Smile Politely

How THE Ohio State University might put the Illini at the top

Well, we’re officially in the televised sports doldrums. The mockery of the game of basketball that is the NBA has officially been put to bed with the resolution of the question of whether a Geico caveman could beat the Miami Heat (A: Thankfully, yes). While watching live baseball is an excellent excuse to drink until passing out in the hot sun, the televised game doesn’t provide sufficient excitement to differentiate at-home binge drinking from garden variety alcoholism. Hockey’s over, this year’s Stanley Cup Finals giving us another reason to loathe Boston while simultaneously, surprisingly, giving us a reason to loathe Vancouver’s as well.

But school’s out for summer. If you’re into the college sports, it’s a dry, dry spell. So what are college sports fans to do? Partake in that most American of German-sounding sports.

No, not spelunking.


If you’re an Illini football fan, it’s a great season for delighting in the self-inflicted misfortune of others. I’m referring, of course, to the Ohio State University, as it’s insufferably called by the world’s only group of sports fans who take great pride in the punctuation of marching band formations. Seriously. The next time you see a group of people spelling out four letters with their hands who are not the Village People, ask them about “dotting the i” and then promptly see your optometrist to fix that muscle you pulled rolling your eyes.

Let’s quickly rehash the facts here, before moving on to the more important part, specifically what it means for the Illini this season.

A drug investigation into a Columbus, Ohio, tattoo shop revealed that the proprietor had some “golden pants.” Not the MC Hammer kind. The kind that is a cheap-looking little trinket that Ohio State football players are awarded for beating Michigan (let me say it again: the Ohio State University football team and its fans put a lot of stock in stupid, stupid things).

Turns out the ink slinger in question had been trading tattoos for sports paraphernalia. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except the people he was trading with were current Ohio State football players, who were taking their equipment, awards and the like and handing it in for arm-decals or in some cases just straight-up selling it for cash. For purportedly-amateur student athletes, as you might guess, running your own sports memorabilia side business with stuff that you lifted from the locker room is a no-no.

On the whole, though, it looked like it might not be that bad for the Buckeye Nation. Sure, their quarterback was suspended five games for breaking NCAA rules by trading a sportsmanship award for tattoos (Serious. That happened). Four other players were suspended for the first five games as well. But, the suspended players were allowed to play in Ohio State’s bowl game, and would be allowed back for the remainder of the ’11 season after serving their five game suspension. Why would the NCAA and the BCS allow suspended players to play in a marquee bowl game? Your gue$ i$ a$ good a$ mine….

But, like an ugly college tattoo, this story just wouldn’t go away.

Turns out the Buckeye’s head coach, Jim Tressel, knew about the improper Hats-for-Tats swaps 9 months before the NCAA. This is a big, big problem. NCAA rules are like golf rules, in that failing to report a violation on yourself is often times considered way more serious than the violation itself. It makes sense for the NCAA to have such a policy. With so many student athletes required to follow such labyrinthine compliance rules to ensure their “amateur” status in the midst of the cash-soaked world of big-time college football, the NCAA has to be able to hammer schools for not reporting their own violations. It’s the flip side of the fact that there is no way that the NCAA can police its own rules; it outsources that to the schools themselves, and must be able to come down hard when they shirk their responsibility to call themselves out when they break a rule.

Tressel admitted he did not disclose the information to the appropriate people, as the NCAA rules (and his own multi-million dollar contract) required. So, with Ohio State facing possibility of severe NCAA sanctions, it did what is now the standard playbook move: act contrite. Self-imposed discipline has become the go-to move, so that schools can pick their punishment and then go to the NCAA and urge that the NCAA should impose the same, or at least a similar punishment as what they chose for themselves. If this sounds like how a very crafty toddler would approach punishment, you’ve hit on a core truth, which is that college football programs behave pretty much like very crafty toddlers in all respects.

Jim Tressel was forced to resign. Tressel had long sported a squeaky clean image in college football. He was famous for wearing sweater vests and organizing bible study. Some pointed to this reputation as proof that you could play by the rules and succeed in the upper echelons of college football. These people were mostly (okay, entirely) OSU alums. Other people claimed (or now claim) that they never believed it, that the whole thing was an insufferably self-righteous act, and that anyone as successful in college football as OSU has been under Tressel has to be breaking the rules: it’s just the nature of the game. You can decide for yourself.

A storied Ohio State football coaches career ends abruptly in ignominy. At least he didn’t go the Woody Hayes route and slug a player. (An opposing player. On the field. During a game. Aspiring coaches take note: that’s how you flameout). An assistant coach from the OSU staff is named interim head coach for the 2011 season, and a search begins for a new coach.

How does this affect Ohio State (and, by implication, all the other teams in the Big Ten they compete with, the Orange and Blue included)?

Looking forward, some things are known. Ohio State, like seemingly all big schools these days, had padded the front end of their schedule with a couple of the teeniest of the teeny tiny Division I football teams who were willing to accept several hundred thousand dollars to send their student athletes into a meat grinder. Their first two games are against in-state non-rivals Akron and Toledo. Granted, every once in a while someone pulls it off (remember that Appalachian State – Michigan game that you heard about but didn’t see because it was back in 2007 when no one got Big Ten Network?). But it’s a long shot. Most people predict OSU comes out of these two games 2-0, regardless of the fact that they won’t have all their players.

