Five Burning Questions: Ohio State Buckeyes

Jim TresselYou might have already heard, but Ohio State’s head football coach resigned a couple months back. Or maybe he was fired. Actually, it sounds like he retired.

Whatever the actual nature of the change in Jim Tressel’s employment status, it doesn’t change the fact that a new day is dawning in Columbus. Gone are the best coach in school history and frighteningly talented quarterback Terrelle Pryor. In their places, something called Luke Fickell and some potential chaos under center.

For the latest edition of Five Burning Questions, esteemed Buckeye blogger Ramzy Nasrallah of Eleven Warriors and Bucknuts fills us in on what’s going down at OSU.

1. Describe the mood among Buckeye fans when the NCAA released its findings in the Tatgate fallout. Also, while the direct penalties from the episode probably won’t be substantial, I’ve got to imagine the damage to the program from all of this will still be considered pretty significant, right?

The NCAA’s findings were as expected, because unlike the vast majority of experts who contributed their predictions on what the NCAA would find, Buckeye fans actually bothered to read the original LOI and every word of each article that was released during the media feeding frenzy. We knew about Tressel’s cover-up – which was a very big deal – and the tattoo parlor stuff – which only became a big deal because Tressel covered it up. (I’m of the belief that players capitalizing on their own likenesses and celebrity for what amounts to petty cash is not a big deal and I hope every FBS athlete in America can get away with it.)

We also knew that George Dohrmann’s SI “investigation” was hypocritical garbage. His anonymous source’s claims that nine other players had also sold their items to the tattoo parlor were investigated by NCAA and they cleared eight of them (it’s easy to prove you haven’t sold your stuff if you, you know, still have your stuff).

Dohrmann claims that his source didn’t play ball with NCAA because he was fearful of retribution from Ed Rife, the tattoo parlor owner. At the same time, Dohrmann also says that Tressel’s excuse for covering for his players – retribution from Ed Rife – was pathetic. Pick a lane, dude.

The Cargate details were botched so badly by the Columbus Dispatch and the media at large that at no point was anyone who bothered to actually read the reports ever deeply concerned anything would come from it. Car dealerships can’t and don’t give away cars or take losses on them for free game tickets or autographs, not in Ohio, not anywhere. The investigation by the Ohio BMV predictably found no sweetheart deals, and the rampant misreporting (Pryor’s “new” 350Z was a former rental car with over 80,000 miles on it and Thad Gibson’s “free” Chrysler 300c actually cost $13,700) screamed of exploitation and sloppy journalism.

The critical details, retractions and clarifications were lost in the wave of exploitation. The Dispatch printed the corrections to its sloppy Cargate “exclusive” on page three of the Metro section four days after it ran the initial bombshell.

It turned out that there were completely reasonable explanations for the majority of vehicles with dealer tags that were driven by Ohio State athletes. As for Pryor’s multiple speeding tickets in cars with dealer tags, that’s super shady. Pryor obviously had his hand out for all three years he was in Columbus. There’s a reason he was separated from the other players who were found to have traded their merchandise at the tattoo parlor.

Fortunately for Ohio State, being shady isn’t an NCAA violation. More proof would have been needed than Pryor’s former drugged-out roommate (who was kicked out of their apartment for missing multiple rent checks, and as you may imagine, not that happy about it) saying “he made $20K-$40K signing autographs.” That was my favorite claim of this entire mess. A drug addict who cannot afford rent “going public” with an unverifiable claim that carried a $20,000 gap. And there were VERIFIED SIGNED CHECKS TO PRYOR that were tagged to this story! How on earth did Ohio State escape the death penalty times infinity?

While the NCAA’s findings were expected – and word that the Dohrmann claims were almost completely and categorically dismissed by NCAA leaked weeks ahead of the LOA – there was still some relief. After being bombarded by the media for several months, it was a pleasure to sit back for 48 hours and watch the outrage over being so wrong bubble over.

That all being said, the damage has already been done. Ohio State lost the best coach it has ever had over one of the stupidest and most reckless errors in judgment possible. That’s more damaging than any media campaign, lost recruit, suspended players, years or probation or scholarship reductions.

Luke Fickell
2. What are the chances Luke Fickell is still Ohio State’s head coach a year from now? If not Fickell, who?

Lost in all of this mess is that Ohio State has another three-and-out defense this year that is going to annoy the hell out of people. The only Tatgate suspension on the defensive side of the ball didn’t involve a starter. As long as the offense doesn’t give away points – and that’s not a given – they’ll be in every game.

I don’t think the Board of Trustees or Gene Smith are going to look at game management under Fickell as much as they’ll look at program management. Game management and wins/losses happen in a vacuum. Program management – something at which Tressel excelled, minor and major compliance reporting issues aside – is a better long-term stability indicator.

Fickell is one of the best recruiters and young coaches in the country. His trajectory was MAC-caliber head coach and then candidate for Tressel’s successor. He didn’t expect this, but you can bet he’s exploiting every resource possible to make his leap successful. I think there’s a better chance he’ll still be running the program next year than there is of him taking a step back or going elsewhere.

3. Taking Terrelle Pryor out of the mix removes the most dynamic component of OSU’s offensive attack. How do you think the staff will try to compensate for his absence?

There’s only one way to keep the Pryor offensive set mostly-intact, and that’s to go with freshman Braxton Miller, who is the only QB of the four on scholarship that can come close to mimicking Pryor’s ability (though Miller, while several inches shorter, has a superior arm).

The annual lack of depth on Ohio State’s offensive line requires a mobile quarterback to bail out the playbook, so expect to see the same offensive grab-bag of arbitrary plays that you’ve seen from the Buckeyes over the past several years. There’s a reason Ohio State never finished in the top 25 nationally in offense under Tressel yet won most of the Big Ten titles, and it wasn’t offense.

4. Do the issues with the NCAA throw the balance of power in the Big Ten into question, or will Ohio State remain the lead dog for the foreseeable future?

I don’t think outsiders grasp how effective Tressel was in using the state of Ohio as his personal farm league. This hurt Penn State and Michigan the most. While Fickell is a master salesperson and recruiter, he needs to replace himself in that same capacity among position coaches. We’ll have to see if Mike Vrabel can show up at a blue chip athlete’s house in TAPOUT gear and sell mom on sending baby boy to Ohio State. He’s an unknown commodity, but the hope is that he’ll be able to connect with players who may or may not have a passing interest in a 14-year NFL career.

The balance of power is thrown into flux with Nebraska joining the conference as it is. We’ve also seen that Bielema has maintained Wisconsin through Barry Alvarez’s retirement from coaching, and as soon as Joe Paterno is replaced by someone who actually does something, Penn State should be an annual threat. Michigan has a couple of years to flush its roster of the MAC talent Rich Rodriguez stocked it with before it can be considered.

5. Give us your best impression of Jim Tressel explaining to an NCAA investigator why he didn’t narc on his players.

“You see Federal drug trafficking investigation in your electronic mail, you know, and you start to think about things. Thing-like things, you know, that are big, big things – those kind of things, and so forth. And you’re thinking to yourself, you know? We’ve got young people who we try to put in the best position to make positive social choices, you know, and they’re surrounded by elements that may or may not be helpful in the regard, and so forth. So those things had me thinking about things and it was at that point that, you know, I thought I had better think this over, and so forth.”

For more from Ramzy and coverage of Ohio State, make sure to visit Eleven Warriors and follow Ramzy on Twitter @Ramzyn.

Also, be sure to follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.