Coach Tressel, E-Mails, And NCAA Violations

Tonight’s disclosure about Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is disappointing news, indeed, for Ohio State fans.  Tressel failed to promptly report information about potential NCAA violations to institutional officials.  As a result, Ohio State has self-reported an NCAA violation, has suspended Coach Tressel for two games, has fined him $250,000, and will issue a public reprimand and require Coach Tressel to make a public apology.  The NCAA, of course, may impose additional sanctions or require additional actions.

I’ve read the Ohio State letter self-reporting the violations and listened to parts of tonight’s press conference about the matter, in which OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith, Coach Tressel, and OSU President E. Gordon Gee spoke.  I have some questions about what happened, but I’d prefer to reserve judgment until more information comes out.  I think a big part of the puzzle will be the e-mails between Coach Tressel and the attorney who advised Tressel of the potential NCAA violations — and who apparently requested confidentiality because the information was obtained in the context of a federal drug trafficking investigation.  How were the e-mails phrased?  Did their contents reasonably suggest that Coach Tressel should be concerned about the safety of the unnamed players who allegedly were involved?

Sometimes I think we expect public figures — and in Ohio, the head football coach at Ohio State obviously is a public figure — to make snap judgments that stand up to the most rigorous 20-20 hindsight examination.  In life, it rarely works out that way.  For all of Ohio State’s focus on NCAA rules compliance, I doubt that Coach Tressel or anyone else has received training on what to do if they receive an email from an attorney reporting on potential rules violation information obtained during a federal criminal investigation, when the attorney requests strict confidentiality.  Let’s at least wait until more information becomes available before we reach ultimate conclusions on the propriety of Coach Tressel’s conduct.

Happy National Signing Day!

Today is National Signing Day.  For those of you who don’t follow college football — and if you fall into that category, you really should reconsider your life priorities — National Signing Day is the day that high school athletes sign letters committing to attend certain schools.  National Signing Day has become a kind of holiday for sports fans, even though the only sports-related activity is the athlete picking up a pen and signing his name.  It has become like Selection Sunday, when the NCAA Tournament field is announced, or the day that pitchers and catchers reports for spring training.

The dynamics of National Signing Day are interesting to observe.  Most teams go into the Day with a roster of “verbals” — athletes who have already verbally committed to sign their letter of intent.  However, there are always a few holdouts who announce their decision on National Signing Day, usually by picking among the caps of competing teams and putting on the hat of the winning school.  As a result, evaluation of recruiting success or failure becomes perversely skewed to the holdouts.  Fans of schools like Ohio State, which already has “verbals” from more than 20 excellent athletes, will focus on the holdouts and feel let down if their team doesn’t land one, when they should be focused less on the prima donnas and more on the corps of fine players who long ago agreed to be part of their school’s program.

When National Signing Day comes, coaches get to finally talk about their recruits.  After they have done so, I imagine they breathe a sign of relief, and then start planning their next recruiting trip.

Can Buckeye Nation Forgive?

The five Ohio State players who violated NCAA rules — DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, Boom Herron, Terrelle Pryor, and Solomon Thomas — made statements to the media today.  The players apologized and expressed hope that they will be forgiven by their teammates, former players, the Ohio State University, and Buckeye Nation.  A video of their statements is available from the Ozone website.

Sports fans tend to be unforgiving types, but I hope that Ohio State fans can find it in themselves to forgive the young men.  They broke the rules, they were caught, and they will be punished.  Through the statements today, they accepted responsibility for their actions.  Their public statements of apology seemed heartfelt to me.

For all of their athletic prowess, these are youngsters who are going through an age that is characterized by lapses in judgment and questionable decision-making.  How many people can say, truthfully, that they never engaged in underaged drinking, that they never cut classes, or that they never undertook some other illicit or ill-advised activity when they were college students?  How many parents would be willing to write off one of their children as a bad apple because of one transgression of this kind?  For that matter, how many adults can say that they have never gotten behind the wheel of a car when they had too much to drink?

College is all about learning, and some of the lessons are learned in the school of hard knocks.  The five players have now learned that bad decisions can have very bad consequences.  I’m confident that they will not forget that lesson.  We can all afford to show them some forgiveness.

