one of the top five in America. If he's honest with himself, Tressel must wonder today how much easier life would have been if he'd just done the right thing when he got that first email warning him that his players were breaking the rules.

But this has been a lie-and-deny operation from the beginning, and now it ends with Jim Tressel's meticulously polished reputation in tatters.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.