The 2011 season is still more than five months away, but Ohio State coach Jim Tressel made his first tactical decision Thursday night.
It came of the public relations variety.
By choosing to increase his suspension from two games to five games -- the same punishment the NCAA upheld for five Ohio State players who sold memorabilia for money and tattoos -- Tressel is hoping to improve his image with the NCAA and the outside world. Will it work? We'll have to see.
Ohio State had been justifiably ripped nationally for an extremely soft initial punishment for the coach, who withheld information about the players selling memorabilia items for eight months last year. No one bought Tressel's explanation at last week's news conference in Columbus, and the school's decision to ban the coach from two games against MAC opponents increased the p.r. nightmare.
Tressel's decision to increase his own punishment came in response to the backlash. You have to wonder why Ohio State didn't initially come out with a stronger reprimand -- many feel even five games isn't enough, given Tressel's actions -- but at least the school didn't bury its head in the sand and hope this all would just go away.
"Throughout this entire situation my players and I have committed ourselves to facing our mistakes and growing from them; we can only successfully do that together," Tressel said in a prepared statement. "I spoke with athletics director [Gene] Smith, and our student‐athletes involved, and told them that my mistakes need to share the same game sanctions. Like my players, I am very sorry for the mistakes I made. I request of the university that my sanctions now include five games so that the players and I can handle this adversity together."
It's a shrewd p.r. move, albeit a late one. Tressel and Ohio State hope the increase will help his case with the NCAA, which has the ultimate say on how long the coach could sit out in 2011 (or beyond).
The NCAA continues to investigate the situation at Ohio State and still could come down much harder on Tressel, as it did with Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl and former USC football assistant Todd McNair. The possibility of Ohio State vacating its wins from the 2010 season is a very real one, and Tressel could face more severe individual penalties.
This ain't over yet, but Tressel might have helped himself Thursday.
It comes as no surprise that the NCAA upheld the five-game ban for the players. In light of Tressel's recent admission and after being labeled soft regarding the Cam Newton saga and the Ohio State-Sugar Bowl situation, the NCAA would have had its own p.r. mess if it reduced the initial suspension.
"While we are disappointed that our appeal request was denied, we respect the NCAA and accept its ruling," Smith said in a prepared statement. "The players are sorry for the disappointment they have caused, will learn from their mistakes, and will strive to earn the confidence and support of everyone associated with the university through their future conduct."
Thursday's news certainly impacts the 2011 Big Ten race and creates the biggest challenge for Ohio State in the Tressel era. How will this team respond to not having its head coach, its starting quarterback and four other players for nearly half the season?
The fifth game is a big one, the Big Ten opener against Michigan State in Columbus. The Spartans shared the league title with Ohio State in 2010 and return a strong team.
Can the Buckeyes, despite their recent dominance of the Big Ten, still be labeled conference favorites after all of this? But that's all in the future.
Tressel made a controlled, calculated move Thursday, but his fate now rests with the NCAA.