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Jim Tressel: celebrating excellence, or putting winning above all else?

One last time
One last time
Greg Bartram, US Presswire

On Saturday, during Ohio State's victory over That Team Up North, the 2002 Ohio State National Championship team was honored between the first and second quarter. The team was introduced at one end of the field, and in a moment of spontaneity, former coach Jim Tressel was lifted on the shoulders of his former players and members of that championship team:


Ohio Stadium went bonkers.

And so did some national media figures, only in the opposite direction. I didn't really pick up on it until after The Game had concluded, but there was a lot of negative reaction on Twitter, and two college football columnists wrote about it, one posting his thoughts before the actual football game had concluded.

Over on Yahoo!, Dan Wetzel wrote that applauding Tressel proved that at Ohio State 'winning matters most', and Wetzel veers off course on his very first sentence:

In what may be the perfect summation of college football today, former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was celebrated Saturday during the Buckeyes' 26-21 victory over Michigan even though it was his breaking of NCAA rules that led to the program's current postseason ban.

I have no problem with the second part of the sentence; Tressel's failure to disclose what he knew about the tattoo for memorabilia scandal, and decision to play what would have been several ineligible players, cost Tressel his job, several players their eligibility, and eventually cost the 2012 Ohio State team a chance to play for a BCS title. But Wetzel couldn't be more wrong about the first part--it was not a celebration of Tressel, nor was it an approval of what he did or how he handled himself during the scandal. He couldn't be further from the heart of the matter.

If you'd think being responsible for such a mess would keep a person from the stadium, let alone being lifted in the air to the roaring delight of over 100,000 fans in attendance, well, you don't understand college football.

Now, there are some true believers on the far edge of the Ohio State fan base that will defend Jim Tressel, insist he didn't do anything wrong, and maintain that the NCAA was 'out to get him' until their dying breath, and that's obviously not true. Tressel knew about improper benefits his players were receiving and then covered it up. He paid the price, the players involved paid a price, and the team and university proper did as well.

But to bar him from appearing with his national championship team? Why, exactly? It wasn't a celebration of Jim Tressel, it was a celebration of what that specific team accomplished, and he was the coach of that team. It would've been wrong if he hadn't been there.

But yes, when he was lifted on to the shouders of his former players, it became more than that. It was a show of appreciation for over a decade of mostly on and off the field excellence. It was the acknowledgement of turning around fortunes against Michigan, going 9-1 against them. It was an acknowledgement of 7 Big Ten titles and a 5-3 record in BCS games. It was the acknowledgement that in the community, no one was more selfless than Jim Tressel and his wife Ellen. And it was also the acknowledgement that with the exception of the very end, there was no better ambassador for The Ohio State University than Jim Tressel.

So is one act of incredible stupidity, an act that at the end of the day harmed no one, and amounted to nothing more than young men bartering and/or selling what was their personal property, is it really worth our eternal scorn and derision?

I think some people would have you believe that yes it is, but I choose to think something else. Look, I used to feel I should be the Moral Arbiter of athletes. For those of you that might remember the Minnesota Vikings Love Boat scandal, I wrote enough stories of moral indignation and self righteous outrage to last me a lifetime.

But some things aren't so cut and dry, and when you take Tressel's one act of selfishness, and juxtapose that against a decade of on the field excellence and community service, it's hard to see why Tressel wouldn't have gotten the applause he did.

Jim Tressel is, like everyone else on the good earth, a flawed human being. He made a mistake that cost him his job and his reputation in a lot of circles.

And yes, that thunderous ovation was more than just that team. In a moment, the ovation became a catharsis for a lot of us. A firm point in time where we can say all of that is now behind us, and Ohio State lives on.

Because of, yet at the same time in spite of, what Jim Tressel did.

If we are to shun and shame for all eternity, does that make us any better than the one who committed the original transgression? I think CBS columnist Gregg Doyel hit it on the head when he said, when talking about the emotions in the immediate aftermath of the win and the realization there was no more football for OSU:

It didn't feel bittersweet. It didn't feel bitter at all -- not on the Ohio Stadium field, where thousands of OSU students gathered after the game. It didn't feel bitter in a tunnel leading out of the stadium, where OSU fans heading for the exits were delighted to see E. Gordon Gee coming the other way, an attention-loving salmon swimming upstream. OSU fans reached out to touch him, and Gee was beaming and thanking them as if this was one of his finest moments.

There was nothing bittersweet or inappropriate about what happened Saturday. We've moved on, and now we think about next year. Because let's face it, Jim Tressel left the cupboard pretty full, and what happened Saturday, in many ways, wouldn't have been possible for what he left behind for Urban Meyer.

For a lot of people, Saturday was a chance to say one final thank you, and bring with it closure with a chance to turn the page. It's time to move on.