Most college athletic programs will insist that winning isn’t everything. Wins and losses are certainly important, but what truly matters is that the values, principles, and integrity of the university are upheld. At least that’s what they say.
Such a philosophy is easy to uphold when a school’s hallmark program isn’t winning consistently or performing up to expectations. But with the recent suspension of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, the old argument over athletic department ethics is back in the limelight. To put it in perspective, let’s consider the cases of Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez and Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl.
Rodriguez was under NCAA scrutiny from the moment he arrived in Ann Arbor to coach the Wolverines, with West Virginia fans and alumni crying foul over a shady buy-out deal and a document-shredding controversy during his departure from Morgantown. Once settled at Michigan, Rodriguez didn’t do himself any favors by going 3-9 in his first year, the worst season in Wolverine history. With the Wolverines’ fan base already up in arms, the NCAA announced apparent rule violations during Rich Rod’s second disappointing season, and he was fired soon after a Gator Bowl loss.
Pearl experienced a similar fall from grace. He been extremely successful until the start of the 2010 season, when the NCAA found him guilty of several major recruiting violation. Pearl served an eight game suspension to start this season before guiding his team into the NCAA tournament, where they were crushed by Michigan in the first round. Pearl was fired within a week of the loss not for a lack of wins, but for bringing shame to the university.
The firings of Rodriguez and Pearl were justifiable decisions. However, it is blatantly clear that similar—and in some cases more severe—rules violations are treated completely differently with programs that hold national championship aspirations.
On Monday, the NCAA publicized its findings that showed Tressel had been found guilty of multiple NCAA violations, adding another layer to a lengthy controversy that began as Ohio State prepared for the Sugar Bowl this past winter. Tressel was notified last summer that five of his players had broken NCAA rules by exchanging autographs and memorabilia for tattoos. Tressel sat on the information. When news of the player’s misconduct finally broke in the winter, Tressel acted surprised and claimed no knowledge of the incident, which he has since admitted was a lie.
When a press conference was called to discuss the matter in public, an Ohio State administrator joked that he hoped Jim Tressel didn’t fire him. The university has good reason to adore their football coach. Tressel holds the second highest winning percentage in Big Ten history and won a national championship in 2002. In light of his success, the school at first only suspended Tressel two games for his actions. When that punishment came off as a bit too light, Tressel announced he would suspend himself for the first five games of next season.
Simply put, Tressel ought be fired for his blatant disregard of NCAA rules. He may be a beloved figure in Columbus, but the university had no qualms about firing legendary coach Woody Hayes the day after he punched a Clemson player on national television during the 1978 Gator Bowl. If Ohio State claims to stand for more than winning football games, they should similarly dismiss Coach Tressel. Tennessee spent a season debating whether or not to fire their winning coach, but eventually did the right thing. Anything but the same from Ohio State would demonstrate that coaches could either uphold the values and integrity of their university, or just win.