Ohio State coach Jim Tressel apologized for letting people down Wednesday, and acknowledged that some may view him as a cheater in the wake of NCAA violations that resulted in a five-game suspension.
“I suppose there could be some that might feel that way and there might be others who might not,” Tressel said. “I don’t have a whole lot of control over that.”
Tressel, dressed in his trademark sweater vest, declined to discuss the investigation into the rules violations during an almost hour-long news conference.
Ohio State has recommended that Tressel be suspended the first five games of this season for failing to report that his players sold memorabilia and received improper benefits. Tressel knew about the situation but did not inform his superiors or the NCAA for more than nine months.
The NCAA could accept Tressel’s sanctions — which includes a $250,000 fine taken from his estimated $3.5 million annual salary — or levy additional penalties.
The players — including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor — were suspended in late December for the first five games of 2011 for accepting improper benefits. All were permitted to play in the Sugar Bowl, however, which the Buckeyes won 31-26 over Arkansas.
Tressel said he believes players will still listen to him when he returns to the sidelines, even though his character has been sullied by what he referred to as “mistakes.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever talked [to] or guided our kids with the idea that I’ve done everything perfectly,” Tressel said. “I’ve never looked at myself that way. Some of us are parents in here. We talk to our kids about doing the right things. Well, some of us haven’t done everything perfectly, but we still have that responsibility to do that.”
Tressel also introduced linebackers coach Luke Fickell as his replacement for the games he’ll be suspended. The co-defensive coordinator is in his 10th year on the Ohio State staff.
“When you visit, when you’ve been here, when you truly know what the place is about, when you truly know what the foundation is, the small, little storms, you know, won’t take you down,” Fickell said of the trouble surrounding the program.
Tressel is permitted to work with the team all spring, throughout preseason practice and even during the period of his suspension — just like normal. He is only required to stay away from the Buckeyes on the days of home games against Akron, Toledo, Colorado and Michigan State and the road game at Miami, Fla.
A school spokeswoman and Tressel turned aside questions relating to the investigation of his violations. But in announcing what was then a two-game suspension on March 8, school officials laid out the framework of the investigation.
Tressel received an email in April 2010 from a Columbus lawyer, Chris Cicero, who was a former Ohio State walk-on and letterman in the 1980s. He told Tressel that at least two current Buckeyes players had sold signed Ohio State memorabilia to Edward Rife, who ran a local tattoo parlor. Cicero also said that they had received free tattoos.
Cicero said that Rife was the subject of a federal drug-trafficking investigation.
The two players were later revealed to be Pryor and wide receiver DeVier Posey. In an email response the same day, Tressel wrote, “Thanks. I will get on it ASAP.”
Tressel later said that he felt bound by a vow of confidentiality to not disclose anything about the email, even though there is nothing in it about remaining quiet. He and Cicero traded emails twice more, with more information given to Tressel about the infractions. Cicero said he had even spoken to Rife for 90 minutes.
Athletic director Gene Smith has said Tressel never notified him, his Ohio State bosses or anyone in the university’s compliance department. He also did not contact the lawyers on staff about the situation, though he did forward the original email to Ted Sarniak, a businessman and “mentor” of Pryor in his hometown of Jeannette, Pa.
Tressel signed an NCAA form in September in which he said he had no knowledge of any rules violations. When the U.S. Attorney’s office came to Ohio State in December to tell of its investigation that uncovered memorabilia in Rife’s possession, the school began an investigation of its own. During interviews that month, Tressel did not disclose what he knew at any time.
It was while Ohio State attempted to build an appeal on behalf of the players that the school came across the emails involving Tressel and Cicero.
Despite the questions surrounded Tressel and his actions, Fickell said the coaching staff will continue to sell the program’s figurehead.
“Whether I’m in Florida recruiting or Pennsylvania recruiting or Columbus, Ohio, recruiting, the No. 1 thing I sell outside of just The Ohio State University is coach Tressel,” he said.
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