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Original Issue

The Untouchables

For top college coaches, NCAA felonies are being treated like misdemeanors

Seven years ago, then--Ohio State A.D. Andy Geiger fired basketball coach Jim O'Brien for paying a recruit. "The reputation of the university has been irreparably harmed," Geiger said. "This is a fundamental [NCAA] violation." (OSU was ordered to pay O'Brien $2.7 million after it was deemed to have violated his contract.)

Last week the current Ohio State regime, faced with evidence that football coach Jim Tressel had withheld information about violations involving several of his players, announced that it was suspending Tressel for two games and fined him $250,000, or roughly 7% of his $3.5 million annual salary. Asked if the school had considered firing Tressel, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee laughed, "Are you kidding?"

For followers of NCAA jurisprudence, Ohio State's handling of Tressel is the clearest signal yet of a shift in how schools address rule-breakers. Determined to retain winners, they are now forgiving severe offenses that in the past almost always resulted in a dismissal or resignation.

Before Ohio State came Tennessee, which backed basketball coach Bruce Pearl even after he lied to NCAA investigators about a recruiting violation. Pearl was suspended for eight games by the SEC but kept his job and led the Vols to the NCAA tournament.

"The way schools are handling these situations sends a very troubling signal," says one former member of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, the group that will decide later this year if Ohio State, Tennessee and their coaches warrant further punishment. "What Tressel did, what Bruce Pearl did, those are fireable offenses." According to The Columbus Dispatch, of the 12 coaches cited for not being truthful or forthright about NCAA violations (bylaw 10.1) since '06, 11 have been fired or have resigned.

Tressel's explanation for why he did nothing with information that players such as star quarterback Terrelle Pryor were trading memorabilia for tattoos at a local parlor: He was afraid his players might be dragged into a federal drug trafficking investigation of the parlor's owner. He also said he wanted to respect his source's confidentiality. It had nothing to do with the fact that losing those players would imperil the Buckeyes' national title hopes, he said.

It was a line of reasoning that even Ohio State's student newspaper, The Lantern, didn't buy. In a column, that paper called for Tressel's dismissal. There is little chance of that. Nothing, not even a school's reputation, appears to be as precious as a coach who wins.



GENTLEMAN JIM? OSU's Tressel insists that he was trying to help his players by concealing violations.