Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel leads his team onto the field for their game against Iowa. (FRANK POLICH/REUTERS)

There are so many issues connected to Jim Tressel’s “resignation” as Ohio State’s football coach on Monday that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s start with this: Tressel resigned the way Richard Nixon resigned. Even with his hapless bosses, Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee and Athletic Director Gene Smith, trying to push back the growing wave of accusations, Tressel finally ran out of the nine lives given to a coach with a record of 106-22.

What happened Monday is pretty easy to figure out: Ohio State goes before the NCAA infractions committee Aug. 12. To enter that hearing with Tressel still in place as football coach would have sent the following message to the committee: “We’re Ohio State. This coach wins most of the time and beats Michigan all the time. We don’t care that his program was apparently out of control or that he engaged in a cover-up of clear NCAA rules violations. We have some tickets here for our opener next month. Would one of you like to dot the ‘i’?”

That probably wouldn’t play well in that room. That’s why Tressel had to go.

Even so, there are still myriad questions surrounding the Ohio State football program.

Exactly how widespread were the violations that ex-players are saying were commonplace?

Exactly how long can Smith keep his job after declaring on Dec. 23 that the memorabilia-for-tattoos episode was “an isolated incident”? Or, more specifically, why should he keep his job?

As recently as two weeks ago, Smith insisted he supported Tressel. In March, when reports first surfaced that Tressel had covered up for players who should have been ineligible at the start of last season, Smith did a fly-by for a quickie news conference in Columbus, then raced back to serve his role as NCAA men’s basketball committee chairman. With his house was burning down, Smith came home just long enough to make sure the doors were locked.

As for Gee, how can anyone connected to Ohio State want the bow-tied president around for even five more minutes? He already made a fool of himself with his whiny comments about non-BCS teams last fall (which, to his credit, he admitted were ridiculous after being blasted nationally) and then, just to prove that bit of stupidity wasn’t a fluke, he made his incredible wisecrack, “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me,” during that March news conference.

Everyone needs to be dismissed at Ohio State — except maybe for the band director.

With Tressel packing up his office, Ohio State will argue that the person most responsible for the scandal is gone and thus the NCAA need not come down as hard on the Buckeyes’ football program as it did on Southern California. It’s a nice thought, but Tressel’s absence shouldn’t influence the committee at all. USC is not the precedent here.

The precedent should be a 21-year-old case that involved Maryland basketball under the regime of Bob Wade. If you go back and study the case, the violations Maryland was accused of were not as serious or as widespread as those in the Ohio State case. Wade had been fired, but Maryland got nailed with a one-year television ban and a two-year postseason ban because Wade had lied to NCAA investigators.

Tressel also lied, not only to investigators but to his bosses, who then proceeded to defend him at every turn until they ran out of options. His absence should not affect the committee’s decision.

We will also hear the time-worn argument that Ohio State isn’t any different than most big-time athletic programs. That is almost certainly true even though it doesn’t make Ohio State any less guilty.

Schools willingly sell their souls — and buy their players in one form or another — in the name of winning and making money. Ask the reigning men’s basketball national champions, who are on probation and will begin conference play without their Hall of Fame coach while he serves a suspension.

Some have speculated that if Ohio State and other big-time programs get nailed by the infractions committee in the coming years, the six BCS conferences and a few other power programs may break away and form their own super division that won’t have an encyclopedia-thick rule book.

Pay the players, don’t worry about whether anyone graduates and count the cash as it rolls in.

That’s what should happen. Ninety-nine percent of the fans who attend college football and basketball games couldn’t care less if their players are being paid, whether they’re going to class, whether they’re selling memorabilia, receiving free tattoos or being ‘sold’ cars for $100 down and pay the rest in touchdowns later.

They want their teams to win; they want to have their tailgates; and they want to be entertained. Period.

So why not abandon the charade? Let the superpowers come out of the closet and leave the self-righteous NCAA babble behind once and for all.

What happened at Ohio State was wrong and, as usual, the cover-up was worse than the crime. Tressel lied and got caught and deserved to be banished. One of the names instantly mentioned as a possible replacement was Urban Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida.

Like Tressel, Meyer is clearly a great football coach. Also, 27 players of his players were arrested on 30 occasions over six years. When the 30th arrest occurred last September Meyer declared that he was “real upset” about it. He left Florida last December as an iconic figure.

And why not? A big-time college coach has one job: win games. Let’s be clear about this: Jim Tressel didn’t “resign” because his players broke rules or because he lied or covered up those violations. He “resigned” for one reason: He got caught.

That’s the way it works in big-time college athletics. The sooner we all stop kidding ourselves about that, the better.

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