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The Purity of Jim Tressel

Tressel departs Ohio State not as a liar; not as a manipulator and certainly not as a cheater. He leaves a man that cared for people--especially his players--and it's being that man that got him into trouble. He was a man that is larger than life, yet always smaller than the company he kept.

From "Good Guy Gone Bad: The Story of Jim Tressel" by Kyle S. Lamb at ALONG THE OLENTANGY

Why would the coach of the most dominant team in the Big Ten conference feel the need to cheat? By now sensible people agree that the hollow excuse being floated, that Jim Tressel lied to the NCAA to protect his players, is nothing more than a pathetic rationalization of his undeniably improper behavior. Tressel might have lied for a number of complicated or even, as the apologists would have you believe, dignified reasons, but there is no getting around the most important reason: He lied so his players would be eligible to play football. Thus, Tressel lied to gain a competitive advantage. Yep, Jim Tressel lied in order to win games.

Social scientists have studied cheating in a myriad of forms, for many, many years. Fundamentally, cheating is something done willfully and with calculation. Knowledge is a required ingredient. If a person is unaware that what they are doing is against the rules then perhaps an argument can be made they were not cheating. But Jim Tressel knew the rules, and he knew them well, and he nevertheless knowingly broke them. His actions are a clear-cut case of cheating. If his actions were not the quintessential conduct of a cheat, then he may have never been asked to resign, and he certainly would not have tendered a resignation.

As the press, and more importantly, the NCAA continue to investigate this story what is surfacing is providing a window into the mind of Jim Tressel. What we are seeing is Tressel is not a guy who had a brain fart and then engaged in a sequence of panicked decisions. No, Jim Tressel is beginning to look like a serial cheater. What is particularly disturbing is it appears Tressel has chosen to cheat even when it does little, if anything, to advance his team's cause. This kind of behavior suggests something worse yet, that Jim Tressel may even be addicted to cheating. He might be a modern day Arthur Ernest Schlichter of prevarication. As even more information comes to light, and it will, I expect Jim Tressel will go down as one of the, if not the, most legendary cheaters in the history of Big Ten football.

Breaking the rules is always risky business. Cheaters understand this but their primary focus typically, as you would expect, is not on the risk but on the potential rewards. Tressel and his defenders would have you believe his motivation was entirely noble; he was trying to protect players from a silly rule. But there are numerous silly rules in sports and especially college football. So that argument rings hollow. Not to mention that excuse fails to match-up with the fact Tressel willfully chose as his preferred route to engage in an elaborate cover-up of his cheating. The cover-up is damning and telling.

Jim Tressel is a smart guy who has spent his entire professional life in the sport of amateur football. He was the third longest tenured coach in the Big Ten conference behind Joe Paterno and Kirk Ferentz, and only Paterno had more years as a head coach than Tressel, who was head coach at Youngstown State for 14 years before arriving in Columbus. Of all the coaches in the Big Ten a compelling argument could be made none understood the rules better than Jim Tressel. Some may have understood them as well as ‘ole Jim, but none better. Not to mention Ohio State likely has the most massively staffed Compliance Office in the Big Ten to manage the considerable number of varsity sports in which they participate. If Tressel was unsure about rules surrounding compliance he had a fully stocked office in which to defer. But questions about his administrative knowledge and experience aside, Tressel's choice to break the rules is a character issue matter worth probing.

When it comes to decision-making no one should ever confuse Jim Tressel with the emotional drama kings of the conference, coaches like Mark Dantonio, Ron Zook or our dearly departed Tim Brewster. Tressel was the pensive, methodical, and most of all, cautious coach. If Tressel's playcalling was any insight into his mind he was perhaps the most conservative, and certainly most careful coach in the Big Ten. My Exhibit A would be last year's Ohio State game against Illinois. I won't bore you with a recap, I will just tell you once that game tightened up he shackled Terrelle Pryor to the point that young Pryor appeared to be sobbing on the bench - in between his tantrums. Rather than unleash his most powerful weapon upon a questionable Illinois defense, Tressel instead eliminated any possibility of recklessness and leaned on his might advantage and ran the ball methodically down the throat of the Illini. It was proven to be the correct decision, they won. Tressel may have been the sort to avoid risk on the playing field, but that now appears to be nothing more than an obfuscation of his true character. The facts, once you are able to see them clearly, show a man who was quite comfortable on the razors edge off the field. How do you explain the brazen acts of unethical behavior Tressel chose, which he followed up with good old fashioned dishonesty?

I have a theory. Jim Tressel cheated out of fairness.

Jim Tressel's motivation for lying to the NCAA, to his bosses, to the public, and maybe even his own wife (what do I know?), for not telling his compliance office what he knew when he knew it, and for covering up clearly improper player behavior was that he believed cheating is widespread in college football. In his mind he must have thought cheating would even an uneven playing field. Tressel believed his opponents, not Iowa or Indiana or anyone in the lowly Big Ten who he routinely bashed, but certainly those programs he believed he was in real competition with, the super elite programs, were guilty of rule breaking and thus they were forever gaining some sort of advantage over him. I am not suggesting that Tressel was aware of specific teams engaged in specific acts of cheating; he probably knew for certain what you or I know about in terms of specific teams cheating. But Jim Tressle just knew in his big, fluffy heart of hearts, that cheating was happening out there so he decided to cheat as a form of protection. Take last year, you can just imagine Tressel surveying the college football landscape and seeing USC and Auburn, seeing them cheat and thinking, "See? This gosh darn NCAA is incapable of policing this sport." Jim Tressel was not going sit idly by and let his opponents take advantage of an incompetent or quasi-apathetic NCAA and he certainly was not going to let his opponents exploit his purity.

The first sentence in Jim Tressel's book, The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life, is this quote by baseball great Bobby Richardson: "If the game of life ended tonight, would you be a winner?" The first sentence of any book is always revealing. Tressel wants you to know this, that above all else he is a winner first and foremost. Which means despite his outward appearance, he is a puritan second. That is how he will be remembered too. Jim Tressel won at Ohio State and not just a little bit. He won a National Championship, numerous Conference Championships, and he won BCS Bowl games. He beat his most heated rival, Michigan, almost to a pulp. The man won spectacularly. Unfortunately, in the end he lost spectacularly too. The purity and, I would hope, the innocence is gone in Columbus where Jim Tressel is concerned. The man is stained, the wins are marked, and the program is sullied and it all falls on Jim Tressel. The cheater.