The next three games are against the Miami Hurricanes (remember when they were good? Or are you like me and can’t remember if they were actually good, or you just remember rappers wearing their hats? For the record, OSU beat them last year 36–24), Colorado and Michigan State. The suspensions go to Michigan State, a very good team, was the only one that figured to potentially really hurt the Buckeyes.

If the Buckeyes lose to Michigan State, this would be a very good thing for Illini fans. Ohio State is in the Illini’s division (the Leaders), while Michigan State is not (they are in the Legends). So, a cross-division loss by an in-division school would be doubly sweet for the Orange and Blue’s chances to get into the Big Ten title game, which will be in Indianapolis, where the Big Ten has decided it will host pretty much everything for eternity.

After these five games, the Buckeyes would have had all their players back. Would have, but won’t. Terrelle Pryor quit. Amid all kinds of swirling questions of why he’d driven eight different cars in his three years in Columbus, and had recently been seen driving to team meetings despite having a suspended license, Pryor quit. Not just quit football. Quit quit. Left school and said he would enter the NFL’s “supplemental draft,” whatever that is. And to top it all of, he threw in that he would not answer any more questions from the NCAA about his actions (and, since he wouldn’t be an NCAA athlete anymore, they couldn’t require him to cooperate with the investigation).

I generally don’t believe in getting nasty or engaging in ad hominem attacks. I find it distasteful when these things come up in sports. Much as we may love and enjoy college football, it’s just a game, and if I claimed to really know the people in these stories (the way that many sportswriters seem to imply), that would be dishonest with you. And let’s not forget, people make mistakes. Especially college students. It’s just the nature of being young. You do really stupid stuff that you shouldn’t, you get busted, or maybe you don’t but you feel bad about it, and you grow up, little by little.

Just the same, I think it is justified to say that Terrelle Pryor’s quitting school to pursue the NFL supplemental draft is the coward’s route. After being busted, rather than sticking around and taking the heat for his infractions (and likely, taking a lot of ire from irate college football fans should Ohio State’s football season not go well), he simply quit to move on to greener pastures, and leave those at his former institution behind to deal with the sanctions he caused. One argument advanced in support of collegiate athletics is that they teach integrity. Terrelle Pryor has made a mockery of this idea. If you don’t want to call this the “coward’s route,” we can call this the “Pete Carroll route.” Mr. Pryor’s actions, have brought shame upon himself, shame upon college football, and shame upon the University that once claimed him.

But it’s great for Illinois! Inasmuch as Terrelle Pryor quitting college football to evade both investigation and punishment for his conduct is bad for the game of football, it’s good for Illinois fans. Pryor is a talented athlete, and as many of you will recall, Illinois was quite close to defeating Ohio State last year: it’s not a stretch to think that with a team in turmoil and a new man behind center, Ohio State might not be able to pull off the fourth quarter comeback of ’10. Pryor leaving will significantly weaken an OSU team that was previously believed to be the dominant contender for the Big Ten title, which is now wide open.

Other things remain in flux. Most people expect the NCAA to hand down sanctions on Ohio State similar to what happened to USC after it became clear that the reason Reggie Bush played like a professional football player in college was that he was actually a professional football player in college. These sanctions were severe: scholarship limitations, banning participation in post-season bowls, and vacating games won while the ineligible player participated.

So yes, this means that the Illinois/Ohio State game that Illinois just barely almost oh man we were so close dammit! lost last year may be, at least as far as the official record books are concerned, marked an Illinois win. That’s some kind of consolation (um, I think…). We won’t know for a while: the NCAA hearing isn’t until August, and a decision likely won’t come for a while after.

How this will affect the recruiting trail is a tougher question.

Fans of Michigan and Notre Dame have been rather gunny about it all, claiming that they’ll be able to snatch up recruits from the Midwest that would have otherwise gone to Ohio State. That being said, fans of Michigan and Notre Dame are not well known for their firm grasp on reality. The most highly sought after high school recruits are, let’s be honest here, dealing in a national market for their talents. OSU previously was able to draw in a lot of these players. With all this trouble, they’ll likely pull in fewer. But the top high school recruits are less governed by geography than either fans of the yellow and blue teams (I refuse to use the word “maize” until I have children participating in a Thanksgiving day pageant) seem to think. If top level recruits pass on Ohio State because of the specter of a postseason ban, they aren’t going to automatically go to South Bend or Ann Arbor because they love the Midwestern winters. They’ll bounce to the SEC or other top-level recruiting schools.

Are some mid-level recruits going to reconsider playing in Columbus? You bet. And that will likely be the immeasurable impact here. Note the use of “recruits,” throughout here, not “players.” Regardless of what, or any other website that pays an almost creepy amount of attention to the height, weight, and physique of high school boys, whether any particular player is going to be good at the collegiate level is really hard to tell based on high school football games. Any particular recruit might be “four stars” or “five obelisks” or whatever other lame rating system that someone can come up with, but you’re delusional if you think counting symbols will give you a good indication of how anyone is going to play at the collegiate level. Practice squads all across this great land are stacked with highly touted recruits who just never lived up to their ratings. And the NFL is loaded with players on starting rosters who were considered mid level talent at best when they were still in high school. These mid-level recruits are those who are most likely to be constrained by geography: there might not be a national market for them, but their high school coach may have a good relationship with a local school in the area, and a player that may have previously considered OSU might go for a nearby football school. How these players decide on schools will be pretty much impossible to measure, but it is likely to have a subtle but significant impact in college football all around the Midwest and the Big Ten.

Generally, this should be good for Illinois. Just how good, no one can say.


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