For Jim Tressel, 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 1:36 AM

There isn't a decent parent in America that would allow his or her misbehaving teenager to mete out self-imposed sanctions. Granted, teenagers are not fully mature, but after Tuesday's "punishment" of Jim Tressel, I'm not sure officials of The Ohio State University are, either.

We all remember the quintet of Buckeyes who were suspended for selling signed memorabilia to a tattoo parlor owner (or sometimes trading it for ink). Those five players have been suspended five games by the NCAA - but were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, a 31-26 victory over Arkansas. They will serve their suspension at the start of the 2011 season.

Now we find out that Tressel had been aware of their actions since April 2 of last year, when an attorney notified him that the tattoo parlor owner was also being investigated by the feds for drug trafficking. In other words, Tressel knew that five of his players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had dealings with a potential drug trafficker. And he did . . . nothing.

He did not confront the players. He did not tell his bosses. He certainly did not "self-report" to the NCAA. His excuse: He was trying to protect his players and did not want to "interfere with a federal investigation."

"Admittedly, I probably did not give quite as much thought to the potential NCAA part of things," he said Tuesday.

No, clearly not. The absence of those five players would have significantly hampered the Buckeyes' shot at the national championship - and would have significantly damaged Tressel's reputation.

Yet here's what we didn't hear during his news conference on Tuesday: "I'm sorry." Tressel is "disappointed that this happened at all." (But not disappointed that he covered it up?) He's "sincerely saddened by the fact that I let some people down and didn't do things as well as I possibly could have." (He's saddened, as if it happened TO him.) Sitting those players would raise a "whole new set of questions."

That's putting it mildly. All he did, in essence, was delay that whole new set of questions. Here's one: How can the coach of one of the top teams in the country allow these five to play an entire season knowing that they had a relationship with a potential drug dealer and had violated NCAA rules, and keep his boss, his boss's boss - and those players' parents, as far as we know - in the dark while doing it?

For this, he gets a two-game suspension and a $250,000 fine - at least so far. The NCAA is still investigating and could increase these penalties, up to and including forfeiting all of last season. If Tressel continues making incredible statements such as "I don't think less of myself at this moment," he might want to prepare for some time in the woodshed.

Because he's not getting any licks from Ohio State. His athletic director was summoned to Columbus from meetings in New York with the NCAA tournament selection committee, of which he is the chairman. (This is the sports equivalent of pulling the Dean of the College of Cardinals out of the Vatican while papal candidates are being seeded.)

According to the Associated Press, Tressel's contract says he must immediately report any information - "any" is actually underlined in the contract - that pertains to violations of the NCAA, Big Ten or Ohio State bylaws and rules. Given that, I'd hate to hear what AD Gene Smith had to say.

"Wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach," Smith said. "He's our coach, and we trust him implicitly."

Really? Okay, well, maybe Smith is playing good cop to school president Gordon Gee's bad cop. That's got to be it; someone has to be mad at this guy.

"Let me be very clear," Gee said, laughing (yes, laughing, because this is such a hilarious situation). "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."

This isn't Tressel's first violations rodeo, not by a longshot. He had trouble at Youngstown State - that school received penalties - and two of his players at Ohio State were suspended by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits. When the NCAA suspended the five players last winter, Tressel said they could play in the Sugar Bowl only if they agreed to return to Ohio State the following season.

I'd like to think the NCAA is reviewing his history and listening carefully to his words and planning a worse spanking than two Saturdays off while the Buckeyes thrash Akron and Toledo. But the NCAA allowed the suspended Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl, and it failed to punish Cam Newton over his father's pay-for-play scheme and it time-delayed Jim Calhoun's three-game suspension until next season, so I'm not confident.

If justice delayed is in fact justice denied, there's a whole lot of denial in college football right now.

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