The Washington Post

With Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, the problem with implicit trust

A new NCAA report hands down allegations about Ohio State University’s iconic head football coach, Jim Tressel.

Now that the NCAA has handed down allegations that Tressel “failed to deport himself in accordance with the honesty and integrity normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics,” that he “failed to report violations of NCAA legislation” and allowed players to participate in games “while ineligible,” some questionable comments from the university’s athletic director and president may come back to haunt them. After the university fined the coach $250,000 and suspended him for two games (Tressel later increased it to five) for failing to share what he knew about his players trading championship rings and jerseys to a tattoo parlor, university officials stood by his side. “Wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach,” athletic director Gene Smith said at the time. “He is our coach, and we trust him implicitly.” And when Ohio State president Gordon Gee was 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.”

At the time, Smith’s and Gee’s comments seemed oddly fawning toward a coach they had just penalized for violating the terms of his contract. That “implicit trust” could now be in trouble. While Tressel said at a March 8 news conference that he didn’t share the information with university compliance officials because he wanted to maintain confidentiality in the interest of the case, documents show that he forwarded emails about the violations to a man named Ted Sarniak, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s mentor.  The NCAA report asks the university to respond to a list of facts and relationships surrounding the case, and the university will appear before the NCAA’s Committee for Infractions on August 12 for a final ruling. The university issued a statement saying it would have no further comment until the process is completed.

Sports pundits are painting a dark cloud over the situation. ESPN’s Pat Forde writes that The Vest, as Tressel is known for his sweater-vest clad game attire, should be fired. Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel says Tressel is working on borrowed time. Even former players and friends of Tressel’s are nervous about the potential outcome. “These penalties, I’ve got a bad feeling from a fan perspective…that this is going to be bad,” said former Ohio State linebacker and ESPN analyst Chris Spielman. “When [players are] ineligible and you still let them play, that’s tough to get by.”

If such actions are needed, Smith and Gee find themselves in a truly awkward situation. The NCAA report did not really offer up new allegations—it primarily showed that the organization is serious about investigating Tressel’s “potential major violations,” and could result in Ohio State having to vacate its 11 regular season wins in 2010 for allowing ineligible players to participate. They’re now faced with what to do in response to the NCAA’s report, and whether they should take any actions (such as dismissing the much revered Tressel) in advance of the hearing.

Such a predicament is difficult for any official, and especially one that involves the fate of a leader as iconic as Jim Tressel is at The Ohio State University. But Smith and Gee have made it even harder for themselves by bolstering Tressel’s position on his coaching pedestal and making obsequious comments at a time when they should have been objectively raising eyebrows. As a result, Tressel may not be the only leader at Ohio State in whom that “implicit trust” is lost.

More from On Leadership:

Did Bud Selig do the right thing?

Best practice: Boise State’s coach

Ohio State’s Tressel: The danger of sticking by your stars

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.


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