It’s been nearly one month to the day since I wrote about the need for Jim Tressel to voluntarily step down as head football coach at the Ohio State University. It took him some time to oblige, but on Memorial Day, Tressel finally made the move.
“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. “The appreciation that (wife) Ellen and I have for the Buckeye Nation is immeasurable.”
I’m not going to spend much time dwelling on the storyline thathas led to this critical decision. By now, Tressel’s missteps have been covered from every possible angle by the mainstream media. The series of lies, half-truths, obfuscations, and testimony from other parties all but sealed his fate as the weeks rolled past. Despite the fact that Ohio State itself publicly stood behind him, there was an undercurrent of inevitability; a lurking feeling that as more and more information came to light, Tressel would only have one real option.
Whether or not you agree with the university’s support of Tressel is a matter of your point of view on the whole sordid affair. It’s also a matter of how much you liked Tressel personally and professionally. In general, I thought that he did a nice job, current allegations notwithstanding. But I did have problems with the way he coached in big games. He often failed to make necessary adjustments, in my opinion, though his overall body of work with the Buckeyes is extremely impressive.
Now, of course, that tenure is irrevocably stained. And had he stayed on as the head coach, that stain would have followed him to his eventual retirement. There was simply no way for Tressel to live this down. It was, and is a major distraction, one that would have hung around for the foreseeable future. It would have drawn attention away from the field, away from in-game execution. Away from preparation. It would have impacted recruiting. This incident would have stuck to Tressel, and by extension the entire program for years to come.
In short, Tressel had to resign.
It doesn’t matter how severe we perceive the violations to be. In the end, does it really matter that some athletes sold personal property? Perhaps not, but they did break the rules. Rules that they should have been observing. It was damaging to the nation’s largest athletic department at one of the worst possible times. And when push came to shove, their coach missed his chance to control that damage.
He might have acted on the knowledge he received in April of 2010, starting a timely NCAA investigation that likely would have had Terrelle Pryor and his five suspended teammates missing time at the start of last season. They might have endured a four-game ban and been done with it. This could all be water under the bridge.
Instead, Tressel cleaned up nothing. He let the wound fester, exacerbating it by failing to tell the whole story despite repeated opportunties. He may have truly believed that he was doing the right thing at various points, but in retrospect, that’s a claim that is difficult to believe.
Regardless of his relative guilt or innocence, regardless of the severity of his players’ crimes, Tressel had it within his power to simultaneously help the program and make a definitive statement about its future by stepping down. Now, he has done so. And while Buckeye fans will no doubt miss the Sweater Vest patrolling the sidelines, while they will no doubt miss his glorious winning percentage and his domination of the Michigan Wolverines, this parting of ways simply had to be.
So what’s next for Ohio State?
The hottest name on the list is Urban Meyer, who retired from the University of Florida due to health issues. Meyer was a graduate assistant at Ohio State early in his career, and has the pedigree to step in at a school of OSU’s caliber. Other possibilities include Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, TCU’s Gary Patterson, and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, also a former Buckeye assistant.
Don’t expect the school to make a rushed decision, but this is a hire that can’t wait too long. There is too much on the line for the Buckeyes and their potential recruits; Tressel’s successor must be in place as quickly as the process will allow.
There is the option of hiring an interim head coach for a year, which could involve handing the reins to defensive coordinator Jim Heacock or another OSU assistant. That would give the team some continuity while allowing the school to make a thorough candidate search. But it would also impact OSU’s chances of competing for the BCS in 2011, assuming that remains a possibility after the NCAA’s ruling.
**UPDATE: Assistant Luke Fickell will serve as the team’s interim coach in 2011 according to the Columbus Dispatch**
Tressel’s resignation could also impact Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Dan “Boom” Herron, and the other suspended players. By waiting until after the NFL draft to announce this move, Tressel all but guaranteed that the players will return to Columbus, but how a coaching change will affect their seasons remains to be seen.
Finally, don’t expect this move to derail the NCAA’s investigation. Ohio State is still likely to face punishment, although it will now likely be less severe than I predicted last month. Tressel’s behavior and failure to properly notify authorities was central to the scandal, and with him now out of the picture, the NCAA will have to weigh carefully how to deal with the program he leaves behind.
If you’re looking for some idea of what might happen, remember that Pete Carroll left USC. But the punishment borne by the Trojans was no less severe. If the NCAA does curtail the consequences for OSU, fans should still be ready for some serious sanctions.