Clarett's accusations cast a cloud over Ohio State
Almost two years ago, I wrote a glowing article about Jim Tressel and the Ohio State Buckeyes. They were fresh off a national title and Tressel was the golden boy of a sport under a persistent cloud of scandal. I touted Tressel as the next Joe Paterno: disciplined, conscientious and truly mindful that his charges were students first and athletes second.
Sadly, this has all come crashing down in recent weeks. I will not pretend to have a clue as to who is telling the truth when Maurice Clarett and his posse of ex-Buckeyes take the podium or when Tressel and OSU athletic director Andy Geiger respond. I have reason enough to doubt both testimonies, but the simple fact that we are even having this discussion is a taint enough on a program that looked to have turned the corner with the hiring of Jim Tressel four years ago.
Tressel, who had been the coach of Division 1-AA Youngstown State for 15 years, took the job at OSU with all the best intentions. He was preaching to the choir, Ohio State was actively trying to improve a reputation that had been dragged through the mud in the late '90s with scandal after scandal. He espoused a strong work ethic, both on the field and in the classroom. And he was willing to put his money where his mouth was: he had academic incentives built into his contract and he donated 15 percent of his salary, $125,000, to Youngstown State for a new student center.
He seemed to be getting it done in his first two years at Columbus. They shocked the world by cobbling together an undefeated season that included multiple miraculous finishes. Then, in the Fiesta Bowl, they stunned a heavily favored Miami team in overtime to win OSU's first title since 1970.
The Buckeyes were led by Craig Krenzel, a plucky quarterback who aspired to medical school. Short on talent and long on heart, I held him up as the new representative of a rejuvenated program. He replaced Andy Katzenmoyer in my mind -- he who had said OSU was simply job training for the NFL -- with the vision of the molecular genetics major (Krenzel is currently starting for the Chicago Bears).
Turns out I picked the wrong focal point. Playing second fiddle to Krenzel was a freshman phenom in the purest sense of the word. Maurice Clarett was the pure talent to Krenzel's leadership. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman campaign and more importantly he took pressure off the passing game. The story of the running back and the quarterback diverged before they even had the championship rings on their fingers.
Krenzel would go on to lead the Buckeyes through a difficult first half of the next season before falling prey to a multitude of ailments while Clarett instantly became the object of numerous NCAA probes. He openly contemplated transferring to a I-AA school so that he wouldn't have sit out a year and he tried to challenge the NFL's age limits on the draft so that he could play pro. He did neither, lost his eligibility and is currently in limbo, not playing and not eligible to be drafted until 2005.
Clarett claims he was blackballed and that he is taking the fall for institution-wide corruption that gives players improper benefits. He claims he had a bogus job, got tutors to do his work for him and received cash from boosters. Geiger and Tressel adamantly refute these claims, despite the fact that other ex-players have supported Clarett's allegations. Then again, Clarett was investigated in the summer of 2003, the summer after winning the national championship, and found to have lied to NCAA investigators 17 times.
Again, I don't pretend to know who is right and who is wrong, but this is the last thing that Ohio State needs right now. They are struggling through a mediocre season and are soon to see their campus flooded by NCAA investigators for the second time in as many years.
Perception is more powerful than truth in many cases when it comes to collegiate athletics these days. A program (and a sport) that badly needed a respite from the unshakable rumors about its integrity will get no such reprieve. Clarett, who for a time was the biggest thing in college sports, is dragging the whole team down with him as he spirals out of control.
With him go Tressel and a sparkling reputation he spent 15 years at Youngstown building. Whatever the truth of the matter, Ohio State has fallen a long way from the lofty heights of January of 2003 and this perception will be hard to shake no matter how hard Geiger and rest at OSU try.