“If we do well, I’d be comfortable doing just about anything.” — James Patrick Tressel, in the September 11, 2005 press conference that followed a 25-22 Ohio State loss to the University of Texas.
In what historians will note as Jim Tressel displaying an impressive amount of honesty and clairvoyance while discussing the implementation of a dual-quarterback offensive system (you think anyone ever offered to trade anything with Todd Boeckman in exchange for his bench-QB clipboard?), Pete “The Irony of This Quote Isn’t Lost on Me” Thamel of the New York Times probed deeper into the psyche of the Ohio State football head coach than anyone would realize until May 31st, 2011 — the day Tressel “resigned” and the day the music died for an OSU marching band that figured they’d have a decent shot at accompanying their team to Louisiana for the BCS National Championship Game.
As a staunch University of Michigan fan, the idea of playing a depleted OSU football team that will be mentally/physically beleaguered in a game that might not even count for anything (pending the severity of sanctions from the NCAA) makes me as giddy as a car salesman when Terrelle Pryor walks onto the lot. You might say, “But Dustin, doesn’t the idea of winning against a weakened opponent seem a little less gratifying?” to which I would respond, “Go away, I’m touching myself to video of Michigan’s 1997 NCAA Championship highlights.” (And as we all know, that is the game that would launch Brian Griese’s illustrious NFL career, where he would go on to win six Practice-Squad Super Bowls and the league’s famed “Most Related to Bob Griese” Award). As a win-first, contextualize-later sort of fan, I don’t care if OSU’s starting lineup is Mrs. Gronley’s sixth grade class from the Columbus School for the Blind, I just want the rivalry’s Wikipedia page to show that we won that year.
However, as a fan of college football (and competitive sports in general), I am bummed. Tressel was a good sell for the relevance of the Big Ten as a conference, and brought a comfortingly-bland panache to a college football game that seems more-and-more overrun with hotheads and assholes (I’m looking at you, Cam Newton, or any coach from the SEC). And in the end, that “nice guy” persona was likely part of his undoing.
The example I’ve found myself using most often is Tiger Woods. Skip back a couple Novembers, and ask any fan on the street for a ten-second description of Tiger, and they probably mention how he’s a great golfer, a nice guy, and leads a pretty reserved, private lifestyle. Then November 2009 hits, Tiger’s personal life crashes out of control like a 2009 Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant, and the media shatters the rear-window of his personal life like a jilted Swedish woman with a nine-iron. Two years later, and Tiger hasn’t gotten his life back on track or won a PGA tournament since. The media literally ruined every aspect of his world, both personally and professionally. Now I would never justify nor defend the despicable amount of deceit and disrespect that Tiger showed his wife and the sanctity of marriage in general, but he has paid dearly and publicly for the type of thing that would go totally unnoticed if he weren’t an internationally-famous, billionaire golfer. For example, take “actor” Charlie Sheen who led an even more perverse lifestyle than Tiger, yet never got any harsher public criticism than “Oh that Charlie Sheen, what a character!” In fact, Sheen’s shenanigans (Sheenanigans?) didn’t even get him fired, he walked off the set one day of his own choosing, probably curious to see if he could set a Guinness Book World Record for the number of drugs ingested and hookers banged on a weekday (47 and 31, if you were wondering). And the only real difference between these two figures is that one of them was perceived as the “good” guy, and the other as the bad boy. Tiger was golf’s golden child who could do no wrong, so when everyone saw exactly how much “wrong” he’d found time to do, they flipped out and never let him hear the end of it. Sheen, by contrast, had only ever painted himself as the consummate f*** up, so when people heard reports of him locking cocaine and prostitutes in his trashed hotel room, it was almost a letdown.
That brings us back to Tressel and the NCAA. Jim Tressel was not a rules-violator, he was just the coach who had the misfortune of being the fall guy for exposing the tip of the violations iceberg known as college football. Every major scandal needs one — in baseball it was Roger Clemens (who proved in a court of law that even on steroids, baseball is boring) and will probably go to prison for perjury, all because he was doing the same thing everyone else was doing. When Pete Carroll jumped ship to coach in the NFL, no one was really surprised at all the skeletons the NCAA found in USC’s closet shortly thereafter. That’s what you kind of expect from a coach like Pete Carroll. No PR fallout (despite USC receiving much harsher sanctions from the NCAA than OSU did), no real scandal, no big deal (at least from the general public’s perspective). When you see guys like Matt Leinart taking sketchy pics in hot-tubs, Carson Palmer refusing to honor his contractual obligations, and Mark Sanchez having sex with 17-year-olds, you chalk it up to the apple not falling far from the tree, professionally speaking. But when a guy like Tressel — credited for making Troy Smith a stand-up guy in addition to one of the more overrated Heisman winners of the last decade — craps the bed, he’s crucified by the general public. Sure, it’s partly on him for letting himself be portrayed as the sweater-vest-who-could-do-no-evil, but even as we speak, there are more appalling stories pouring out of the University of Miami’s football team, yet you can’t help but feel that head coach Al Golden’s stock won’t really be changed for better or worse in the long run.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to identify the problems than any sort of clear solution, and we may find ourselves looking back on the 2010s not as the era that helped us solve the problems of college football, but as the era that took all the joy out of America’s actual favorite pastime. I hope for the sport’s sake that I’m wrong, or else you may be looking to fill your Saturday afternoons by watching me and my crew play flag football just to fill the void that NCAA ball left behind. And I wouldn’t wish a sanction that severe on anyone. Except maybe Terrelle Pryor and Cam Newton.