Jim Tressel And NCAA Violations, The Early Years

Jim Tressel's issues with the NCAA date back long before "Pryorgate"

One of the side effects of UCLA jumping on the coaching carousel, along with Chianti Dan's mismanagment of the search, is that with every passing day there is a new rumor regarding which coach is considering UCLA and/or Dan is hoping to lure to Westwood. One of the latest that has spread throughout the Bruin and greater college football blogosphere is that Chianti Dan has met with Jim Tressel, with eyes toward retaining him as an advisor/hiring him as Neuheisel's replacement and/or hiring him as an assistant to the eventual new coach. Regardless of the wisdom of such moves from a purely performance POV, Tressel's history of running afoul of the NCAA - in severity as well as duration of such problems, as recently as this year - make his hire by UCLA a non-starter.

There are folks that do want him in Westwood though. While acknowledging that his actions have gotten himself in NCAA trouble, a popular excuse is that he is a good guy and that he deserves a second chance. I assume this is because folks are looking at the recent troubles at tOSU ("Pryorgate") as an isolated incident in Tressel's career. That his sense of charity and loyalty to his players led him to protect them, eventually taking the fall. While Tressel might in fact be taking the brunt of responsibility that could otherwise hit Ohio State Athletics broadly in this case, his actions at the end of his time at Ohio State is actually consistent with his career as a football coach. The popular perception of his character has hidden the underbelly of his time leading the football program at Youngstown State - the job that served as a springboard to the Ohio State position - as well as an earlier stint as an assistant at Ohio State.

Tom Farrey wrote a story on Jim Tressel's time at Youngstown State for ESPN.com in 2004. In it, he discussed the parallels between the then-fresh story of Maurice Clarett, the first of Tressel's tOSU players to get his hand caught in the cookie jar, and the star player of Tressel's time in Youngstown. Sports Illustrated, as part of their Spring 2011 expose of Tressel's conduct while coaching at Ohio State and in Youngstown also detailed the violations accrued by the school due to the acceptance of benefits by starting QB Ray Isaac.

In 1988, according to court documents from a jury-tampering trial involving Mickey Monus, a wealthy school trustee and the founder of the Phar-Mor chain of drug stores, Tressel had called Monus about arranging a job for Isaac. The player and the CEO had never met, but Isaac told SI that he had heard of Monus's "philanthropist-type hand" from two basketball players. At his first meeting with Monus, Isaac received $150. According to the court documents, by the time he left Youngstown State, in 1992, Isaac had collected more than $10,000 in cash and checks from Monus and Monus's associates and employees.

Issac was getting more than just cash from Monus, and he was not the only Youngstown player receiving money from the booster.

In January 1994 the NCAA's director of enforcement sent [P - YSU President Leslie] Cochran an ominous letter. It said that according to an anonymous source, Isaac had been driving a car provided by a local business, which would turn out to be Phar-Mor; 13 Penguins had had jobs with Phar-Mor during the season, in violation of NCAA rules; and nonscholarship student athletes were being illegally paid by the university's director of athletic development.

In the wake of this letter, Cochran instructed the Athletic Director to fully investigate the allegations. As later found by the NCAA, and shared last April by SbB:

According to these individuals, the review in 1994 consisted of informal meetings among the director of athletics, the head football coach and the assistant director of athletics/senior woman administrator. Specifically, there were no interviews with other coaches, members of the football team, the former football student-athlete in question or the former trustee booster. There was no in-depth investigation of the information received in 1994 regarding possible NCAA violations. When asked why no in-depth review was conducted, the former director of athletics stated that he believed a disgruntled former employee had made the anonymous allegations to the NCAA. The head football coach agreed.

At that point, the AD and Tressel used the result of the sham investigation to assure Cochran that the allegations were baseless, the product of a disgruntled ex-employee of the AD. After the response of the university president, the NCAA dropped its investigation of Youngstown State football for 4 years, until the trials of Monus on charged of corporate money laundering and Issac for attempting to bribe a juror on Monus's behalf, when the two testified under oath to their financial relationship, and Coach Tressel's role in bringing the two men together.

After news of the benefits conferred by Monus, and Coach Tressel's role in bringing at least his star QB to his door for assistance came to light, a local reporter began to investigate the dealing, which then led to an internal investigation by Youngstown State into the allegations.

That probe revealed that Isaac's car was the worst-kept secret on campus. According to NCAA documents, all of Isaac's teammates who were interviewed "except one" knew about the car or had suspicions about it. Even people outside the football family knew. Pauline Saternow, then the school's compliance officer, had such misgivings about the car that she recused herself from the investigation committee because, according to Cochran, she did not feel she could be objective. Everyone raised an eyebrow -- except Tressel.

... Tressel was aware of the car. At times, 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.

I would compare this to Joe McKnight's United States China-purchased Range Rover, but this looks to have been an even more blatant thumbing of NCAA rules, and with less room for denial or claims of ignorance than Pete Carroll had for that incident. Though his idea of 'punishment' for his star player looks like something that Petey would have approved of.

While the significant violations of NCAA amateurism rules did eventually come to light, thanks to the statute of limitations for enforcement actions to take place, it was too late for the NCAA to take significant action against the Youngstown State program or against Tressel. In the end, the athletic program got a slap on the wrist, and the school's president got a life lesson.

... on March 4, 1998, when Monus was on trial for jury tampering. Cochran said only then, when made aware of a local television report on Isaac's court testimony that day, did he realize that NCAA rules had been broken years earlier.

Now retired, Cochran looks back on the 1994 non-investigation by his athletic director and coach with embarrassment. "I feel like I got crapped on," he said. Youngstown State would admit to a lack of institutional control and accept minor scholarship cuts. But avoiding the truth for so long served the team and city well. With the NCAA's statute of limitations on violations having expired in 1996 -- five years after Isaac left college -- the NCAA declined to strip Youngstown State of its beloved '91 national championship

While it looks like Tressel may have identified the right city in which to continue his collegiate coaching career, his GPS must be on the hiccups, as his following of the Deny-Deny-Deny strategy when confronted with misconduct is right out of the Southern Cal playbook.

Before taking over the Youngstown State program, Tressel was an assistant coach at Ohio State under then head coach Earle Bruce. A story that has floated around the coaching world - and corroborated to Sports Illustrated by one of Tressel's peers on Bruce's staff - looks to be an early sign of not just Tressel's propensity to break the NCAA's rules, but also a sense of selective morality - showing love and loyalty to those in his circle, or those he hoped to bring in, while screwing those on the outside (emphasis mine).

The Clarett and Baker scandals were further evidence that Tressel was, at best, woefully ignorant of questionable behavior by his players and not aggressive enough in preventing it. At worst, he was a conduit for improper benefits ... The latter interpretation is suggested by a story that has long circulated among college coaches and was confirmed to SI by a former colleague of Tressel's from Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. 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."

I imagine that someone could write a book (if there are not several already) on the type of selective morality in society that people like Jim Tressel are said to embody. Jim Tressel may be a top-notch coach, but as demonstrated by the career path leading up to his tenure as the head of Ohio State football, he is also a top-notch NCAA cheat and may not even be the top-notch man that his supporters love to portrait. Whether or not he deserves a second chance, he used it up long ago, and is now looking for chance number 3 or 4.

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