For anyone who pays attention to leadership issues, there are a number of concerning things about the news that Ohio State University head football coach Jim Tressel is being suspended for two games and fined $250,000.
For one, Tressel did not share information he received in an email about a potential NCAA violation for months with Ohio State higher-ups, despite wording in his contract that required him to do so. All coaches know, as one ESPN analyst put it, that not sharing such information is a "cardinal sin" in the eyes of the NCAA.
In addition, there was Tressel's comment that "I don't think less of myself in this moment," despite this being a news conference announcing he would be suspended for two games and fined $250,000 of his estimated (and comfortable) $3.5 million salary, while the offending players--who sold memorabilia to a tattoo parlor owner--have to sit out the first five games. (Tressel says he didn't share the information he learned because he thought it was confidential and didn't want to interfere with a federal investigation surrounding the tattoo parlor owner.)
But what may be the most questionable is the response of Ohio State officials. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith apparently said in the news conference that "wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach," and that he never seriously considered firing Tressel. "He is our coach, and we trust him implicitly." Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee took the glorification one step further. When asked whether he considered dismissing Tressel, he reportedly replied with a laugh. "No, are you kidding? Let me be very clear. I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."
I realize that football coaches--particularly winning ones with long histories as icons at certain big state universities--are celebrities on college campuses. And whether or not Tressel's actions are a fireable offense is not for me to decide. But for two of the top officials at a university to pledge seemingly unconditional support for an employee right after he has violated his contract--Gene Smith and the university president are supposedly the ones in charge here, remember--raises questions about how seriously the university is treating the matter. It may have suspended and fined Tressel, but the NCAA could still reject those penalties and make sanctions of its own.
No leader or employee, no matter how beloved, how great of a performer or how integral to an organization's success, should be given unconditional support. And by saying that "wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach," Smith is implying just that. President Gee's comment, meanwhile--that he hopes "the coach doesn't dismiss me"--may have been made in jest, but it sets a tone that's completely out of tune for such a serious moment. Tressel may be an Ohio State icon, but it's Smith's and Gee's job to remember that even stars fall to Earth, and have to play by the rules.