As Ohio State prepares to face the NCAA over the sins of its disgraced football program, it's not too early to assess the damage already done. Here's a list of the biggest losers, plus, believe it or not, a few winners.
Jim Tressel. Photo by Dan Trittschuh
Of all the insults heaped upon Columbus since Tattoogate broke, perhaps the worst came courtesy of Sports Illustrated. In its now famous exposé of Jim Tressel, the magazine compared the city to Tuscaloosa and Knoxville. Yes, plenty of places might feel complimented to be lumped together with those two fine communities. But Columbus is the nation’s 15th largest city, bigger than Atlanta or Boston. To liken Columbus to a pair of much smaller college towns is a slap in the face.
But that doesn’t mean it was entirely wrong. While Columbus tries to portray itself (unsuccessfully, it appears) as a modern, sophisticated metropolis—the home of the Wexner Center, the Short North and a thriving gay community—it’s also something else: the nation’s largest college football town. The truth is Columbus does worship the Buckeyes in the same manner as Tuscaloosa celebrates the Crimson Tide, perhaps more so. You can attest to that fervor if you’ve seen the way the city shuts down to honor the holy Sabbath of game day or exalted the prophet who came out of nowhere (that is, Youngstown) and led the Buckeyes to the promised land. Shortly after Ohio State won the 2002 national championship, Columbus Monthly ran an essay about the city’s delirious post-title joy headlined “Tresseltown.”
Today, Columbus is paying for that Buckeye devotion. With the ruler of Tresseltown knocked from his throne, the repercussions are being felt throughout the kingdom. The football program, of course, has been besmirched and scandalized. Prized recruits are jumping ship as the specter of NCAA sanctions hangs over the program, while a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, Terrelle Pryor, was forced to make a less-than-ideal jump into the NFL. But the pain extends far beyond pigskin. Football is more than a game in Columbus, and Tattoogate could affect OSU fundraising, jersey sales, even school tax levies.
So who are the losers? Who are the winners? (Yes, there are a few.) In what follows, Columbus Monthly dissects the fallout from the most devastating coaching change to hit Columbus since another field general met another kind of ignominious end during the Gator Bowl in 1978.
In 1994, Youngstown State University coach Jim Tressel, coming off his third Division I-AA national championship, surprised pigskin pundits when he turned down an offer to coach the powerhouse Miami Hurricanes. The job was a great opportunity, but it also had its drawbacks. Miami wanted someone to sanitize one of the most corrupt programs in the country. Tressel reportedly was worried about the assignment. He didn’t want to be seen as a squeaky clean messiah.
Of course, eight years later, that’s exactly what he became in Columbus after he led the over-achieving Buckeyes to a stunning victory over his former suitor Miami in a riveting national championship game. His success extended far beyond football. He was a paragon of grace, morality and discipline—an image he embraced, ironically, considering his apparent wariness of being perceived as a white knight in South Florida earlier.
“Here’s what Tressel did wrong, and the only thing he did wrong,” says Columbus sports marketer Mike DiSabato, a steadfast admirer of the coach. “Jim Tressel allowed a perception of himself to be generated in the media that he was holier than thou.” In the seedy, hypocritical, cut-throat world of big-time collegiate sports, that’s a tough position to maintain. “If you operate or live in a sewer, you’re eventually going to smell like shit,” DiSabato says.
So how can Tressel rebuild his image? Frankly, it might not take much in Columbus, where he still seems to have plenty of defenders. How he handled his exit also might strengthen his legacy. He didn’t play hardball with the university, holding out for a lucrative severance package or threatening legal action. When his boss Gene Smith asked him to resign, he did it. “I don’t think his legacy or how he’s viewed has been much on his mind,” says Tressel’s attorney, Rex Elliott. “But certainly what has been on his mind is how the players, the coaches and the university will be affected by his decisions. He’s tried to make decisions in the best interest of all those groups.”
Tressel once planned to become an associate athletic director at the university after he gave up coaching the Buckeyes, and as shocking as it sounds now, Elliott still thinks Tressel could serve the university again in some role. “My sense is that at some point in time, when the investigation is over, the NCAA issues have been resolved, I’m sure that Ohio State would welcome him back with open arms in whatever capacity they could utilize him,” Elliott says. “Ohio State will always hold a special place in his heart.”
Like Woody Hayes, maybe he’ll even get to dot the “i” during Script Ohio.
By stepping down, Tressel gave up an annual salary of $3.6 million for 2011 and $3.7 million for each of the following three years, with perks that included cars and golf club memberships for him and his wife, 40 tickets to each home football game and 20 hours of personal use of a private jet. Tressel also left without securing a severance package first. Columbus lawyer and sports agent Bret Adams suggests Tressel could have received a lucrative deal in return for resigning and agreeing to speak before the NCAA Infractions Committee on Aug. 12. “Why he didn’t negotiate a package deal before he resigned is beyond me,” says Adams, whose clients include coaches such as the Denver Nuggets’ George Karl and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins. “That’s when he had all his leverage.”
