Column: No Happy Ending at Ohio State

Lesson learned from Jim Tressel? Cheating is ok, if you win
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Jim Tressel era at Ohio State started on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2001.

The Buckeyes happened to have a basketball game that night against Michigan, so it was a good opportunity to introduce their new football coach. When Tressel stood up to speak, he knew exactly what they wanted.

He was hired on the heels of John Cooper, whose record at Ohio State was second only to that of Woody Hayes. But in 13 seasons, Cooper’s teams lost to Michigan a stunning ten times. Can’t do that. And you can’t say, “It’s just another game,” either – which might have been his biggest mistake.

Knowing all this, Tressel told the crowd, “I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”

The place went crazy. “At last,” they said, “somebody gets it!”

Tressel got it – and he proved it, beating Michigan nine out of ten times – and the last seven in a row, a record. The Buckeyes have also won the last six Big Ten titles, another record, plus a national title.

Jim Tressel is clearly one heck of a coach. He was also pleasantly professorial, famed for his sweater vest, not his temper.

But smoke always billowed up behind him. His previous team, Youngstown State, won three Division I-AA national titles, but one of his stars got in trouble for taking money from a wealthy booster. The school got in trouble, but not Tressel. At Ohio State, another star was suspected of academic fraud and taking money, too. The player got in trouble, but not Tressel.

Last spring, however, a few of Tressel’s players traded signed jerseys for tattoos. Yes, it was against NCAA rules, but it was still relatively small potatoes – until their coach lied about it to the NCAA. Not once. Not twice. But three times. As usual, it’s not the crime, but the cover-up that always does them in. But no one ever seems to learn this.

Tressel committed his third lie right before the Buckeyes’ big bowl game against Arkansas. The Big Ten, the NCAA and the bowl officials were only too willing to play along. There was money to be made.

But after the Buckeyes’ victory, reporters dug a little deeper and discovered an oil spill of corruption –money, cars, you name it. With more to come.

The Jim Tressel era at Ohio State ended on Monday, May 30, 2011, when he “resigned.” But don’t worry: Tressel will be fine. He’ll get to keep his national titles and his severance package and he’ll probably end up on TV as a color commentator, because the networks seem to prefer hiring only the most corrupt or incompetent coaches for those cushy jobs.

The mess Tressel leaves behind will be for everyone else to clean up: the players, the school and the next coach, for years. A few former opponents – like Michigan – might get some of their losses to Ohio State erased from their records. But it’s unlikely they’ll storm the field after getting the news.

And that’s why coaches like Tressel cheat: It works – for them.

The Big Ten and the NCAA don’t want to catch you, and when they finally have to, it’s the guys who come after you who will pay the price. A few years from now, when the Ohio State Marching Band is performing their famed “Script Ohio,” it will be Jim Tressel dotting the “i,” while John Cooper looks on from the press box.

Cheating is excused. Losing is not.

Winning is rewarded.

Following the rules is for suckers.

Wish I had a better story to tell you.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.


  1. June 3, 2011 at 9:10 am | permalink

    ‎”In our postmodern culture which is TV dominated, image sensitive, and morally vacuous, personality is everything and character is increasingly irrelevant.”
    — David F. Wells

    Michigan may have dodged a bullet, truth be known. Rich Rodriguez showed the same lack of integrity that Tressel does. If Rich Rod had been a winner Michigan would have eventually suffered.

  2. June 3, 2011 at 9:46 am | permalink

    There’s no “I” in lose, but there is one in “cheating”.

  3. By Rod Johnson
    June 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm | permalink

    The SI story was pretty damning, not just of Tressel, but of a whole culture surrounding his players… which I don’t doubt has its counterpart in just about every successful program that doesn’t push back against it extremely hard.