A telling moment about college football came last December.
Ohio State announced five of its players would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for violating NCAA rules regarding the selling of rings and university apparel. Yet, the players were allowed to play in the upcoming Sugar Bowl.
For ratings, ESPN wanted a full-strength Buckeyes squad that included star quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The Sugar Bowl and the BCS wouldn’t have looked kindly on a patchwork OSU lineup facing Arkansas.
The whole thing was a hypocritical crock, of course. Like so much about the sport that so many of us love.
But this is a business in which a head coach can get a six-figure bonus if his team goes 5-6 against FBS (Division I-A) competition and takes a team to the Made-For-TV Meaningless Bowl.
The rewards that go to coaches who take teams to conference-titles and BCS bowls are staggering.
Which is how we want it. It’s what we insist upon, actually.
Major-college football is huge, vital, life-enriching stuff to millions and millions of us. If it means a wink here or a shortcut there, well, we’d rather not know about it.
I’m not sure I blame Jim Tressel for not sharing the news he got about some of his players getting improper benefits from a tattoo parlor-owner. He was pulling down $4 million a year, and he’s going to bring down his guys for getting some free body ink?
Of course, he should have. It was his clear-cut responsibility to do so. The fact he didn’t brought him down.
But if you were making $4 million a year on the backs of kids, wouldn’t it twist your tummy into knots if you had to drop a hammer on them for getting a little something for themselves?
This Ohio State story isn’t what the pious Big Ten is all about, is it? The Big Ten has been above the fray, hasn’t it?
Uh huh. This is the league that wooed the University of Nebraska from the Big 12 because the school, in Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s words, was the right geographic, ethical and academic fit.
The fact Nebraska had one of the nation’s most-recognized football programs was just a happy sidebar.
The Big Ten has lived in the same world as the SEC, even though here’s what Delany wrote in 2007:
“I wish we had (seven) teams among the top 10 recruiting classes every year, but winning our way requires some discipline and restraint with the recruitment process.”
Well, you hand over every bit of your high-and-mighty when your six-time defending football champion looks like it’s a dirty program.
Iowa lost to Ohio State last November largely because of one play. It was made by Pryor, and it was brilliant.
Down 17-13, the Buckeyes had a 4th-and-10 at the midfield with four minutes left in the game. They spread five receivers. Pryor acted like he was weighing his options, but later said his plan was always to run.
He magnificently slipped through Iowa’s defense for 14 yards. It was a play few of his peers could have made.
OSU took a 20-17 lead four plays later, and won by that score. The Buckeyes claimed a share of yet another Big Ten championship a week later.
The difference in that contest at Iowa was Pryor’s skill, not Tressel’s play-calling. But Tressel secured that victory in 2008. That’s when he won a highly publicized recruiting battle with Penn State, Michigan and Oregon to sign Pryor, a Pennsylvanian.
Has Pryor turned out to be more trouble than he was worth? Yes.
Would Tressel have been ripped mercilessly by his own fans had Pryor gone to Michigan and helped Rich Rodriguez’s Wolverines beat the Buckeyes? Oh mercy, yes.
College football moves along. The teams that play for the national-title this year will almost surely be the teams with the best players, as usual. Cam Newton of Auburn was Exhibit A last season.
The coaches are expected to get and keep those players. Sometimes rules get broken and it all goes bad at a USC or Ohio State.
Not to worry. Other teams will fill the void.