The Sugar Bowl, Now Not So Sweet

The Ohio State University and the Buckeye Nation got a shock yesterday, as the NCAA announced that six players would be suspended for violations of NCAA rules.  The players include starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, starting tailback Dan “Boom” Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, starting lineman Mike Adams, and two reserves.

The players apparently accepted discounts on tattoos and sold items they had received from the University, including uniforms, Big Ten championships rings, and the tiny “gold pants” that Ohio State players receive when the teams beats Michigan.  The incidents occurred two years ago, when the players were freshmen.  Pryor, Herron, Posey, and Adams will be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season, but will be permitted to play in the upcoming Sugar Bowl.  In the meantime, Ohio State is appealing the penalties as being overly harsh.

I feel sorry for the players — who evidently say, with conviction, that once they were given the items they thought they were free to do whatever they wanted with them, and who used the money they received to help their families — but I feel especially sorry for the University.  Ohio State views itself as more than a school with a good football team.  It believes itself to be, first and foremost, a world-class research institution and learning facility that just happens to have excellent sports programs.  When an incident like this occurs, it hurts that self-perception, and no doubt causes people elsewhere in the country to conclude that Ohio State is just another “football factory,” and nothing more.

It leaves a bitter taste on the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, at a time when the school and the team should be enjoying a successful season capped by another Big Ten championship and looking forward, with unimpaired focus, to a chance to shake off the “can’t beat the SEC” canard against a talented Arkansas Razorbacks team.

Spare The Rod, Spoil The Program

I’ve posted before on the potential NCAA violations committed by the Michigan football program, which initially were reported by the Detroit Free Press.  Some nine months later, Michigan has now completed its “internal investigation” and admitted to certain violations.  It concluded that there was a breakdown in communications and it fired one staffer and reprimanded seven other people involved in the football program, including Head Coach Rich Rodriguez.  It also put itself on two years of probation (although not of the double-secret variety). The school clearly hopes that its self-administered punishment will cause the NCAA to refrain from imposing other tougher sanctions that further sully Michigan’s reputation. 

It’s hard to believe it took nine months for Michigan to figure out that there was a breakdown in communications, but it doesn’t surprise me that Michigan didn’t ultimately hold Rich Rod accountable for the failings in his program.  Michigan took a big risk in hiring Rodriguez rather than a “Michigan man,” and so far it has been an embarrassment and a disaster for one of the most storied, respected programs in college football.  The team has been terrible, players have transferred and raised questions about Rodriguez, and scandals like the Free Press articles seem to be lurking around every corner.

Let’s hope Michigan has fixed those communications breakdowns and established appropriate supervision over its football program, because Rodriguez surely understands that if the Wolverines don’t win this season he is gone.  Coaches whose jobs are hanging by a thread often are more attentive to wins than compliance.

The NCAA Tournament Expands

The NCAA has decided to expand — ever so slightly — the NCAA Basketball Tournament field, from 65 to 68 teams.  Starting next year, there will be four “play-in” games instead of just one.

I suppose this is a compromise solution, between people who wanted an 80- or 96-team field and those who would prefer to leave the Tournament the way it is.  I think making the Tournament much bigger would have been kind of silly, so I am glad the NCAA Board of Directors resisted that temptation.  As it is, I kind of scratch my head at the arguments about whether a “bubble” team from a “power conference” that couldn’t even finish above .500 in conference play should make the Tournament.  If you can’t even win a majority of the games in your conference, why should you be playing for the NCAA championship?  For that same reason, I also like the NCAA Board’s idea of the play-in games not being limited to just small-conference teams.  Why shouldn’t a “power conference” team or two have to play their way in, just like the small fry?

The linked article also notes that, in 2011, every game in the NCAA Tournament will be available for viewing, live, across the country.  The games will be broadcast by CBS, TNT, TBS, and truTV.  That news will cause every sports fan to ask one question:  “What the heck is truTV, and do I have it on my basic cable?”

A Buck Back Update

We’re heading into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and I’ve reached a crucial point in the Buck Back.  I’ve netted 7 bucks so far and have two teams left — third-round selection Xavier and sixth-round selection Washington.  They both play tonight, so by the time the sun rises tomorrow I could be out of the Buck Back altogether, before we even reach the weekend.  That would be embarrassing.

