Ohio State's strategy backfires with NCAA

Minimize until forced to maximize.

By now, loyal blog readers know the phrase. It's what I've used repeatedly to describe Ohio State's strategy throughout its NCAA infractions case.

The school's approach went like this:

  • Cooperate fully with NCAA investigators (unlike USC).

  • Acknowledge mistakes but attribute them to individual failings.

  • Defend individuals until forced to sever ties (i.e., Jim Tressel).

  • Place blame on those no longer affiliated with the program -- namely ex-coach Tressel, disaffiliated booster Bobby DiGeronimo and former quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- and, as tactfully as possible, the players still with the team.

  • Never, ever admit to having a systematic problem.

Ohio State held steadfast to this strategy during news conferences by athletic director Gene Smith, in its responses to the NCAA and in other public comments by university brass during the nearly year-long saga. The school tried to show just enough remorse but not too much, while cooperating throughout the process. It imposed some penalties initially and tacked on a few more after the second layer of violations -- the ones involving DiGeronimo. But Ohio State never imposed a bowl ban.

If this case was indeed a big deal, Ohio State placed the burden on the NCAA to prove why.

It was a calculated risk that backfired Tuesday, as the NCAA handed down a one-year bowl ban, in addition to other penalties, in its ruling on Ohio State's case. Ohio State in 2012 will miss a bowl game for the first time since the 1999 season and be ineligible to participate in the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

The other penalties handed down were more or less expected: four additional scholarship losses (total of nine) and an additional year of probation. Everyone expected Tressel to receive a show-cause penalty, although the length and severity of the sanction handed down by the NCAA raised some eyebrows.

The big surprise, at least inside the walls of the Fawcett Center and the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, is the bowl ban. Smith didn't expect it. New head coach Urban Meyer didn't expect it. Current and former players didn't expect it.

"We are surprised and disappointed with the NCAA's decision," Smith's prepared statement about the penalties begins. He goes on to add, "This decision punishes future students for the actions of others in the past."

Just a hunch, but if the NCAA issued the same penalties minus the bowl ban, Smith would be singing a very different tune.

From reading the NCAA's public report on Ohio State's case and hearing from infractions committee member Greg Sankey, it's pretty clear where Ohio State's minimize-until-forced-to-maximize strategy went wrong.

Had the violations been confined to players exchanging memorabilia items for tattoos and cash, and Tressel not coming forward with information about the transactions, Ohio State likely would have avoided a bowl ban. The violations involving players and DiGeronimo put a bowl ban on the table. It was the dreaded second layer. It prompted a second Notice of Allegations sent to Ohio State in early November that included the "failure to monitor" charge. Sankey cited the failure to monitor charge and Ohio State's repeat violator status as key factors in the committee's decision to impose a bowl ban.

Until the DiGeronimo violations surfaced, Ohio State had tried to make the issue a Tressel problem and a player problem. But the DiGeronimo case created a program problem, at least in the eyes of the NCAA.

From Page 16 of the report:

The institution took steps to distance itself from the representative, including having excluded [DiGeronimo] from the sideline, locker rooms and coaches' offices. However, there is no evidence that the institution took any monitoring actions specific to the representative's involvement with student-athletes after 2006. The institution conceded that it could have done more to monitor the representative by taking additional steps to determine whether he had interactions with student-athletes away from institutional facilities and, had it done so, the likelihood of these current violations occurring would have been reduced.

Ohio State received the notice on Nov. 3. At the time, the football team had a 5-3 record but had revived itself in the Leaders division race with upset wins against Illinois and Wisconsin. Imposing a bowl ban at the time would have eliminated Ohio State from the Big Ten title race.

It also would have been the right call.

While it's easy to write that knowing where the Buckeyes ended up -- at 6-6 and heading to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl -- the school would have minimized the damage for the future while sacrificing a so-so season that had a slim chance to end really well. While Sankey refused to speculate on hypothetical situations in a conference call with reporters, it seems unlikely the infractions committee would have tacked on an additional year to a bowl ban had Ohio State self-imposed one for this season.

Ohio State gambled and lost.

Overall, the penalties aren't too bad, especially considering what the NCAA did to USC, which paid dearly for not cooperating with investigators. While there could be some short-term headaches, Ohio State still has a lot of momentum under Meyer, who is cleaning up on the recruiting trail.

But there will be pain on Dec. 1, 2012, when Ohio State will watch the Big Ten championship game from home, even if it has the best team in the Leaders division. And there will be pain later that month and in early January, when the Buckeyes watch the bowls from their couches.

The minimize-until-forced-to-maximize strategy nearly worked.

But in the end, it left Smith and Ohio State feeling small.