Adams suspects Tressel’s resignation came with a caveat. “I would guess that it was whispered in his ear that they would work on a severance package if he made the announcement,” Adams says. Tressel’s attorney Rex Elliott says that didn’t occur. “Frankly, what was in his best financial interest was never even a small consideration,” says Elliott, who represented Tressel in buyout talks with the university. Indeed, Tressel’s severance package, which was finalized in July, fell below expectations. Before the settlement was announced, Columbus attorney and sports agent Marc Kessler predicted the coach might get as much as $2 million. Instead, Tressel ended up with $54,334 (his salary through the end of June), and the university waived a $250,000 fine it assessed earlier for his failure to report alleged NCAA violations. Tressel also refashioned his resignation into a retirement, which allows him to receive healthcare coverage for himself and his wife and a pension worth about $183,000 a year. “Retiring a Buckeye is important to him,” Elliott says.
For Tressel, however, the biggest casualty is his reputation. He remains a popular figure among diehard Buckeye fans—and a comeback down the road is possible (see “Tressel’s image,” page 43)—but he’s still fallen a long way, his deceit and obfuscation standing in such contrast to his saintly public persona. He’s become a punch line elsewhere (“Liar, Liar, Vest on Fire,” read a billboard in Michigan), and Oregon State University president Ed Ray, the Ohio State provost when Tressel was hired about a decade ago, summed up the sense of betrayal felt by some. “I just thought the world of him and he obviously has been incredibly successful,” Ray told the Oregonian. “I would assume he’s certainly been a very positive influence on many of the players that he had. But this whole episode to me is beyond the pale. It’s totally unacceptable. I’m pretty disappointed and startled by it all.”
Four years ago, Sports Illustrated praised Smith in a laudatory cover package for his skilled stewardship of a program that was racking up both big profits and big wins. The magazine even declared the OSU sports machine “the standard against which all schools are judged.”
Today, Smith’s press clippings look a lot different. SI, of course, delivered a body blow to OSU athletics with another cover story, the June 6 investigation that helped force out Tressel. Meanwhile, other national writers have been beating up on Smith, suggesting he should follow Tressel out the door for what they term weak oversight of the football program and a lackluster response to the initial report of wrongdoing. “The school has only managed to do the right thing at NCAA and media gunpoint, not as a proactive display of integrity,” wrote ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde.
Indeed, it might be difficult for Smith, who’s responsible for keeping the athletics department running smoothly, to survive, especially if the scandal continues to widen. “Gene is the next to go,” predicts Adams. Smith’s future might be in the hands of investigators. “It depends on what the institution’s internal investigation finds out,” says Michael Buckner, a Florida attorney who has represented coaches and colleges under NCAA investigation. “If the school’s investigation determines that the school should have done more compliance-wise, that the athletic administration didn’t do enough for either its oversight of the coaches or the program, then there are going to be questions that the president will have to address concerning the structure of the athletic department.”
USC was the last national football power to face such a high-profile and potentially damaging NCAA probe. In that case, the scandal over improper benefits received by star running back Reggie Bush cost AD Mike Garrett his job despite his role in rebuilding the USC football program and his deep ties to the Trojans. (Garrett, a former USC star tailback, won a Heisman Trophy in 1965.)
Garrett was defiant and unapologetic under NCAA scrutiny. Smith, on the other hand, has been much more cooperative. “Ohio State is trying to do things the right way,” Buckner says. Smith also has received public support from OSU president Gordon Gee, who told reporters in early June that “Gene Smith’s job is safe.” But after Gee’s infamous quip about Tressel, that vote of confidence might not feel so reassuring.
Since Gee joked in March that he hoped Tressel wouldn’t fire him, the president has been in damage-control mode, trying to prove football doesn’t run the show at Ohio State and he and the rest of his administration are taking the scandal seriously. He’s got some convincing to do. While Smith is their primary punching bag, some pundits even have questioned whether Gee should lose his job, too.
In an interview with the New York Times, Gee acknowledged his administration was too soft on Tressel at first, and OSU screwed up the news conference in which Gee made his ill-advised joke. “The university has made mistakes, absolutely,” Gee told the Times. “And we’re sorry for that. We have readily admitted that.”
