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Column: Looking back at Tatgate 10 years later

At the time Tatgate was a major scandal, where now it would barely be a blip on the NCAA’s radar.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Ohio State v Arkansas Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Sunday will mark 10 years since Buckeye Nation was rocked by Jim Tressel’s resignation as head coach of the Buckeyes. It’s amazing how looking back on Tatgate after a decade, just how frivolous everything in the scandal was. Had Tatgate happened today, it wouldn’t even register as a blip on the radar in college football, especially with NIL legislation picking up steam in Ohio and around the country.

Tatgate became public when it was announced on Dec. 22, 2010 that Terrelle Pryor, Mike Adams, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, and Solomon Thomas would all be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. The five players were found to have signed autographs for discounted tattoos, and also sold memorabilia that was given to them by the university.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Ohio State v Arkansas Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

While the scandal was concerning to Ohio State fans, the Buckeyes still had a bowl game to play to close out the 2010 season. After falling to SEC teams on countless occasions, the Buckeyes were able to finally take down one of the schools from the conference, defeating Arkansas 31-26 in the Sugar Bowl. Little did anyone know that it would be the last time the beloved head coach of the Buckeyes would be patrolling the sidelines.

Following the Sugar Bowl, many were wondering why five Ohio State players had been suspended, yet Tressel hadn’t had any penalties levied against him. At first, Tressel was suspended for two games and fined $250,000 for not informing the university and NCAA that he had knowledge of players receiving improper benefits. The suspension would eventually be increased to five games to match the length of the suspension of the players.

Even though Tressel had been suspended for five games, many were wondering if he would ever coach another game for Ohio State. The final nail in Tressel’s coffin came over Memorial Day weekend in 2011. On May 30th, Tressel resigned as the head coach of the Buckeyes, three days after a Sports Illustrated article revealed that Ohio State players had been trading and selling memorabilia dating back to the 2002 season. Even though Tressel wanted to remain as head coach of the Buckeyes, he resigned in the best interest of the university.

The scandal and punishments actually came at the perfect time for Ohio State, as Urban Meyer had just “retired” from coaching following the 2010 season. The lure of coming back to coach the premiere college football program in his home state was just too much for Meyer to pass up. After the 2011 season saw Ohio State led by interim head coach Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes and Meyer came to an agreement for Meyer to become Ohio State’s next head coach.

About the only thing that hurt Ohio State coming out of Tatgate was the sanctions that they self-imposed. Athletic director Gene Smith announced Ohio State was self-imposing a bowl ban in 2012, which the NCAA accepted as punishment. Why the Buckeyes didn’t impose a bowl ban in 2011 is beyond me, since Ohio State was just 6-6 during the regular season, and they would go on to lose a meaningless Gator Bowl to Florida. The 2012 team was 12-0 in Meyer’s first season in charge, and would have gone on to play for the national title had there not been a bowl ban.

What makes Tatgate tough to stomach is all of the college football scandals that have come to light since then. Penn State and Baylor both have had disgusting sex abuse and rape scandals. Obviously we saw what the NCAA did to Penn State, while somehow Baylor hasn’t been punished yet for what happened in Waco. An LSU booster stole $500,000 from a hospital foundation and gave the money to the parents of football players. Former Ole Miss head coach is a walking NCAA violation, while then-Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle with his mistress on it, who he hired and gave $20,000 to. Trading memorabilia and autographs for tattoos isn’t looking so bad now, is it?

If anything, the Zach Smith scandal that became known in 2019 was way more embarrassing to Ohio State than anything from Tatgate. Urban Meyer harboring a serial domestic abuser is a lot more serious than Jim Tressel rigging raffles. At least the Meyer/Smith scandal accelerated Meyer retiring and handing over the keys to the football program to Ryan Day.

Now it’s hard to get too bent out of shape about Tatgate, especially with all the other problems we have going on in the world. It helps that Ohio State didn’t suffer much on the field because of it. Even with how his time at Ohio State ended, Jim Tressel will still be looked at as one of the greatest head coaches in school history, and the team’s 2002 national championship season was one of the most incredible seasons that a college football team has put together.

It also helps that Tressel landed on his feet. After a brief cup of coffee in the NFL as a replay assistant, Tressel returned to where it all began for him. After spending 15 years as head coach at Youngstown State, where he won four national titles, Tressel returned to northeast Ohio to become the school’s president, a position he has held since 2014. Tressel also returned to Ohio State for the 10-year anniversary celebration of the 2002 national title team, and was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players.

Ohio State Buckeyes v Michigan Wolverines 11-24-2012 Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

The lessons learned by Ohio State have been obvious. The school is always thinking about compliance, and even if there are any NCAA violations that come up, the Buckeyes are quick to self-report and get out in front of any possible issues. The biggest thing to come out of the scandal though is just how much the treatment of the players is changing. Now the NCAA is looking for ways to allow the players to benefit via NIL, but since it is the NCAA things are moving at glacier speed. Change is coming though, and while it’s not directly because of Tatgate, it could have made some people look at just how archaic some NCAA rules are.