What are the chances Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was laughing out loud when he composed his response to the additional sanctions heaped on his school by the NCAA?
"We are surprised and disappointed by the NCAA's decision," his statement read. "However, we have decided not to appeal the decision because we need to move forward as an institution."
Based on the kid-gloves treatment afforded the Buckeyes, that shouldn't be a problem. Ohio State had already offered to vacate the 2010 season, return bowl money, go on two years of NCAA probation and use five fewer football scholarships over the next three years. On Tuesday, the NCAA tacked on a year of probation, took away four additional scholarships and imposed a one-year bowl ban. Even combined, those penalties are roughly half as severe as those the NCAA dropped on Southern California in June 2010.
A comparison of the cases is instructive. At USC, Heisman trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J. Mayo were found to have pocketed thousands of dollars in improper benefits from agents. The bigger sin, though, appears to have been the Trojans' decision to be less than cooperative when NCAA investigators began snooping around the program and downright defiant when the enforcement people issued veiled threats. As a result, the NCAA leveled the dreaded "lack of institutional control" against USC, banned the Trojans from postseason play for two years and docked them 30 scholarships for the next three.
In Ohio State's case, five players swapped jerseys, rings and assorted memorabilia for thousands in cash and tattoos, former coach Jim Tressel learned of the exchanges in April 2010, and not only kept the news to himself, but lied about it to his superiors or the NCAA on four separate occasions. There is no better example of lack of institutional control than what Ohio State's clueless president, Gordon Gee, said in the middle of the unfolding scandal, when he and Smith tried to staunch the damage last March by suspending Tressel for two meaningless games and fining him $250,000: "I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
But it got better. Barely 10 days later, Tressel's suspension was extended to five games and by the end of May, he was forced out. In July, Ohio State half-heartedly punished itself and in August appeared before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. Then we learned that months after the original scandal made headlines, nine players got paid by a longtime booster for showing up at charity events and cozy summer jobs. By November, the NCAA upgraded the notice of allegations to include "failure to monitor" and Ohio State offered to cut five scholarships.
But it got even better. For reasons that have yet to be explained, the NCAA's enforcement staff stopped short of lack of institutional control charges, meaning the infractions committee can't whack Ohio State the way it did Southern Cal. In the end, the school's athletic department gave Tressel a hefty severance deal and nearly all of the blame and that was good enough for the NCAA. It slapped the once-beloved coach with a five-year "show-cause" order that likely means he'll never coach in college again. Tressel has been reduced to a job as a game-day consultant with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
And if the Buckeyes escaping the punishment they deserve because of a technicality sounds familiar, it should. The five players originally suspended last December after the tattoo-parlor portion of the story broke were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl thanks to an NCAA ruling so favorable that it should have made everyone involved blush redder than one of Tressel's sweater vests. Together, Ohio State and the NCAA dusted off an obscure interpretation of the rules that allowed postponement of a suspension — in the case of the so-called "Tat 5" it was supposed to be five games — to preserve a "unique opportunity." Then, conveniently, they decided the Sugar Bowl presented just such an opportunity.
Maybe some schools just have all the luck. Or maybe by cooperating, even as incompetent as Ohio State has been from the beginning of the investigation to the bitter end, the Buckeyes bought themselves enough good will to avoid the scorched-earth treatment USC got. Whichever it is, based on the lack of guts the NCAA showed in this case, it might be the one outfit in America that would finish behind Congress in a popularity poll — especially if the survey was conducted in the Los Angeles area.
In the coming months, North Carolina and Miami will face the infractions committee for scandals that are every bit as juicy. When committee member Greg Sankey was asked whether the additional penalties the NCAA levied against Ohio State meant things would be tougher for future violators, he replied, "I would not suggest this is necessarily a new day, but these penalties are significant."
Right. And North Carolina and Miami would sign on the dotted line for the same deal in a heartbeat. Ohio State, after all, is hoping to start recovering from its disappointment with a trip to the Gator Bowl, despite a 6-6 record.
"I'm disappointed on the one hand," Gee said when reporters caught up with him at halftime of a basketball game Tuesday night. "But on the other hand I'm very relieved because I feel closure. I think we can now move forward.
"I have been one of the most outspoken advocates for reform in the NCAA," he added a moment later. "My hope is that what the NCAA is signaling is a higher bar and a higher standard."
Easy for Gee to say — right after he and his school slithered underneath it.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke