This offseason, it was never hard to find talk about the scandal that hit the Ohio State football program and cost head coach Jim Tressel his job.
So perhaps it was no surprise that the first question asked at the Big Ten Media Days, which started Thursday morning at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, was about the embattled Buckeye program.
It didn’t matter that the head coach at the dais wasn’t even Tressel’s replacement, Luke Fickell. Instead, Illinois head man Ron Zook was asked about Ohio State – a school at which he used to coach as an assistant – and whether he was excited about the opportunity the Buckeyes’ troubles represented or troubled by what they meant for college football.
“First of all, I think you cringe because unfortunately it's something out there in college football,” Zook said. “It's obviously very, very important that everybody, not only the Big Ten Conference, but everybody in college football does everything they can do to protect the game and obviously respect the game, for not only where it's going, but where it's come from.
“You hate to see those things happen. Obviously its lessons that we as all coaches have to look at, maybe rethink, obviously help your players in education, learning what's right and what's wrong from that standpoint as well.”
Zook’s comments set the tone for the day, as the Big Ten coaches asked about Ohio State took turns saying they hated seeing such a situation play out while also professing their respect for the job Tressel did at Ohio State.
The most endearing tribute came from Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, an assistant to Tressel at both Youngstown State and Ohio State before he became the successful skipper of the Spartans.
“It’s very heart-wrenching for me and my family because we're close to Coach Tress,” Dantonio said. “He's had a lot to do with my life as a mentor really since 1983, and that's a long time. That's a tough situation. He's done a lot of good for college football. Every person he's come in contact with as a player and a coach, he's made a positive impact on their lives.
“To me, it's tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end and that's what I'll look for in the end.”
Another unlikely tribute came from Wisconsin boss Bret Bielema. The outspoken Bielema – the only coach to beat OSU a season ago before the Buckeyes vacated all 12 wins and their sixth straight Big Ten title – spent much of his time at the dais Thursday railing against coaches who knowingly commit NCAA violations and advocating stiffer penalties.
Tressel resigned in May as part of a scandal in which he did not come forward with knowledge that multiple players were breaking NCAA rules by selling gear and memorabilia to a local tattoo parlor owner. Eventually, eight players were included in an NCAA report about those violations and for receiving discounted tattoos. Five of those are still on the team and face suspension in 2011, while former starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor is among those gone from the school.
As such, some construed Bielema’s comments as being directed at Tressel, but the Badger head coach said he was mainly referring to coaches who run afoul of the rules on the recruiting trail.
“You know what, those comments weren’t directed toward Ohio State,” he said. “There’s not a coach in this profession that treated me or helped me enter this league better than Jim Tressel. He was a guy that grabbed my hand the first time we walked into a meeting, wrote personal notes after games and treated me in a way that was really at the time overwhelming for me because here’s a guy that had accomplished so much.
“Unfortunately, the situation arose there, but it doesn’t change my opinion about who he is or what he is or the program he built. To win six Big Ten championships (in a row), that doesn’t just happen. You have a lot of good coaches and a lot of good football players that were able to do that, and he’s responsible for all of that.”
Both Ohio State and Michigan – which was punished last year after utilizing too much practice time under former head coach Rich Rodriguez – have faced major NCAA violations in a short time span, a situation league commissioner Jim Delany termed embarrassing.
“It not only reflects poorly on them, it reflects poorly on us,” he said.
As a result, Delany met with the league coaches during the morning before the press availability and discussed being part of the solution to NCAA issues, not the problem. It appeared that message was received.
“There's a lot that's going on right now in college football that I think we need to wrap our arms around as a complete and total body,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We will. We'll make it better. There are going to need to be changes, tweaks, adjustments, to bylaws and rules, I would think so based on what we've seen in the last off-season. I don't think there's a coach or administrator in the country that doesn't want to be a part of that solution.”