Souls of the departed haunt Youngstown

Editors Note: This story originally ran on ESPN.com on November 12, 2004.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Columbus, Ohio, is aflame now with the confessions and allegations of a former college player who was living like a pro before he ever turned pro, in the midst of a selectively aware head coach who rode the running back's talents to a national championship. Maurice Clarett and Jim Tressel were a compelling duo at Ohio State.

But the roots of the alleged scandal -- and the relationship between player and coach -- can be found far from campus, three hours away by car in the northeast corner of a politically and athletically red state. They lie in the toxic soil along the Mahoning River, a gentle, serpentine body of water that once gave life to a working-class vision of the American Dream.

For much of the past century, the smallish city of Youngstown was, remarkably, one of the steel capitals of the nation. Its mills and ethnic immigrants produced the raw material for cars, bombs, skyscrapers -- just about any object that enabled the rise of the United States as a world power. Jobs were plentiful, paychecks were fat, and crime was someone else's problem, save for the occasional mob-inspired car bombing that no one seemed to witness.

Clarett never knew that city on a hill. The Youngstown he was born into in 1983 was an unfolding tragedy of historic proportions. Beginning six years earlier with what locals came to call "Black Monday," virtually every steel mill along the river for 25 miles -- twenty-five miles -- shut down as the industry shifted production to overseas plants. With breathtaking speed, the town shrunk from 170,000 residents to 80,000. City life grew post-Apocalyptic: middle-age men, homeless and bankrupt, sleeping in boarded-up brick buildings. Suicides rising, seven fold. Child abuse so rampant, counselors needed counseling.

In headier days, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin laid down the snapping rhythms of Youngstown on rotating stages in smoke-filled bars. Now it was the kind of bitter, broken place Bruce Springsteen would give voice to in a song named after the city.

Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world's changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name.

In a cityscape more "Mad Max" than Norman Rockwell, Clarett would make himself unforgettable. By working out two or three times a day during high school. By building a man's body in the weight room. By running 20 yards past the last tackler in practice drills, so total was his commitment to excelling in football. When he left for Ohio State and it became apparent to teammates that an ungodly work ethic was his defining quality, Clarett shrugged, saying, "It's just basically where I come from. I grew up around blue-collar workers. It's just the whole struggle and getting out of that struggle."

Clarett, from early on, knew he had something rare to sell.

He would insist on being paid for his services, one way or another.

* * *

But does a sense of entitlement alone put Ohio State in the crosshairs of NCAA investigators? No. College football is full of young studs who wish schools would share more of the revenue they are helping generate, or at least support their desire to tear down the tacit NFL-NCAA agreement that keeps a player from NFL money for three years after high school. For a full-on NCAA migraine, for one player's behavior to spiral out of control, it takes an enabler.

Jim Tressel arrived in Youngstown in 1986, the right man at the right time. As head coach at Youngstown State, he would go on to win four Division I-AA national titles between 1991 and '97, using mostly recruits from the now-devastated valley. But it wasn't just the success that endeared him to the locals. It was the image he projected that stood in contrast to that of depressed Youngstown.

Tressel looked like a minister in his trademark sweater vest and perfect haircut, and played the part, too, founding a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at the school. His athletes traveled in coat and tie and said "Yes, ma'am" to airplane flight attendants. He talked constantly about his players as family and about the team as a tool for community pride. As many as 20,000 fans a game filled the team's downtown stadium, cheering for the Penguins -- and for the revival of a valley's heart. "That's what kept that city alive, the university and the hospitals," said Ray Isaac, quarterback on Tressel's first title team. "We were the toast of the town. We had parades. We had it all."

Isaac had more. As the NCAA would later learn, Isaac was taking money from a booster from virtually the moment he joined the team in 1988. A few hundred here, a thousand or so there, including $3,800 during the 1991 championship season. In all, Isaac got about $10,000, plus the use of various cars, during his career. Ray "The Colonel" Isaac was Tressel's original Maurice Clarett, a Youngstown kid with quick feet and open palms who would lift his team, and coach, to new heights.

