COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jim Tressel, who guided Ohio State to its first national title in 34 years, resigned Monday amid NCAA violations and mounting revelations that sullied the image of one of the country’s top football programs.
“After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach,” Tressel said in a statement released by the university. “The appreciation that (wife) Ellen and I have for the Buckeye Nation is immeasurable.”
Luke Fickell will be the coach for the 2011 season. He already had been selected to be the interim head coach while Tressel served a five-game suspension.
Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch said he was unaware of any buyout or severance package. He added that Tressel had returned from vacation Sunday night and met with athletic director Gene Smith, who then met with staff. Tressel typed his resignation and submitted it to Smith, he said.
Clearly, the turmoil had been building. The resignation comes nearly three months after Ohio State called a news conference to announce it has suspended Tressel for two games — later increasing the ban to five games to coincide with the players’ punishment — and fined him $250,000. The school said at the time it was “very surprised and disappointed” in Tressel. Yet, the school still managed to crack jokes.
Asked if he considered firing Tressel, Gee said then: “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
Tressel’s downfall came with public and media pressure mounting on Ohio State, its board of trustees, President E. Gordon Gee and Smith.
“We look forward to refocusing the football program on doing what we do best — representing this extraordinary university and its values on the field, in the classroom, and in life,” Smith said in a statement Monday. “We look forward to supporting Luke Fickell in his role as our football coach. We have full confidence in his ability to lead our football program.”
Tressel and Ohio State were to go before the NCAA’s infractions committee Aug. 12 to answer questions about the player violations and why Tressel did not report them. He denied knowledge of improper benefits to players until confronted by investigators with emails that showed he had known since April 2010.
After several NCAA violations by him or his players over the years, Tressel’s problems deepened after learning several players received benefits from the owner of a tattoo-parlor owner. Contrary to NCAA bylaws — and his own contract — Tressel received emails from a former player about this and did not tell his athletic director, university president, compliance or legal departments or the NCAA for more than nine months.
The 58-year-old Tressel had a record of 106-22-0 at Ohio State. He led the Buckeyes to eight Bowl Championship Series games in his 10 years. Combined with a 135-57-2 record in 15 years at Youngstown State, where he won four Division I-AA national championships, Tressel’s career mark was 241-79-2.
The author of two books about faith and integrity, he remains a scapegoat to many and a hypocrite to others. Even though he has many backers, a rising chorus of detractors had stepped forward during the ongoing NCAA investigation. There were also questions about his players and their friends and family members receiving special deals on used cars from two Columbus dealers.
But at one time his image was that of an honest, religious man who never said or did anything without thinking it through first. His nickname was “The Senator” for never having a hair out of place, praising opponents and seldom giving a clear answer to even the simplest of questions.
He’d gotten into trouble with the NCAA even before coming to Ohio State. He was the coach at Youngstown State when it received scholarship and recruiting restrictions for violations involving star quarterback Ray Isaacs.
Still, Andy Geiger, then Ohio State’s athletic director, favored Tressel over Minnesota coach and former Buckeyes linebacker Glen Mason for the job after John Cooper was fired in January 2001.
Cooper was let go ostensibly because the program lost direction, with several off-the-field problems. But perhaps more damaging was his 2-10-1 record against rival Michigan and 3-8 mark in bowl games.
Introduced at an Ohio State basketball game in 2001, Tressel vowed that fans would “be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Mich., on the football field.”
Tressel’s first team went just 7-5, losing the Outback Bowl, but upset 11th-ranked Michigan 26-20. But in his second year, with a team led by freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, the Buckeyes won everything. They went 14-0, winning seven games by seven or fewer points. Ranked No. 2, they took on top-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS national title. In the second overtime, Clarett bulled over the middle for a touchdown and the Buckeyes held to clinch their first national title since 1968. After the game, Tressel held aloft the crystal football.
The following summer, Clarett reported that a used car he had borrowed from a local dealer was broken into and that he had been hit by thousands of dollars in losses. Clarett’s call to police came from Tressel’s office. Clarett admitted he had made up the break-in call and later took a plea deal. But the NCAA began looking into Clarett and the team. Soon after, he was declared ineligible. He would never play another college game.
The Buckeyes went 11-2 in 2003 and followed that with an 8-4 mark in Tressel’s fourth season. There had been a stream of players getting in trouble, but in December 2004 backup quarterback Troy Smith was suspended for the bowl game and the 2005 regular-season opener for accepting $500 from a booster.
Smith would go on to win the 2006 Heisman Trophy, leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record and a season-long No. 1 ranking. Despite being a heavy favorite in the national title game, the Buckeyes were routed by Florida 41-14.
A year later, Tressel guided the Buckeyes to the national championship game but lost again — 38-24 to underdog LSU.
The Buckeyes were national contenders each of Tressel’s next three seasons, with off-the-field problems mixed in. In 2005 offensive coordinator coach Jim Bollman was reprimanded for trying to arrange for a car and a loan for a recruit. Several other Buckeyes players were arrested on a variety of charges.
But the Buckeyes continued to win and play in rich bowl games. That was enough until his latest brush with the NCAA.
Ohio State announced in December during what would be a 12-1 season and a top-five national ranking that it would suggest to the NCAA that five players — most of them top players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor — would sit out the first five games of the 2011 season after they admitted they had received improper benefits.
They had sold memorabilia such as championship rings, uniforms and in the case of Pryor, a Fiesta Bowl sportsmanship award, for cash or discounted tattoos at a Columbus parlor. The violations came to light in a U.S. Attorney investigation into drug trafficking involving the owner of the parlor, Edward Rife. When federal agents raided his home and the parlor, they came across hundreds of signed Ohio State items.
A 10-day investigation by Ohio State resulted in the self-imposed five-game penalties and the players repaying the money they gained to charity. The NCAA allowed the players to play in the Sugar Bowl, a move many observers said showed the national governing body put the money interests of the bowl ahead of routine punishment in other similar cases.
Tressel had learned that Pryor and wide receiver DeVier Posey were involved in the memorabilia deals when he received an email from lawyer Christopher Cicero, a former Ohio State walk-on and letterman in the 1980s, back in April 2010.
It was not until Ohio State began to work on an appeal of the five-game suspensions for the players that they came across the emails between Cicero and Tressel. The coach then finally admitted that he knew of what has been called Tattoo-Gate by local media.
At a March 8 news conference, Tressel said he chose not to tell anyone because he was bound by confidentiality to not expose the federal drug trafficking investigation. Yet he had forwarded the very first email he received from Cicero to Ted Sarniak, a businessman and “mentor” of Pryor. Sarniak knew about the NCAA violations — and of Tressel’s coverup — for almost nine months before Smith and Gee found out.
“As I think back to what I could have done differently ... I’ve learned that I probably needed to go to the top legal counsel person at the university and get some help,” Tressel said.
He said he hadn’t given a thought to what the rest of the country thought of Ohio State’s program and that he was not beating himself up over the violation.
“I don’t think less of myself at this moment,” he said. “I felt at the time as if I was doing the right thing."