Commentary

Tressel penalty a test case for NCAA

Originally Published: March 10, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- In an era of big egos, at a time when players hear the clarion call of the NFL in every gust of wind, it can be difficult to persuade them to set that agenda aside. But the coach in need of enforcing his control always wields the largest weapon. The coach controls the playing time.

You've heard coaches say it time and again: Do as I say or sit. And evidently, at long last, the people who police college athletics have heard it, too.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's punishment of Jim Tressel includes a suspension from the first two games of the 2011 season.

Coaches take away players' playing time. And now the keepers of the NCAA flame are taking away the coaches' coaching time. Welcome to the era of coaching suspensions.

"It's gonna sting, no matter what you say," Jim Calhoun said Wednesday afternoon.

The UConn men's basketball coach will be forced to sit out UConn's first three Big East Conference games next season. The NCAA signed off on the penalty, just as it did when the Southeastern Conference suspended Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl for eight conference games this season.

Ohio State, grasping for a way to discipline football coach Jim Tressel, announced Tuesday night that it has suspended him for the Buckeyes' first two games of the 2011 season.

Here is an opportunity for the NCAA to utilize the suspension as a disciplinary tool in football. Suspensions of football coaches are rare. Suspensions of football coaches that include games are rarer. And suspensions of football coaches by the NCAA are the rarest of all.

Google will tell you that former Colorado coach Gary Barnett and Hawaii coach Greg McMackin served lengthy suspensions issued by their respective universities for things they said. Barnett's remarks about an alleged sexual assault of his former kicker, a woman, earned him a three-month paid suspension in 2004. McMackin's gay slur in 2009 cost him 30 days and a substantial fine. But the suspension ended the week of the opening game.

The NCAA doesn't suspend coaches for hurtful speech. There's no rule about that in the NCAA Manual. The NCAA has kept teams off television. It has kept teams out of bowl games. Once it even kept SMU from playing an entire season. The NCAA has been more careful around coaches. On rare occasions, it has kept coaches from working, period (the dreaded "show cause" penalty).

So now we see how the NCAA reacts to the suspension of Tressel. Ohio State punished its coach enough, as Calhoun phrased it, to make it sting. Tressel will not get to see his team perform on two Saturdays next fall. It will sting, and it's also a totally insufficient penalty, given Tressel's violations.

Maybe we should think of this as a "Law & Order" episode. It's about 43 minutes after the hour. Ohio State, in the role of the defense attorney, just made its first thrust at assistant district attorney Jack McCoy.

If this was "Law & Order," the NCAA/McCoy wouldn't take the offer. McCoy never takes the first offer, especially when the facts are on his side. And let's face it: These facts don't bode well for the defense. Doink Doink.

Tressel knew that his players might have committed NCAA violations. He didn't report it. He let them play knowing that their eligibility might be in question. When asked what he knew about it, he didn't tell the whole truth to Ohio State, the NCAA or anyone else.

The NCAA doesn't like it when players or coaches don't tell the whole truth. If history is any guide, Tressel will pay for his lack of candor. The NCAA, like most prosecutors, enjoys beating up on big-name defendants. Ask USC what it thinks of Tressel's chances.

It's hard to see the logic in the NCAA sitting the Ohio State players five games for their actions and giving their coach only two games for not being truthful about the case. At the very least, the NCAA has got to move the suspensions to conference games.

So we wait. We wait to see if the NCAA really has learned to love the coaching suspension. We wait to see if the NCAA increases not only the suspension but the $250,000 fine that Ohio State assessed Tressel. That's not quite a month's pay for Tressel. (It is, however, about six times the $43,000 that former Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes made in 1978, the last season of his 28-year, Hall of Fame career.)

Ohio State did no favors for Tressel with its penalties. By not coming down hard enough, the university ignited a public debate that will last until the NCAA announces whether it agrees with the penalties. Ohio State did no favors for the NCAA, either. Tressel has become a public test for the NCAA's enforcement process, a test that the public believes the NCAA failed in the Cam Newton case.

The NCAA has the opportunity to put some teeth in a simple tenet. If you don't live by the rules, you sit on the bench. It's a message that all coaches and players understand.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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