Ohio State’s shock at NCAA football penalties demonstrates its arrogance


Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, center, is flanked by E. Gordon Gee, left, Ohio State president, and athletic director Gene Smith as he speaks to reporters during a news conference March 8. (Terry Gilliam/AP)
John Feinstein
Columnist December 22, 2011

E.Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, is disappointed but happy to finally have closure. Gene Smith, his athletic director, is also disappointed and surprised. Apparently the thought that the NCAA might actually ban his school from a bowl game next season never crossed his mind.

All of which illustrates two things very clearly: Almost every school that gets in trouble with the NCAA expects to get off with a wrist-slap because history shows the punishment is rarely more severe. And Ohio State was arrogant enough to believe the NCAA wouldn’t dare mess with a program that has a license to print money every fall.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

In the grand scheme of things, a one-year bowl ban and the loss of three scholarships a year for three years will do very little to Urban Meyer’s plans for Big Ten (and no doubt world) domination. He’ll still make $4 million in the coming year, and while the bowl ban might cost him a recruit or two this winter, he’ll have high school stars banging on the locker room door inside the Horseshoe in short order.

Please don’t cry for next year’s Ohio State seniors. They will have been to three bowl games. When their president and athletic director refused to self-impose a bowl ban this season — which would have cost the 6-6 Buckeyes an appearance in a Gator Bowl that will be watched by dozens — they essentially dared the NCAA to ban them from the postseason in 2012.

“These players fought through a lot of adversity,” Smith said in explaining to the Cleveland Plain Dealer why he didn’t consider passing on a bowl game this year the way Miami did.


In this April 23, 2011, file photo, Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith, left, chats with then-head football coach Jim Tressel. (Terry Gilliam/AP)

Ah, yes, all that adversity. Playing seven home games in front of 100,000 adoring fans was certainly tough. The nonconference wins over Akron, Toledo (barely) and Colorado were profiles in courage. The 3-5 record in the Big Ten was awe-inspiring.

Here’s the bottom line: As Smith himself admitted, it never seriously occurred to him that the NCAA would actually, you know, punish the Buckeyes for former coach Jim Tressel’s web of lies, his nearly year-long cover-up and his “resignation,” which happened only after months of hemming and hawing. Remember Gee’s comment in March when he was asked if he would consider firing Tressel? “Fire him? I just hope he doesn’t fire me,” Gee said.

Remember: Gee and Smith never pressured Tressel to tell them the truth about the investigation into OSU players getting free tattoos and other benefits from a booster who turned out to be under federal investigation.

They were the ones — along with the frauds who run the Sugar Bowl — who pleaded with the NCAA to let quarterback Terrelle Pryor and friends play in last January’s game even though the players had violated NCAA rules. Hey, we’ve got a game to win here and we need some TV ratings! The heck with right or wrong. The NCAA played along with some nonsensical spin about playing in a bowl being a “unique experience.”

A truly unique experience would be the NCAA striving for a standard higher than maximizing its own revenues.

Let’s not get carried away with the fact that the NCAA imposed one real penalty on Ohio State. The loss of scholarships is meaningless. You don’t think a college football program as powerful as Ohio State can’t survive with 82 scholarship players for three years? If need be, they’ll get around it. You can be sure that no player with serious potential will be told, “We don’t have a scholarship for you” in Columbus any time soon.

If the NCAA ever wants to really get serious about punishing cheaters, it can’t just knock them out of postseason for a year. It has to take them off television. For all the yammering about how USC paid for the Reggie Bush debacle, the Trojans were on TV just about every week the last two seasons, allowing Coach Lane Kiffin to make sure recruits could see just how cool it is when that horse gallops around Los Angeles Coliseum whenever the Trojans score.

But there’s too much money at stake to take a name-brand team off of TV. Imagine the screams coming from Bristol if Ohio State wasn’t part of the Big Ten TV package for a year. Imagine how the folks at Black Rock would have reacted if Auburn had been banished from CBS in the wake of the Cam Newton investigation.

The NCAA’s message remains essentially the same: Cheating pays. There is no better example than the meaningless three-game suspension Connecticut basketball Coach Jim Calhoun received last February. Calhoun was allowed to coach his team to the national championship a few weeks later — and then serve his “punishment” this season.

That may explain why Gee and Smith were so convinced they could take the Gator Bowl bid and then hand Meyer the keys to a brand-new program that could march straight to the Rose Bowl next season. Certainly the fact that the NCAA has allowed Ohio State to operate with two coaching staffs this month — one preparing for the bowl; the other out recruiting — would indicate that one of President Mark Emmert’s goals is one day to dot the “I” at halftime inside Ohio Stadium.

Investigations continue at Miami, North Carolina and Oregon. One can only hope the penalties they face will be at least as severe as Ohio State’s penalties. Oregon wasn’t about to skip a chance to play in next month’s Rose Bowl; it will take its chances when the time comes with the infractions committee. North Carolina opted to play in a meaningless bowl game while Miami did not. No doubt the leadership in Chapel Hill was thinking along the same lines as Gee and Smith.

Let’s hope they’re proved wrong too.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com

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