When Coaches Cheat

From a distance, Jim Tressel seemed like a great coach and a good man. His reputation was that of "the senator," the smart, moral coach in the sweater-vest. He brought a national championship trophy to Ohio State.

Now it's been reported that he has a history of cheating and of looking the other way. In the latest episode, he allegedly learned that several players violated NCAA rules by trading or selling OSU jerseys and other memorabilia, but he let them continue to play. Apparently he failed to make the matter known to his superiors or to the NCAA, and he's accused of later lying about it. Now other stories are coming to light about other familiar sorts of violations, like players getting free use of cars.

To me, the most curious and revealing report about Tressel's character might be a story from the mid-1980s when Tressel was on Earle Bruce's OSU staff. The incident was related in the recent Sports Illustrated article by George Dohrmann and David Epstein:

"One of Tressel's duties then was to organize and run the Buckeyes' summer camp. Most of the young players who attended it would never play college football, but a few were top prospects whom Ohio State was recruiting. At the end of camp, attendees bought tickets to a raffle with prizes such as cleats and a jersey. According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won -- a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, 'In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel.'"

The biggest head-scratcher of all might be this: Why would a coach at a school like Ohio State feel any need to cheat? Schools like that have the biggest budgets and the easiest time recruiting the nation's best players. I can sort of understand -- not excuse, but understand -- the motivation of a coach at a lesser school who's trying to compete with schools that have more money and an easier time recruiting better players. Maybe some coaches feel like they have to cheat to keep up. But at Ohio State? Seriously? How much more edge does a coach need than an athletic department budget of more than a hundred million dollars a year and his pick of the region's best high school players?

I have close friends and relatives who are great Ohio State fans. They're embarrassed about all of this. You and I would be, too, if this had happened at WVU. And it could have happened at any big-time football school.

It's easy to blame the money. It's easy to say that the amateur spirit of college sports has gone by the wayside in an era of TV contracts worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. The TV networks tell colleges when to schedule their games and how many times to break for commercials. I sympathize with those who are disgusted by that.

But the money and the TV influence are just reflections of the popularity of big-time college football and basketball. It's a spiral that has taken the sports ever higher. The sports are popular, which feeds the sports' growth on TV, which makes the sports even more popular, and the networks make a ton of money, some of which they shower onto the conferences. Many schools make enough from TV deals alone to pay for their entire athletic department budgets, even with million-dollar coaches, and have enough left over to sprinkle some change on the academic departments.

I wish the money from the networks went directly to the NCAA, and then was distributed evenly to the member colleges. That might take away at least some of the incentive to break the rules. But that's not likely to happen.

And even that probably wouldn't stop cheating. Cheating in college sports existed long before there was ESPN. And cheating almost undoubtedly goes on at the lower divisions of college sports, too. Even high schools have their occasional scandals of coaches inappropriately recruiting kids or pressuring teachers to give star athletes passing grades. Such practices probably exist far more broadly than we know of or would want to admit.

So the money might contribute to the problem, but I don't think it's determinative. Players break NCAA rules for personal gain (or break the law because they're young and do something stupid). Coaches break NCAA rules to win games, to keep players eligible, so that -- oddly enough -- they can keep their jobs.

Some suggest that college football and basketball, the money sports, should be separated from academia. They argue that colleges should get back to the business of teaching, and that the business of sports should be left to professional and semi-professional leagues. The NFL could develop a minor league, just as Major League Baseball has.

That's a noble notion, but probably unrealistic. I can't imagine that a hundred years from now there won't be college athletics, and big-time college football.

Nor can college sports be deemphasized to the extent that some might wish -- taken back to an era when they were more pristinely amateur and when every school's game kicked off at 1 p.m. on Saturday in front of smaller crowds and without TV timeouts. That balloon burst long ago and can't be repaired. And I, for one, am glad of it. I love college football. I enjoy watching it in person and on TV. I like watching games involving schools in my own conference and schools in other conferences across the country. No, I don't like all the commercials any more than you do, but I understand that they're a part of the deal.

So if money might not be the source of the problem, and in any event isn't going away, and if TV coverage isn't going away either, then what can be done to stop cheating?

Probably nothing. There will always be laws, and there will always be people who break them.

Most fans and alumni just hope that their own school runs a clean program.

The NCAA has volumes of rules, some obvious and sensible and some arcane, and systems set up to try to ensure compliance. I think the NCAA tries. But I'm not sure the NCAA can do much of anything to eliminate cheating. All it can do is punish it when it finds it.

This may seem trite to say, but the solution to removing cheating in college sports begins with the individual. It begins with individual college players with a good internal moral code inculcated by parents and high school teachers and coaches. It begins with individual college coaches who won't cheat or tolerate cheating, who will take away the scholarship of a star player if, after that player has committed one transgression and been given a second chance, he or she then crosses the line or the law a second time. It begins with university presidents who will fire a popular coach the first time he gets caught cheating or permitting it.

I'd also point out that when I talk about a moral code, I'm not referring to religion. Jim Tressel is a Christian. He reportedly reads the Bible and kept a prayer box on his desk for visitors. Being religious doesn't necessarily ensure that an individual has a good internal moral code and lives by it. It works for some people, but not for all. Some simply use it to excuse their behavior.

In the case of Jim Tressel, the system worked. He allegedly violated NCAA rules and paid for it with his job. The president of OSU asked for the resignation of an extremely popular and successful coach, one with a clean public reputation who apparently got caught in a lie. From what I've read, I suspect that Tressel would still be the Buckeyes' coach if he had been forthright and truthful to the NCAA and to his bosses. As is often the case, the cover-up maybe was considered to be worse than the crime.

The best thing coming out of the mess in Columbus is that we are reminded that college football coaches, despite their higher salaries and their public adulation, still work for college presidents.

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