"I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death - and they will love him for it."
- Senator Gracchus, Gladiator
When the sword finally dropped unceremoniously on Jim Tressel's career at Ohio State, the Senator showed no signs that he either cared or was in any way affected by the heavy blade that had just severed his career from his body. What was done was done. It was over. He simply smiled, issued a statement, slipped out the back door of the Athletic Department with his ficus in hand, and drove off into the rose colored sun set.
On his last day Jim Tressel was as unapologetic as he was on the day the story of his transgressions broke. No admission of wrong doing. No tear filled plea for his job or forgiveness. Just the slow, graying tint of his transition lenses to shield his eyes from the light, so that we couldn't see what he was thinking. Though I can't be sure, if you'd looked into his eyes as he left the Woody Hayes Athletic Center last Monday you would've seen nothing other than the cold, smug glint of satisfaction that no matter what happened next, he would always be remembered as a hero.
Sad as it is, Tressel is right. On Saturday a crowd of some 200
disturbed souls Buckeye fans marched up to Tressel's driveway and held an impromptu rally on their former coach's doorstep. Tressel, of course, gave them what they wanted. After singing the Buckeye classic, "We don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan" the mob crowd was rewarded by Tressel.
"Don’t forget," Tressel said, "Nov. 26th we’re going to kick their ass!"
And the crowd exploded. That was Tressel in a nutshell. Unrepentant. Unfazed. In control. No matter the cost, he gave these fans what they wanted. And they love him for it.
That this is the case makes me sad. As the evidence of Tressel's misdeeds and intentional blindness continue to pile high into the afternoon sky, he remains revered as a hero. Never mind that the Buckeyes will likely be stripped of their 2011 season for knowinglyplaying five ineligible starters, and that there is a strong likelihood that penalties eclipsing USC's punishment for the Reggie Bush fiasco will set the program back a decade; Tressel is a hero. He beat Michigan. And it doesn't matter how it happened or what the means were to achieve it. He gave them what they wanted.
What happens next at Ohio State is not his concern anymore. The mess Tressel has created will cripple the program's next two coaches, whether it's Luke Fickell or Urban Meyer. Tressel's victories and self perpetuated image will outlive his sins. While I'm certain Buckeye fans remember the wins under Woody Hayes, all the rest of the world remembers is his right cross. To me that is sad. Woody Hayes was, at heart, an excellent football coach with a temper that could melt titanium. In one, unfortunate moment Hayes lost control of that temper and his career was over. The man simply snapped, on national television, and his career was through. Tarnished by a moment of indiscretion at the worst possible time.
So I understand the reverence and respect paid to Hayes. He was not an indecent man. He was a winner. He was, by all accounts, a man who did it clean and right. And in so many ways he was the anti-Tressel. Hot tempered but fair. He played by the rules and if he couldn't figure out how to beat you one year within the white chalk, you could bet your ass he'd find a way the following year. But it was always done by the book. Woody and Bo went head to head for two decades, with a mutual respect and an understanding that the rules were there for a reason. And that you played the game, both on-field and off, within them.
It is an enigma to me how you can revere both men in the same way or in the same context. Perhaps, as a species, our attention spans have gotten so short and our moral compasses so out of sync that we can no longer distinguish from right and wrong in this context. The ends justify the means, consequences be damned. If it costs us a little bit of our innocence and humanity, oh well. We won. And you can't take that away from us.
They're right. We can't. Ohio State was 9-1 against Michigan during Tressel's tenure, with the last four years of the series being an outright embarrassment to THE GAME. Whether Pryor played in THE GAME or not, it wouldn't have made a lick of difference. Ohio State would've won, and won handily.
So that is why I don't understand Tressel or the respect he commands at all. Ohio State didn't need to cheat. Tressel didn't need to turn a blind eye or cover anything up. He would've won and won handily without it. Maybe he wouldn't have won a few of those extra conference titles or not made one or two of those BCS games (and in hindsight, wouldn't that have been better for OSU?), but he'd still be coaching and he'd still be winning.
Michigan spent the last four years kneecapping itself. It's not like Ohio State needed the extra advantage and it's not like Tressel hadto do what he did. He was recruiting like a mad man. For all the shenanigans that occurred once the players arrived on campus, there hasn't been a single allegation in this investigation that OSU was dirty on the recruiting end. As much as I'd love point to the Auburn indictment where OSU's recruiting was likened to a whore house in the old West, there's been nothing before the court of public opinion or the NCAA on those grounds. The point being Ohio State's recruiting, by itself, was going to be enough to win the majority of games against Michigan over the last 10 years.
Why isn't there outrage over that? Sane Buckeye fans simply shake their heads. They've drunk the Koolaid long enough to believe that no matter what, Tressel is a really good guy at heart. But they also acknowledge that there was no reason whatsoever for Tresselto do what he did. There was no reason to lie, to cover up, to lie over and over again about what he knew and didn't know. There is disappointment, but no anger. I don't get it. Was winning, and winning dirty, really worth it?
To me, no. It never is. But there in lies the difference. At Michigan we hang our heads in shame at these types of things. We take down banners. We rid ourselves of the people who caused us such embarrassment. We admit our wrong doing and work to right the mistakes we've made. Steve Fischer may have brought us to the promised land twice, but he is universally looked at by Michigan fans as a cheat. A man who ruined the University's reputation and intentionally looked the other way as his players broke NCAA rules. He may have been a caretaker during Michigan's 1989 championship run, but as a full fledged head coach his tenure has been rightfully erased.
I am hopeful that Tressel's rightful accomplishments will be remembered for what they are and were. I am equally hopeful that the Buckeyes will erase from their own record books the years that have been tainted by these improprieties. Feel free to keep your memories of wins. Feel free to remember the elation. Feel free to remember that you beat us during those years. You did. But also remember that those wins are tainted by the worst kind of cheating. Cheating that never needed to happen. Cheating that was irrelevant. Cheating that takes away things you probably would've gotten without it.
For a majority of the Ohio State fan base, these words are meaningless. The only thing that matters was wins over Michigan. John Cooper won, and won clean, but never delivered wins over Michigan. Despite the titles, the Heisman, the everything, he sits in a ring of shame. But Tressel gave them what they wanted, regardless of how he got it.
And they love him for it.