Washington has a tough test, against West Virginia.  The Mountaineers are a balanced, athletic team that beat the Buckeyes earlier this season.  Xavier takes on Kansas State, a team that has flown under the radar in the tournament.  Both West Virginia and Kansas State are number 2 seeds.

Let’s go, Huskies and Musketeers!  Keep me in the hunt!

Edited to add:  Well, it happened as I feared, and the Xavier double-overtime loss to K State was particularly brutal.  And so this year’s Buck Back comes to a close with me finishing ignominiously $1 underwater.

A Sweet Week

Dr. Science came over to watch the game yesterday, and while munching on Hills pizza and other goodies we watched the Ohio State men’s team beat Georgia Tech, 75-66, to advance to the Sweet 16.  The Buckeyes were led by Evan Turner, who bounced back from a subpar first-round game to lead the Buckeyes in scoring, Jon Diebler, who repeatedly hit three-pointers in the second half to build the Buckeyes’ lead, and David Lighty, whose fearless drives to the bucket and tough defense helped to keep the Yellow Jackets at bay as the game drew to a close.  Dallas Lauderdale was a stalwart force in the middle and William Buford contributed 9 points and 8 rebounds.  The win was a true team effort.

Jon Diebler

The Buckeyes next will play Tennessee on Friday night.  In the meantime, they get to enjoy a week of extra basketball, of recognition that this has been a season of great accomplishment for the team and its players, and of intense focus on the next match-up that could prove to be the gateway to even greater achievement.  For fans like me, this week is like a surprise present.  No one takes advancing to the Sweet 16 for granted, so when it happens you just enjoy basking in the glow of the team’s success and participating in a bonus week of happy basketball chatter with other fans.

Of all the fine basketball teams in the nation, only 16 are still alive and competing for the NCAA championship.   When your team is one of those 16 teams, it is a sweet week indeed.  Go Buckeyes!

I Know Michigan Needs All The Practice It Can Get, But . . . .

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez

The Detroit Free Press has broken an interesting story in which unnamed current and former players claim the University of Michigan football team has violated NCAA rules regulating off-season workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities. The allegations center on strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis and off-season conditioning requirements. Michigan has launched an investigation, and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez apparently reacted emotionally to questions about his treatment of his players at a press conference today.

I don’t know the truth of the allegations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Rodriguez and his staff bent NCAA rules to the breaking point. Big-time college football is extremely competitive, and Michigan fans have high expectations and enormous pride in their program. Last year, Michigan had a nightmarish season in which the team lost 9 games and got absolutely crushed by the Ohio State University Buckeyes. It’s safe to say that another year like last year would considerably shorten Rodriguez’ career at U of M.

Lord knows that after last year Michigan needs all the practice it can get. What it really doesn’t need is NCAA sanctions imposed for rules violations following a year of such dismal failure. It will be up to the coach and athletic department to rebuild the Michigan program the right way. I seriously question whether Rodriguez is the right man for that job.

Temptations Unresisted

The Alabama football program, and other Alabama sports programs, have been put on three years’ probation for giving student-athletes improper benefits in the form of free textbooks. It is not clear whether the students sold the free textbooks to other students, but in any case the benefits received amounted to thousands of dollars for some individuals.

The NCAA student-athlete program depends on universities and student-athletes who self-police and self-report. If the institution and the individual can’t resist temptation, then situations like that at Alabama are inevitable. Moreover, all of the pressures of major college sports like football and basketball makes the temptations all the more alluring. Programs are trying to recruit blue-chip athletes who, in many cases, have been coddled and lionized for years already and who expect to go on to make millions of dollars in pro sports. Programs want winning seasons to fill large, debt-financed stadiums and arenas with boosters who will contribute handsomely to the school and to get lucrative bowl bids and NCAA Tournament invitations. Coaches who win are rewarded with enormous annual salaries and bonuses; coaches who have losing seasons are castigated and then cast aside.

Big-time college athletic programs are like reformed drug users. The temptation to engage in prohibited conduct to lure the stud athletes and fill the stadiums and athletic department coffers is always lurking there, under the surface, at war with the knowledge that if such conduct occurs it may lead to ruin. Alabama couldn’t resist the temptation, and now it has paid the price.