Ohio State's football program changed immeasurably about three years ago, after Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned in the aftermath of the "Tatgate' scandal. The changes were felt outside of the football program too, as the episode was felt from Gordon Gee's office, to the rest of the Big Ten, all the way to the NCAA. It helped usher in some important conversations about the NCAA, and has made for many an interesting hypothetical question for Buckeye fans.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been publishing a very interesting, multi-part series on multiple key players in the investigation, and where they are three years after the fact. They touch on Tressel, Urban Meyer, Gordon Gee, as well as the various attorneys and investigators involved in the case. I highly encourage you to read the entire thing, but there are a few points in particular that raise interesting questions for Buckeye fans, and others interested in the case.
When fans look the aftermath of the case, probably the most common hypothetical surrounds the coaching staff. The Buckeyes did, after all, essentially trade Jim Tressel for Urban Meyer. If Tatgate had never happened, the common thinking goes, Tressel would still be the coach. Maybe Meyer better prepares the program for the current landscape of college football, or at least, the Big Ten. Maybe Tressel would adapt his offense or his recruiting style to continue to give Ohio State a competitive advantage. Maybe, now that we know a little more about Tressel's ambitions, he would have left coaching to pursue administration anyway. Who knows?
What we do know is that Jim Tressel certainly landed on his feet, recently taking a job as the President of Youngstown State. Tressel's lawyer at the time, Gene Marsh, was surprised that Tressel ended up leaving, and thought that Ohio State could have actually kept him. From his interview with the Plain Dealer:
"I think they could have stuck by him, but on the other hand, when universities get into this kind of public scrutiny, they often will turn to Jell-O. They get panicked. You get stampeded.
"The NCAA lands on campus and there are the daily disclosures and everyone is running to get the paper and see what's new today, and that does get people in a panic mode. And then you get blood in the water, and that's what happens.
Perhaps that is a more interesting hypothetical question. What if the scandal still happens, but Ohio State doubles down and keeps Tressel? Aside from the five game suspension Tressel was given, would the NCAA have handed out an even stiffer penalty? Would the university have called the NCAA's bluff? Would that have even been desirable?
It would have been easy to come away from this experience a bitter man, but per the interviews, Tressel kept his remarkably positive attitude. Again, Marsh speaking, in the interview:
"I'm not blowing smoke," Marsh said, "I'm just telling you I marveled at how he approached this."
Marsh called Tressel the most optimistic person he ever met, said Tressel never got angry, even in private, and said that Tressel received more letters of support than any coach he had ever worked with.
"He was fairly dispassionate. He was dispassionate through the whole thing," Marsh said. "He can quickly assess where people are and what they were thinking and why they were doing what they were doing. That's the truth. It's hard to get a rise out of him at all. He's been around the block and he has a good grasp on what people might do."
For those who are familiar with Tressel, this probably isn't *that* surprising, but given the circumstances, it's still notable. The ability to remain that dispassionate after the abrupt ending of a celebrated career, and with proverbial knives all around is an uncommon ability, and one that will probably serve him very well in university administration.
Former Ohio State president Gordon Gee also had interesting remarks about the endgame of the Tatgate saga, and one that should perhaps open another interesting hypothetical. From his Plain Dealer interview:
"I thought the damage may have been permanent in many different ways," Gee said.
"I think for the first time in my life I really realized the power of the Internet and the power of Facebook and Twitter and the power of blogging. It's almost overwhelming, and we were in the middle of a tsunami. And we did recover because we did the right thing and I think Jim did the right thing, I think we all did the right thing. It was painful.
Whether you are with Dr.Gee that everybody did the right thing in this scenario, he does raise an important point, in that the idea that Ohio State would emerge from the situation (eventually) in a better position was not ensured. The school received an immense about of negative publicity, and had the school botched the coaching transition, or further bungled their NCAA response, it is possible that there would be negative implications not just for the football team, but for the institution itself. Gee adds the following:
"I mean, those were dark days," Gee said. "As a university president, for a long period of time, I always felt I spent relatively minute amounts of time on athletics.
"You have great athletic directors, you let them run it, you keep yourself informed, but I'm not the athletic director, I'm the president of the university. But all of a sudden this whole thing overwhelmed us to the point that I was spending immense amounts of time on athletics. And so that meant other aspects of the institution I was just not able to pay attention to and it was very draining.
The opportunity cost of a President spending such inordinate time on handling fires in the athletic department shouldn't be discounted, especially at a massive research university like Ohio State. Had this event slugged on for months, could the drain on higher administrator time have hurt say, the hospital? Or another department that needed fundraising or a higher touch? It's hard to say, but if we're going to play the "what if" game, it is fair to remember that things really could have been worse.
Again, the entire series is worth your time. Now that we are a few years ago, maybe it's a little easier to look back and see if everything turned out as badly as we thought it might have back in 2011. Would it have been better had Tressel stayed? Would the NCAA pursue the case the same way if these events happened in 2014? What would a realistic worst case scenario look like?
Thankfully, we don't have to find out, at least not for now. But if Gordon Gee is right about this, the next time something happens, we may have to ask ourselves these questions again.
"Ohio State is one of those institutions that everyone around the country loves to hate. So whenever we stumble, we stumble on the front pages and the back pages."