By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This column was originally published on Jun. 1, 2011 in the College Sporting News, when the announcement of then-OSU head coach Jim Tressel was dismissed over OSU players trading gear for tattoos. David Coulson looked into his career at Youngstown, and gave his thoughts.
PHIALDELPHIA, PA. — For all of his success as a football coach, Jim Tressel had always struck me and many others as a shadowy figure.
He managed to lead the Youngstown State program to three Football Championship Subdivision titles in four years from 1991-94 and added another national crown in 1997 as the Penguins reached the title game six times during the 1990s.
But there were always whispers from his peers about how Tressel’s teams had reached the top.
One coaching contemporary, whose name I’ll keep to myself, referred to Tressel as “the Teflon Don”, an allusion to Mafia boss John Gotti and Tressel’s ability to walk away from scandal without being scathed.
Well, football’s version of this colorful metaphor finally had his Teflon shield completely torn away on Monday when he was forced to resign as the head coach at Ohio State amidst a growing scandal of lies, cover-ups and special benefits.
Tressel stepped down on Memorial Day in the wake of a Sports Illustrated expose’ into the Ohio State and Youngstown State programs and increasing pressure from NCAA and OSU probes.
There is little doubt to Tressel’s acumen as a coach, whether it be the painstaking preparation and execution his teams at YSU and OSU exhibited, or his ability to get extra effort out of his players on game days.
He also was championed for his work with helping underprivileged athletes make something of their lives and for his charitable work in communities like Youngstown and Columbus.
But it was always more than a little too hard to believe that he never knew what kind of mischief his players and boosters were getting into right underneath his seemingly clean nose.
The trouble currently enveloping the Ohio State program, with accusations of players trading memorabilia for tattoos and getting sweetheart deals on automobiles, among other potential NCAA violations, isn’t much different than some of the things the Youngstown State program got away with during its glory days.
One former Ohio State player implicated in the tattoo scheme by Sports Illustrated also had ties to Youngstown State.
Tight end Louis Irizarry, who started his college career at OSU before getting into some trouble, finished his career at YSU and was a member of the Penguin team that reached the 2006 FCS semifinals.
It isn’t surprising to see the overlap.
Had it not been for the NCAA’s self-imposed statute of limitations, Youngstown State would have likely been forced to return one, or more, of those NCAA championship trophies.
It is a well-established fact from criminal court records in Ohio and other sources that Penguin players had received extra benefits as far back as 1988.
And Sports Illustrated used these sources to show Tressel has been playing the game of cover-up for years.
Ray Isaacs, the quarterback and hometown hero on Youngstown State’s 1991 NCAA title team received over $10,000 in cash and checks from boosters.
Tressel arranged a job for his starting signal-caller from a wealthy booster named Mickey Monus, the founder of the Phar-Mor drug store chain. Isaacs was also reported to have used a car provided by Phar-Mor.
As many as 13 Penguin players were given jobs with Phar-Mor during the football season in violation of NCAA rules and there were other reports of non-scholarship athletes being paid illegally by YSU’s director of athletic development.
When an anonymous source told the NCAA about these allegations in 1994, Tressel told school president Leslie Cochran that there wasn’t anything to them, that they were from a disgruntled ex-employee.
Because of Tressel’s reputation, Cochran believed him and convinced the NCAA that while there was smoke, there was no fire.
But in the next few years the truth behind the allegations was revealed by Isaacs and Monus in federal court.
Monus, who had looted his business, was convicted of 109 felony counts of bank, wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of stolen goods in 1995 and was tried twice for jury tampering in that case three years later.
Isaacs pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe a judge for Monus, but the two bribery trials ended in a hung jury and then acquittal for Isaac’s former boss.
The bribery trial also proved troublesome for Tressel as Monus and Isaacs revealed the truth behind their financial dealings and said Tressel had been the one to introduce them to each other, a direct rebuttal of Tressel’s claims.
Isaacs also said that Tressel knew about his car and helped him get out of several traffic tickets, all of these being in violation of NCAA rules.
Youngstown State finally faced its problems head on in 2000, less than a year before Tressel head to Ohio State and just a year after his final FCS championship appearance.
The Penguins admitted to numerous violations in the football program and slapped themselves on the wrists with minor self-imposed penalties, including the loss of two scholarships.
Many wondered if a coach from FCS would be able to win at Ohio State when Tressel was hired following the 2000 season. They should have been more worried if he would be able to run a clean program.
From what Sports Illustrated has revealed this week, it was business as usual for the coach who many have come to call Mr. Sweater Vest for his straight-laced, if not accurate image.
One of my old colleagues from my days at the Los Angeles Times, college football writer Chris Defresne wrote one of the best lines I saw to describe Tressel on Monday: “If only, in this ugly take on “Script Ohio,” Tressel had not dotted the “i” in lie.”
Equally to blame in my book are the administrators like Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee (never trust a man with a letter in his name) and athletic director Gene Smith, who stood behind Tressel’s crumbling reputation for so long.
Gee was the guy who tried to tell people back before the 2010 football season that schools like former-FCS powerhouse Boise State shouldn’t be competing against schools like Ohio State.
In terms of corruption, Gee was right about that. Right now there are not many schools in Ohio State’s league.
The late 1980s and 1990s in what was then called I-AA football were a bit like the wild, wild west in regards to cheating.
Stephen F. Austin was forced by the NCAA to vacate its appearance in the 1989 championship game, which it lost to Erk Russell’s Georgia Southern squad 37-34, for the use of an ineligible player.
Like Youngstown State, Marshall — which played for titles in 1987, 1991, 1993 and 1995 and won crowns in 1992 and 1996 — was long rumored to be cheating through much of that period before finally being caught by the NCAA during its post-I-AA era for violations during Bob Pruett’s period as head coach.
Some of that rule breaking was proven to have occurred during the Thundering Herd’s 1996 national championship season, but Marshall wasn’t forced to remove any banners, or return any trophies.
Most of us would like to believe that there is less cheating today and that the violations that do occur are usually the result of ignorance, or lack of compliance resources, like Eastern Washington’s recent troubles under ex-coach Paul Wulff.
But one thing is certain, Tressel’s well-ingrained failings and his lack of honesty have left considerable collateral damage.
Taking a team like Youngstown State to a record four consecutive championship games and winning four titles in six championship appearances over a nine-year period was an impressive, but now tarnished accomplishment.