A lot happened in a year in Ohio State scandal
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It started with a few kids who wanted tattoos. The owner of the tattoo parlor wasn’t necessarily a big Buckeyes fan, but he liked having them around.
It ended with NCAA infractions and a year of investigations. On Tuesday, Ohio State finally got the verdict on its memorabilia-for-cash scandal from the NCAA’s committee on infractions.
The NCAA declared that the Buckeyes and new coach Urban Meyer will be banned from a bowl game after next season. In addition, Meyer will have fewer scholarships to hand out, the university will be on three years of probation and former coach Jim Tressel will forever be linked to the scandal that brought down his successful tenure.
The root of Ohio State’s year of NCAA woes was Fine Line Ink, a rundown tattoo parlor on a Columbus street corner. A player or two went there for tattoos and the word spread through the team that the owner, Eddie Rife, kept his door open and Fine Line was a cool place to hang out.
More and more players got involved with Rife in 2009 and early 2010, and some accepted cash and free or discounted tattoos. Before long, Rife began trading money for sports memorabilia — championship rings and autographed jerseys and gloves.
At this same time, the U.S. attorney’s office was keeping an eye on Rife in a federal drug-trafficking case surrounding the sale of marijuana. As part of its probe, the U.S. Attorney got a subpoena and raided Rife’s home, where agents came across numerous Ohio State articles signed or owned by current and former players.
On April 2, 2010, a former Buckeyes walk-on player now a Columbus lawyer, Chris Cicero, emailed Tressel to warn him that several Buckeyes players “have taken Eddie Rife signed Ohio State memorabilia (shirts/jerseys/footballs) who has been selling it for profit. I dont know if he gives any money in return to the players. I have been told OSU players including (redacted) have been given free tattoo’s in exchange for signed memorabilia.”
Cicero’s first email also hinted that Rife was a felon who had witnessed a homicide.
Tressel’s contract required him to “report promptly to the (athletic director) in writing any violations” of Ohio State or NCAA rules and regulations. Yet the only person to whom he forwarded Cicero’s email was Ted Sarniak, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s hometown mentor, who had already been investigated — and cleared — by the NCAA for his relationship with the player.
Even though Tressel responded to Cicero, “I will get on it ASAP” — all he did was caution the players to stay away from the tattoo parlor while not letting anyone at Ohio State know what he knew.
Tressel and Cicero communicated sporadically through the summer about the players, Rife and Fine Line.
On Sept. 13, 2010, Tressel signed a standard NCAA compliance form with which he certified he had reported any knowledge of alleged violations to his superiors at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had a good season, going 11-1 and winning their sixth straight Big Ten title. But while they were preparing to play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, another bombshell hit and the case went public.
The U.S. attorney’s office sent a letter to Ohio State on Dec. 7, 2010, asking about the many signed and personalized jerseys, cleats, shoes, trophies and rings it had confiscated during its raid of Rife’s home. Ohio State eventually asked Tressel, who feigned ignorance of the situation.
Tressel, in later NCAA testimony, said he felt relief instead of regret that his players’ violations had come to light.
“When the inevitable happened to us and the letter came, you know, the hallelujah letter, in my mind - from the U.S. Department of Justice — was there was no allegation that any of these players were involved in or had knowledge of Mr. Rife’s drug trafficking,” Tressel told the NCAA. “I’m like, ‘This is the greatest.’”
Ohio State and the NCAA wrapped up an investigation of the case in less than two weeks and then suspended six players. After consulting with the NCAA, the players were allowed on the field for the Sugar Bowl. Five players, including Pryor, leading 2010 rusher Daniel “Boom” Herron and No. 2 receiver DeVier Posey were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season, with another player forced to sit out the 2011 season opener.
The Buckeyes went on to beat Arkansas, 31-26, with all of the suspended players playing major roles. Backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas — one of the so-called “Tattoo Five” — intercepted a pass in the final minute to preserve the victory.