There’s no indication that Gee has lost the support of the OSU board of trustees and its chairman, Limited Brands founder Les Wexner, who persuaded Gee to leave Vanderbilt University and return to Ohio State in 2007. “I think he’s embarrassed by some of the things that were said,” says veteran Columbus PR strategist and political operative David Milenthal. “He’s a very heartfelt, introspective person.” Milenthal says it would be a grave mistake if Tattoogate costs Gee his job. “Gordon Gee is a fabulous president,” he says. “To allow a sports incident to hurt the president of a university would be extremely unfair and would show exactly what I hate, which is the power of sports to take down one of the best presidents in the country. That is just ridiculous.”
Now that Tressel is gone, Archie, OSU’s athletics compliance chief, is perhaps the man on the hottest hot seat. “After coaches whose programs are being directly investigated, the person or group of people who are going to be the most stressed about this process would be the compliance people and the compliance staff,” says Buckner, the Florida attorney.
Not only must Archie and his seven-person staff deal with the NCAA, meeting with investigators and answering requests for information that must feel like an IRS audit, but he also faces an internal OSU review that could be just as taxing. Buckner estimates that Archie and his staff are looking at a doubling of their typical workload.
Already, OSU has shaken up compliance procedures, tightening oversight of player finances and car use, which has come under scrutiny in the wake of recent Dispatch reports. OSU trustees, meanwhile, announced in late July they would move Archie and his staff from the athletics department to a separate operation that also would monitor research practices.
Could Pryor have been the Cam Newton of the 2012 NFL draft? We’ll never know, of course. But if Pryor had led the Buckeyes to a national title during his senior year—not impossible with such a talented supporting cast—perhaps, like Newton, he’d have won his critics over and secured a lucrative rookie contract with the NFL.
Instead, Pryor, now a reviled figure in Columbus, faces a much more uncertain future. Essentially forced to turn pro by the NCAA scrutiny and a five-game suspension to begin the 2011 Ohio State season, Pryor is waiting to see where he would go in the NFL supplemental draft, which the league had yet to set a date for in mid July. The circumstances are difficult all around. Pro scouts still have questions about his physical skills, and now their doubts about his maturity and character are greater in the wake of the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal.
And since Pryor has no opportunity to win the NFL over on the field, he’s been forced to try to do so in different venues: an awkward press conference hosted by his agent Drew Rosenhaus (who mispronounced Pryor’s first name throughout the event), and an hour-long ESPN special with “Monday Night Football” announcer Jon Gruden.
The recent labor unrest in the NFL makes salary projections difficult these days, but Adam Heller, a Columbus sports agent, says according to the expired collective bargaining agreement, Pryor would have received $2.5 million for a four-year deal (with about $750,000 guaranteed) if a team took him in the third round of the supplemental draft, higher than most are predicting. In comparison, Tim Tebow, another high-profile college quarterback with questionable NFL prospects, got $8.7 million in guaranteed money after he was taken 25th in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.
TO BE DETERMINED
Ohio State offered to self-penalize itself by vacating the 2010 season in early July, but Buckner, the compliance expert, says that might not satisfy the NCAA. Precedent suggests Ohio State will lose scholarships, too, Buckner says, while a bowl-game ban might also be on the table. In 2010, for instance, the USC football team lost 30 scholarships over three years and was barred from the post-season in 2011 and 2012. For the Buckeyes, the worst-case scenario might be a ban from appearing on television, a penalty the NCAA considered for USC but ultimately rejected. Buckner says the NCAA has not leveled the TV prohibition in recent years.
The uncertainty puts Fickell, Ohio State’s 37-year-old new coach, in a difficult spot. Yet all is not lost for him. In some ways, he’s poised to surprise a lot of folks. The scandal has dampened the expectations of fans, but Fickell inherits a deeply talented team, even without Pryor, and there’s more than enough depth in place to survive a weak recruiting year.
Bill Greene, an Ohio recruiting analyst for Scout.com, says Ohio State, which might have been a preseason No. 1 if it weren’t for the scandal, has the talent to compete against anyone on its schedule, even without key players suspended for trading memorabilia for tattoos.
And Fickell, a gifted recruiter, might make a late charge on the recruiting trail if his team shows some success on the field, and the university commits to him as the team’s permanent coach (a big if, granted). Plus, he hired three-time Super Bowl winner Mike Vrabel as an assistant in early July. A close friend of Fickell from their playing days at Ohio State, Vrabel is a well-known name that could entice young players with NFL dreams to come to Columbus.
As the leader of Ohio State’s powerhouse licensing operation, Rick Van Brimmer is heading into uncharted territory. A national championship is a proven money maker for Van Brimmer—boosting licensing profits by as much as $2 million. So what will the opposite—a scandal in the school’s most lucrative sport—do to the sale of jerseys, hats, bobbleheads and other licensed products? Van Brimmer won’t make any predictions. “I absolutely don’t know, having zero experience going through it during my professional time at Ohio State,” he says. Sure, losing might weaken enthusiasm, but Ohio State fans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for Buckeye clothing and trinkets. “Really, time will tell,” Van Brimmer says.
