Commentary

In Columbus, a mournful mood

Originally Published: May 31, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On a muggy day in the heartland, the mood of a massive football fan base was both fatalistic and funereal.

Often using the past tense, Ohio State fans celebrated the good civic deeds and great football accomplishments of Jim Tressel, while lamenting a resignation they saw as inevitable.

"A lot of people are sad," said Brittany White, who works in the Ohio State memorabilia store College Traditions, within sight of The Horseshoe. "Just kind of a sad day in Columbus."

White said that in the hours after the iconic coach's resignation went public on Memorial Day, Buckeyes fans started showing up at College Traditions to buy Tressel gear. There is plenty still on the shelves to purchase, from his signature sweater vest ($55) to vest-style baby Onesies ($15.99). Copies of his books were sold Monday, as were wall hangings in his likeness.

A few blocks away, stacks of the Tuesday edition of The Lantern, the Ohio State student paper, were sitting in the lobby of Eddie George's Grille 27, the restaurant owned by the former Buckeyes running back who won the 1995 Heisman Trophy. The front page headline: "End of an era."

An end that had to come, bartender Luke Ashmore reluctantly acknowledged.

"Every day I woke up, it was getting worse," he said. "It was getting draining. It was a little disheartening."

At Mirror Lake in the center of campus, Alie Olson of West Jefferson, Ohio, said: "It's for the best that he resigned, but it's sad. He was a legend."

There was, however, a difference between sadness and sympathy. Most people interviewed for this story said Tressel earned what he got for lying to the NCAA.

"He's got to be held accountable," said junior engineering student Michael Barnes. "I want the program to be cleaned up. If it takes a couple years to get hit hard, that's what we'll take."

[+] EnlargePryor/Tressel
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteOnce his most prized recruit, Terrelle Pryor was involved in the events that led to Jim Tressel's exit from Ohio State.

Although some students question some of the rules, they don't blame the NCAA for enforcing them. Although they question some of the coverage, they don't blame the media for investigating.

They do, however, energetically blame quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

One item not selling this week at College Traditions: authentic No. 2 jerseys ($150) in both red and white. That's the number Pryor wears.

On previous fall Saturdays, there were thousands of fans wearing them in the stands at Ohio Stadium. Don't expect that to be the case this fall.

"I'm ready for Pryor to move on," OSU senior Zach Olson said.

"I don't think people think too highly of him," said White. "A lot of people wouldn't be too disappointed if he never put on an Ohio State uniform again."

The problem, of course, is that Pryor allegedly has sold parts of that uniform and other trinkets in exchange for tattoos -- violations of NCAA rules that Tressel covered up, leading to his forced resignation. Other Buckeyes committed the same violations as Pryor and will receive the same five-game suspension this fall, but none has engendered the anger reserved for the guy most Ohio State fans celebrated as a savior when he arrived in 2008.

While it felt like a funeral for Tressel here Tuesday, it also felt like a burial for Pryor.

"He does come across as kind of arrogant," Barnes said. "Maybe [other students] get that he doesn't care. There's more people involved than just him, but he does have this cocky attitude."

Some who work at campus-area restaurants and bars and asked that their names not be used told tales of Pryor flaunting what they perceived as a privileged lifestyle. They say they saw him coming out of high-end restaurants, driving multiple cars, trying to commandeer VIP areas of bars.

(Pryor's use of automobiles is the focus of a new NCAA investigation, according to a Monday story from the Columbus Dispatch.)

But Pryor wasn't the only one, according to students. Several said they'd heard about the tattoo scam, and several mentioned the late-model cars they've seen football players drive.

"I'm driving a 2000 Isuzu Rodeo," laughed senior Jeff Whaley. "And I work. You see the nice watch, nice earrings. You see the cars and wonder."

In reality, the students do more than just wonder. They know. So do the older fans who pay the big money for tickets and buy those jerseys.

They know, but they don't want to know. This is the same everywhere. They want to believe there is a perfectly good reason the star player is driving an expensive car, or why his family has moved to town, or why he has $250 earphones around his neck.

Confronting college sports fans with the circumstantial evidence of what goes on at a lot of high-level programs robs them of the illusion that allows them to enjoy the games. They want to believe their favorite team is clean. And if it's not, please don't flaunt it to the point we can't avoid it.

"If you're going to break the rules, you've got to be smart about it," Olson said. "Not that I'm condoning it, but it's not like it's only an Ohio State problem. It's a college football problem."

Most students I talked to believe the rules the Buckeyes broke are nonsensical. They don't like a system that prevents college players from profiting off their own efforts and accomplishments.

"It's a bogus rule, a dumb rule," said Tayla Arrington, a freshman from Columbus. "They're working to make the Ohio State name and keep up their studies, yet they're not getting anything in return."

Beyond the philosophical debate of what a college football player should be allowed to sell or receive, there seems to be a glum acceptance of the new reality. Jim Tressel is gone. Terrelle Pryor might be. Probation and sanctions are likely.

A glorious 10-year run could well give way to hard times. And few schools seem to need that football glory more than Ohio State.

"They say the university is bigger than the football program," said White, the College Traditions worker.

I asked if she believed that.

She paused.

"I don't know."

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