It’s fitting that Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day. This is, perhaps, the most misunderstood holiday on the books: a day used by politicians to celebrate war, which was first organized by freed slaves to honor Union soldiers buried in a Charleston, South Carolina, mass grave. The connection lies in the deception.
In the process of leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to annual glory and becoming the highest-paid public employee in the state, Tressel gave the appearance of a humble, God-fearing, small-town Ohio coach who had somehow landed his dream job. He was Coach Norman Dale from Hoosiers, if Norman Dale had landed the head job at Indiana University. Yes, there were ethical lapses along the way, but that was always put on the shoulders of the morally fallible teenagers under his charge. Over two decades in coaching, Tressel cultivated the persona of the last honest man in Sin City.
But the hammer did fall. Tressel, after months of stalling and dissembling, finally resigned on Memorial Day because he knew Tuesday would bring a Sports Illustrated exposé that would have provoked outright dismissal. According to the scathing report by George Dohrmann with David Epstein, dozens of players under Tressel’s charge traded OSU memorabilia, including championship rings, for everything from tattoos to marijuana. Buckeye gear was their currency in Columbus. Sports Illustrated uncovered that Tressel knew this was happening as far back as 2002, which is a far different story than what he’s told school officials and the NCAA. For a coach, being aware of violations but refusing to report them is the ultimate cardinal sin. The private Tressel has been exposed as more concerned about wins and losses than complying with NCAA rules—or the standards of ethical behavior he endlessly espoused in public.
Maybe all the adulation, the $3.5 million annual base salary and the free access to a private jet warped a once-virtuous man. When OSU President E. Gordon Gee was asked when the scandal first broke if he had given any thought to firing Tressel, he joked, “I’m just hoping that the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” Maybe Tressel started to actually believe that he was, as a book about him was titled More than a Coach. Or maybe he’s been ethically flexible from the moment he put a whistle around his neck. One thing is certain: Tressel’s “integrity,” “humility” and “paternal nature” have been exposed as a heavily marketed commercial persona. Instead of having character, he has now become a character: the hypocritical sports moralist, who sits in judgment of others while wearing nothing beneath the robe.