Cus Words: Last Mistake Cuts Deep

Gene Smith

There is lots of blame to go around in the disappointing end to this year of NCAA troubles at Ohio State, and it starts at the top. Management's missteps started with the first day news broke the Buckeyes had problems to deal with, and their assurances led to the disappointment of Tuesday afternoon.

I'm sitting in the lower level of the Schottenstein Center trying to figure out where to begin a column about the end of the worst year of Ohio State football in decades.

The thought occurs to me that I've come to one of the previous Ohio State athletics director's few mistakes to ponder and yet another by his successor.

Yet another misfortune has befallen the state of Ohio's most famous, most popular and most accomplished sports team. This isn't the first day followers of the Buckeyes have been rocked by news pertaining to NCAA wrongdoings, but it has the feel of one of the most preventable.

I can't help but feel a long, drawn out game of craps finally came to an end, and the Scarlet and Gray came up empty.

So many mistakes have been made in the lead up to Tuesday that it's hard to keep count, but they all deserved to be punished. Does that mean everyone who was punished deserved it? No. Does it mean everyone who deserved punishment was? Nope, not that either.

But it does show that a lot of people had the wrong intentions and/or the wrong information all along, and how that could be the case leaves me a bit baffled.

I get why those players took those illegal benefits in the first place, but I don't get how they could have had any idea they weren't doing anything wrong. Even if they didn't, ignorance is no excuse.

There are multiple motivations for Jim Tressel to do what he did with the information he received in the spring of 2010, but none of them make a whole lot of sense. As the Committee on Infractions points out, the best thing he could have done for the safety of his players was probably to take what he knew to a superior. That would have both satisfied the NCAA and given the opportunity for university officials to be sure the players involved were safe and no others were involved. His worries about confidentiality are somewhat compromised by his decision to share the information with a player's advisor.

And, frankly, whatever his reason for failing to come forward, one has to wonder how exactly he could have concluded he would not eventually be caught. Did he really think playing in a meaningless bowl game in January 2011 was going to be of a greater benefit to the majority of his players than having some or all of them miss that game and then spend the following season in limbo? How could he have?

He made the biggest of the messes, but he is far from alone.

In his attempt to sweep everything under the rug as quickly as possible, Gene Smith inflamed the national media and ended up making NCAA and Big Ten commissioner look foolish by going along with the plan for the violators to play in the Sugar Bowl (of course Tressel takes most of the blame for that, too).

Smith and University President E. Gordon Gee came across insincere in their concern for the severity of the misdeeds at a March press conference they later admitted they were not ready to have, and the messages they conveyed that day looked even more questionable when the board of trustees reversed course at the end of May and forced Tressel to resign.

By then, Smith had lost most, if not all, credibility. That meant his explanation for how further problems could be uncovered in the months after he stressed there was no systemic problem were met with near total incredulity by people both within and outside the fan base.

And yet Smith continued on, benefiting from the belief that his experience working inside the NCAA would aid Ohio State when all was said and done. That idea was ridden all the way to Tuesday, when the news was leaked – by whom, one wonders – to the local newspaper that faith in Smith's judgement had been misplaced all along.

"We are surprised and disappointed with the NCAA's decision," Smith said in a statement released by the university, and his choice of words was certainly appropriate.

Many of the faithful had looked to this day for closure, but Dec. 20 became just one more wound, one that is sure to heal but that will hurt a bit longer nonetheless just when it seemed the sun was ready to come out for good in the Buckeye State.

Hindsight, they say, is always 20/20, and I am willing to believe Smith's explanation for faith that no bowl ban would come from this final ruling. However, that does not excuse the fact his decision to accept a Gator Bowl invite never should have been made. If any doubt about the application of a postseason ban existed, it had to be taken this year.

Very little critical thought is required to conclude Ohio State fans were not going to be very interested in snapping up tickets in a bowl such as the Gator after six years of the glitz and glamour of BCS bowls. Ticket sales were already lagging before this announcement even as the general excitement around the program continued to rise with every major recruiting coup new head coach Urban Meyer pulled off.

I see very little, if any, justification for rewarding this senior class with a trip to a game considering how many of the perpetrators of the various NCAA misdeeds came from the class of 2008, and there is certainly not much of a case to argue the feelings of next year's seniors deserve any less consideration than those of this one.

I guess that makes this the final miscalculation in a series of them we've learned about in the past 12 months. It might be the most inexplicable, too. That leaves me thinking this outcome was the most preventable.

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