My Favorite 12 Nuggets from the Sports Illustrated Piece That Exposes Jim Tressel
By now, you probably know the story at Ohio State. It's the age-old story of "football players befriend drug trafficking tattoo parlor owner, players swap memorabilia for tattoos (and quite possibly drugs), head coach finds out about scam via e-mail and does nothing about it, head coach gets suspended, then suspended some more, then when it's brutally apparent the walls are caving in on the program, head coach
gets fired for lying resigns for the good of the program."
In the end, much like Stacks in GoodFellas, it was just a matter of time before they got Jim Tressel.
Tressel was asked to resign his post of head football coach at
The Ohio State University on Monday. If you talk to media members in Columbus (and I've spoken with a handful), there was no real "chicken and egg" analysis to be had with respect to an upcoming exposé by Sports Illustrated and the timing of Tressel's resignation.
Since his lies and withholding of incriminating e-mails were exposed back in March, Tressel and the school have been doing what they clearly thought was just enough to keep him employed. It started with a two-game suspension, then when people shit all over that they changed it to five.
Eventually, cornered, the school blew him out.
The SI article came out later in the day on Monday, and while it's a superb piece of investigative journalism by author George Dohrmann, there wasn't anything which completely shocked me in the piece. By and large, if I had to summarize the article it was this -- a whole lot more guys on the Buckeyes were swapping gear for tattoos, some for weed, and Jim Tressel the bible-quoting "senator" is a big phony.
However, there were a few juicy nuggets in the story which I found compelling. Here they are (with my reaction to each one below with "SP":
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy has praised Tressel's "integrity" and said he is the kind of man you'd want your son to play for.
SP: Somewhere along the way, Tony Dungy's opinion of people's integrity became the end-all, be-all gospel. It's as if when you were going for a job and you needed to list references, Dungy's reference would be worth like a thousand good references from other people. When Mike Vick got out of prison, one of the first guys to vouch for his reformation was Dungy. So the fact that Dungy's character reference on "Senator" Tressel came unraveled before his character reference on a guy who went to prison for killing dozens of innocent dogs is very funny to me.
[Tressel] had four years left on his estimated $3.5 million-a-year contract.
SP: Not sure where Tressel's going to be able to recoup $14 million in income the next four years, which makes his coverup that much more silly. If Tressel had turned in these players and gone 8-4 last season, nobody would be calling for his head. Fact is, they may have still gone 10-2 or 11-1 even without those guys. Bad decision and really expensive decision by The Sweater Vest.
When those revelations became public, Tressel said he hadn't known what the players had done and expressed disappointment that they had not listened to what he called the "little sensor" inside them that knew right from wrong.
SP: It would have been much funnier if Tressel called it the "little man" like Kramer did with George, instead of the "little sensor"...
SI's investigation also uncovered allegations that Ohio State players had traded memorabilia for marijuana...
SP: This is the only part of the article where I thought "Wow, this is a whole lot more explosive than what we think/know is going on in Columbus." It's one thing for it to be a lot more players breaking the rules (not good, but not surprising either), it's another thing for the illegal-by-NCAA-standards activity to involve something like drugs that are, you know, illegal-by-society's-standards.
At times, [former Youngstown State quarterback Ray Isaac] told SI, he asked the coach for help in getting out of traffic tickets. "He'd slot out two hours to meet and say, 'Ray, I need you to read this book and give me 500 words on why it's important to be a good student-athlete,'" Isaac says. Afterward the ticket would sometimes disappear, which, if Tressel intervened, would be an NCAA infraction.
SP: This story almost makes Tressel look pathological, like there's some sort of cosmic zero-sum game at work where if he has the players perform some sort of token "good guy" gesture, it cancels out the fact that he is illegally having their traffic tickets expunged from their driving records.
An employee informed him of a phone conversation involving Poly-Care cofounder Robert Q. Baker during which Baker talked of a payment to Smith, the Buckeyes' quarterback, and said, "Now I own him."
SP: Very enlightened view from a booster. Nothing says "just trying to help a kid who needs walking-around money" like "Now I own him."
The Dayton Daily News reported that Chris Gamble, a cornerback and wide receiver who now plays for the NFL's Panthers, was paid by Baker in the summer of 2003 for a job that consisted of little more than showing up and signing autographs. The Columbus Dispatch wrote that Gamble accompanied Baker on golf outings and even called Baker at halftime of the '04 Fiesta Bowl.
SP: And with that Robert Q. Baker's résumé for "Jock Sniff of the Decade" immediately shoots to the top of the list. I would say he's one Tony Dungy character reference away from locking it up.
One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting. At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won -- a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel."
SP: So how did none of the other normal-sized, moderately athletic campers (who apparently comprised most of the camp) ever speak up when only kids who ran a 4.4 forty-yard dash or bench-pressed 450 pounds were winning gear? Average kids, stand up!
In reality, Ohio State players have been trading memorabilia -- including items bearing Tressel's signature -- since at least the coach's second season, according to multiple sources.
SP: In theory, assuming eBay wasn't involved and that the players were personally bringing stuff into the tattoo shop, it means that it's highly likely the players would have had to ask Tressel to autograph the stuff themselves. I'd love to know how many fake family members the coach had to sign stuff for.
"What they brought in depended on the kind of tattoo they wanted," says Halko. "If it was just something small, it might be a signed magazine or something like that. If it was a full sleeve, they might bring in a jersey." (Tattoos range in price from less than $100 for simple designs to several thousand dollars for more elaborate ones like the full-sleeve inkings of some Buckeyes.)
SP: I absolutely love that there is some sort of understood conversion chart where certain pieces of gear are worth small tattoos and better pieces of gear are worth "full sleeves." I would hope that means that certain players' autographs are valued differently as well -- like a sleeve for Terrelle Pryor gets done with one autographed jersey, but Boom Herron has to empty half his closet and sign everything to get a sleeve. "Sorry, Boom. But he is The Terrelle Pryor."
Ellis estimates that Pryor alone brought in more than 20 items, including game-worn shoulder pads, multiple helmets, Nike cleats, jerseys, game pants and more. One day Ellis asked Pryor how he was able to take so much gear from the university's equipment room. Ellis says the quarterback responded, "I get whatever I want."
SP: If the "institutional control" police are looking for a smoking gun, there you go. In five words -- "I get whatever I want." Boom.
How open a secret was it that scores of Buckeyes were hanging out at Fine Line? Ellis says players went in and out of the tattoo parlor so often that kids carrying paper and pen would bang on the door and front window and shout, "Are the Buckeyes here?" Employees had to shoo them away.
SP: So to recap, the gear-for-tatts/weed scam was not just some isolated drive-by where the players tried to get the hell out of that part of town as quickly as possible so as not to be spotted or put the program in danger. No, the drug dealer's tattoo parlor was a place where they all hung out so frequently and casually that the neighborhood kids would stop by looking for the players, like third graders at Disney World spotting the Toy Story characters walking around Tomorrowland.
What goes around comes around. It's about to come around in Columbus.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.