The OSU sports machine pumps an estimated $100 million into the city a year, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the university. Game day, with its frenetic activity and more than 100,000 people descending on Ohio Stadium, is the most obvious symbol of that economic power. But if losses mount—and ticket sales lag—the overall Columbus economy might be less affected than you think. Sports economist Robert Baade says home games aren’t quite the money-making extravaganzas they appear to be for local economies, particularly in a larger city such as Columbus. Unlike smaller college towns that benefit from lots of outside dollars flooding their communities, Ohio State, Georgia Tech in Atlanta and other big city college football teams tend to draw more fans from the local area, says Baade, a professor of economics at Lake Forest College in Illinois. “It means less time and money spent elsewhere in the community,” he says.
Ohio State sports also can affect areas as diverse as philanthropy and K-12 education. Football is the “front porch” of the university, says former chief OSU fundraiser Peter Weiler, bringing people into Columbus and getting them excited about the university. “It might be the first step they take before they go into the house,” he says. Studies show that success on the football field doesn’t correlate with increased fundraising, but Weiler predicts the university might experience a dip in the short term. “My guess, there are some donors who would have been upset no matter what happened,” says Weiler, who left Ohio State last September to become vice president for advancement at the University of New Hampshire. “If Coach decided to stay, I think some probably would have been upset. And having left, I think there’s probably another group that is upset.” The fallout will dissipate over time, he says, predicting Ohio State’s loyal donor base will rally around Gee. “Gordon is such a strong and inspirational leader,” Weiler says. “That’s what donors fall back on. They believe in that leadership. That will prevail.”
Perhaps Gee also could step into Tressel’s shoes as the go-to guy for desperate, money-hungry school districts. Showing the power of OSU football—and Tressel’s brand, in particular—the coach compiled a remarkable record in school levy campaigns after he arrived in Columbus in 2001. Of the five taxes he endorsed publicly, all but one passed.
Matta is now the top dog at Ohio State. And while the football team might face a potentially difficult season in the fall, Matta’s basketball squad, led by Columbus native Jared Sullinger, is expected to contend for the national title again. Maybe Columbus Monthly readers will name Matta their favorite coach in next year’s Best of Columbus ballot. Or maybe not. As usual, Tressel won this year in a landslide despite the scandal.
Greene, the Ohio recruiting analyst, says no one is capitalizing more on Ohio State’s misery than the new Michigan coach. “He should send Tressel a Christmas card,” Greene says.
Kyle Kalis, the top recruit in Ohio, announced in early July he would attend Michigan. At first, Fickell persuaded the hulking offensive lineman from Lakewood, who committed to Ohio State under Tressel, to stay put, but the threat of NCAA sanctions changed his mind. “I believe the Michigan-Ohio border is now open,” Kalis told ESPN.com. “I believe you are going to see eight or nine guys from the state of Ohio going over to Michigan this year.” Defensive lineman Tom Strobel of Mentor also has committed to Michigan, while defensive lineman Se’Von Pittman of Canton spurned the Buckeyes for Michigan State. Michigan also is going head-to-head with Ohio State for defensive lineman Adolphus Washington of Cincinnati and Canton’s Bri’onte Dunn, a running back who verbally committed to OSU, but raised eyebrows recently by visiting Ann Arbor.
THE CITY AND OHIO STATE (REALLY)
Sure, Columbus is embarrassed and humiliated. Scandal has tarnished the Buckeyes, the city’s pride and joy, and some tough seasons could be on the horizon if the NCAA brings the pain. But consider what also might happen: The city might begin to escape the tyranny of football.
Columbus is more than the Buckeyes, as anyone who has spent time in the city will tell you. And so is Ohio State, the city’s most important institution. But despite Columbus’s cultural amenities, diverse neighborhoods and solid economic base, the overpowering influence of football eclipses everything.
When Gee made his crack, it really did seem Tressel was untouchable, that no one could dethrone him. But Tressel is gone now, and, though it might seem like a stretch, the change gives the city and Ohio State an opportunity to highlight attributes other than football. “I think it could be a very good thing to have a bad football team,” says Milenthal, the PR and political strategist. “It isn’t good for the fans, but it’s good for Ohio State to have to throw its full marketing potential around what is really important in the country today and really important in the world today, which is academic excellence.”
Milenthal would like to see the Ohio State athletics department establish stricter academic standards and a code of conduct that exceeds anything the NCAA demands. He hopes the changes will help OSU join the likes of Michigan and Texas as rare examples of schools with both powerhouse athletic programs and sterling academic reputations.
And who knows? Perhaps Sports Illustrated someday will compare Columbus with Austin instead of Tuscaloosa.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.