While Ohio State was “reviewing information on an unrelated legal issue” on Jan. 13, 2011, it came across Tressel’s email exchange with Cicero. That opened another investigation. On March 8, Ohio State and the NCAA suspended Tressel for two games and fined him $250,000. When there was a public outcry that he had violated more egregious rules than the players — lying to the NCAA and covering up violations — yet had a shorter suspension, the university said that Tressel had agreed to extend his suspension to five games.
At the news conference announcing Tressel’s initial suspension, Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee was asked if he had considered firing Tressel.
“No, are you kidding?” he joked. “Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”
No one was laughing at the university, however. Throughout the next five months, there was a steady stream of allegations. Few coaches who have violated NCAA bylaw 10.1 — being untruthful to the NCAA — have survived. By the end of May, the pressure to do something about Tressel’s tenuous situation had ratcheted up.
Gee and AD Gene Smith met with Tressel in late May, pressuring him to step aside as coach and end his 10-year tenure at Ohio State. They selected Luke Fickell, a former Ohio State player and nine-year defensive assistant coach, to take his place as interim coach.
A short time later, Pryor, with the NCAA on his heels, declared he would give up his senior season and jump to the NFL. He was taken in a special draft and is now with the Oakland Raiders.
Throughout the summer, the NCAA and Ohio State continued to look into a variety of troubling matters dealing with Ohio State football players, from top-of-the-line loaner cars to discount furniture, deals on apartments to free golf and allegations that some players received thousands of dollars for signing pictures from a credentialed sideline photographer.
On July 8, Ohio State responded to the NCAA’s list of allegations. It vacated the 2010 season, including the Sugar Bowl win, put itself on two years of NCAA probation and said it would take another look at its compliance process. It listed as mitigating circumstances that it had accepted Tressel’s resignation (even though it later allowed him to say he had resigned and gave him another month of salary at $53,000) and had suspended the players.
Tressel was on hand when Ohio State went before the NCAA’s committee on infractions on Aug. 12. Smith surprised many by saying Ohio State would give up $339,000 in bowl revenue from 2010.
That wasn’t the end of Ohio State’s headaches, however.
Just two days before the season-opener against Akron, three players — starting running back Jordan Hall (a high school teammate of Pryor’s) and cornerback Travis Howard, along with backup safety Corey Brown — were suspended for accepting $200 in cash while attending a charity event in suburban Cleveland in March. One of the organizers of that event was Bobby DiGeronimo, a businessman in Independence, Ohio, who had long been a friend of the program who had hired Ohio State players to work summer jobs.
Those three were held out of the first two games of the season.
The week the Buckeyes were supposed to get Posey, Herron, offensive lineman Mike Adams and Thomas back, Posey and Herron were suspended again — this time along with three others for taking too much money for too little work from DiGeronimo. The NCAA determined Posey had accepted $727.50 for 48 1/2 hours of work that was not performed. Herron received $292.50 too much.
Herron was held out of another game (totaling the first six of the season), while linebacker Etienne Sabino, offensive lineman Marcus Hall and defensive lineman Melvin Fellows gave back the money they were overpaid and were allowed to return to the team. Posey was hit with an additional five-game suspension, leaving him just two games in his senior season. In addition, Ohio State banned DiGeronimo from any further contact with athletes.
While the distracted Buckeyes struggled through the season — going 6-6 heading into the Jan. 2 Gator Bowl against Florida — everyone was waiting for the final word from the NCAA on penalties.
The Buckeyes did give their fans reason to look ahead when they hired Meyer, an Ohio native who won two national championships at Florida, on Nov. 28. Meyer has put together a solid recruiting season and is in the process of filling out his new coaching staff.
But even he had a hard time swallowing the penalties that came down Tuesday.
“The NCAA penalties will serve as a reminder that the college experience does not include the behavior that led to these penalties,” he said in a statement.
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap