Reusse: Under Tressel's sweater beat the heart of a cheater

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2011 - 7:09 AM

Turns out, the early suspicions about Jim Tressel are true. The Ohio State coach's bland image and vanilla answers were just a smokescreen as he ran a shady program.

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Ohio State coach Jim Tressel

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John Cooper took Arizona State to the Rose Bowl and defeated Michigan in January 1987. Ohio State enjoys it so much when Michigan loses in football that, a year later, Cooper was hired to replace Earle Bruce as the Buckeyes coach.

Cooper lasted 13 years in Columbus, even though he had two major flaws: He couldn't win bowl games (3-8) and he couldn't beat Michigan (2-10-1).

He was fired after the 2000 season. The two finalists to replace him were Youngstown State's Jim Tressel and Minnesota's Glen Mason. Ohio State went for Tressel, the I-AA coach, over Mason, who played for Woody Hayes.

On Monday, Tressel's 10-year run of winning big (106-22) and beating Michigan (9-1), ended when he was forced out in the midst of a growing scandal.

Tressel gained quick popularity in Columbus by taking his 2001 team to Michigan and upsetting the Wolverines 26-20. And then he changed the rivalry dramatically in February 2002, signing a recruiting class of 26 that included Maurice Clarett, Troy Smith, Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, A.J. Hawk and Rob Carpenter.

Ohio State has a spectacular stadium and tremendous facilities. There is a passion for the Buckeyes in Columbus that rivals what you can find for any college football team in any city.

Yet, you saw Tressel moving around in his half-sweater, looking like a dweeb, and you heard his pathetic answers to even the most bland questions, and there was always the thought:

"How could someone this vanilla be the coach to turn a table on Michigan in landing exceptional athletes?''

And: "How could such a bore build the relationship with Ted Ginn Sr., the coach at Cleveland Glenville, that would allow OSU to sign 90 percent of that city's great players?''

There were suspicions about what was going on in Columbus as far back as Clarett. As a freshman running back, he led Ohio State to its first national title in 34 years in January 2003.

Soon thereafter, there was a story about Clarett, a used car on loan from a Columbus dealer, and a police report of a car break-in that included Clarett's claim he lost thousands of dollars in valuables.

Clarett's call to police came from Tressel's office. The player later retracted the claim of lost valuables. Controversy continued to surround Clarett, and he never played again for the Buckeyes.

That was 2003 -- about the same time a friend told me about an underground nickname another gentleman in the Ohio media had applied to Tressel: "Cheaty McSweater.''

The Clarett mess wasn't the end of it. In 2004, Smith, the backup quarterback, was suspended for a bowl game and the next season opener for accepting $500 from a booster. Smith wound up winning the 2006 Heisman.

Tressel kept on skating. He took the Buckeyes to an astounding eight BCS games in a decade. He finished with a seven-game winning streak vs. Michigan, the longest for the Buckeyes in the series.

It seemed as if "Cheaty McSweater'' would remain an inside joke -- not Tressel's legacy.

And then a year ago, the Feds raided the home of a suspected Columbus drug dealer and found a trove of Buckeyes memorabilia. As it turned out, Edward Rife owned a tattoo parlor, and we soon discovered that the football-playing youth of America would trade most anything to get "Mom'' with a heart and arrow on a bicep.

Tressel was tipped off in April 2010 through an e-mail that players were breaking NCAA rules by exchanging Big Ten championship rings and gold pants (for beating Michigan) for tattoos and/or cash.

He didn't tell his bosses. He lied in September when filling out a form as to whether he had knowledge of NCAA rules violations. He lied to school officials during the investigation that led to five-game suspensions for five players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor. On Monday, the Columbus Dispatch continued its admirable work on this scandal with a report the NCAA is taking a hard look at other extra benefits received by Pryor, including possible high jinks with cars.

Tressel has attached his name to two books on faith and integrity, and he's now an admitted liar -- changing his story each time new facts surfaced.

Way back in 2003, it was a car and Clarett that made you wonder about Tressel, and eight years later, it's official:

He was Cheaty McSweater.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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