Isaac's benefactor was Michael "Mickey" Monus, chairman of the university's board of trustees and a local hero in his own right. As the dazzling, if disheveled CEO of the rapidly expanding Phar-Mor discount drug store chain, he created thousands of local jobs. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart once called Monus the only businessman he feared, for he couldn't understand how the Youngstown-based company could open so many stores (300 in 33 states) so quickly. Walton would get his answer with a subsequent federal conviction: Monus was cooking the books, Enron-style. He remains in prison on corporate fraud crimes, his empire in shambles.

Monus declined ESPN.com's request for an interview. And Youngstown State isn't eager to share the contents of its investigation into the Monus-Isaac matter. Twice, high-ranking officials at the university promised to make the school's internal report available to ESPN.com, only to later deny its release. A university lawyer said that Youngstown State considers the report as among Isaac's student records, which cannot be released under open-records law due to privacy restrictions.

But this much is certain, based on an ESPN review of legal documents and other sources: Monus was no stranger to Tressel. A huge sports fan, Monus could be found on the sidelines during Penguin games. He was on the university athletics committee that hired Tressel. And, according to court testimony that eventually brought the Isaac payments to light, it was Tressel who directed Isaac to Monus at the start of his freshman year.

"I got a call from Mr. Tressel," Monus told a jury, "and I believe the call was that he wanted me to be introduced to Ray and to work out some kind of job for him."

In their first meeting at the Phar-Mor corporate office, Isaac told Monus he had no money to go to a local fair. Monus gave him $150 for doing nothing. An enduring relationship was formed. "I found an avenue, a guy with a soft heart," Isaac told ESPN.com.

Isaac said Tressel never knew about the payments, and the NCAA found no evidence that he did. But as would be the case later with Clarett, questions would arise about how much Tressel and his bosses really wanted to know. In January 1994, a month after winning the team's second national title, Youngstown State got a letter from the NCAA notifying the school that an anonymous tipster had blown the whistle on Monus and Isaac. Just one month later, based on assurances by Tressel and athletic director Joe Malmisur, school president Leslie Cochran informed the NCAA that there was no substance to the allegations. The NCAA promptly dropped the matter.

Youngstown State's internal investigation was a sham. So little diligence went into pursuit of truth that Malmisur never confronted Monus with the allegations, nor apparently did Tressel contact Isaac, as Cochran said he had instructed them to do. Tressel, in a December 2003 interview, declined comment to ESPN.com on most aspects of the case but said he can't remember if he discussed the Monus allegations with his former player. Isaac is more definitive: "I didn't talk to nobody."

Later that year, Isaac called Tressel. At the time, Isaac was under investigation by the FBI for tampering with the lone juror who had refused to convict Monus in his first corporate fraud trial. Facing 17 years in prison unless he squealed on Monus, his sugar daddy, Isaac wanted Tressel's advice.

"This is what I know ... " Isaac told Tressel.

His mentor, as Isaac describes Tressel, cut him off before details flowed.

"I don't want to know what you know," Tressel said. "Just tell them the truth."

Isaac would confess to trying to bribe the juror. The U.S. justice system would be served. But the wheels of NCAA justice would wait four more years to begin turning again. They would start grinding on March 4, 1998, when Monus was on trial for jury tampering. Cochran said only then, when made aware of a local television report on Isaac's court testimony that day, did he realize that NCAA rules had been broken years earlier.

Now retired, Cochran looks back on the 1994 non-investigation by his athletic director and coach with embarrassment. "I feel like I got crapped on," he said.

Youngstown State would admit to a lack of institutional control and accept minor scholarship cuts. But avoiding the truth for so long served the team and city well. With the NCAA's statute of limitations on violations having expired in 1996 -- five years after Isaac left college -- the NCAA declined to strip Youngstown State of its beloved '91 national championship

Eleven months after the NCAA issued its decision, with no reprimand for Tressel at Youngstown, Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger hired Tressel as the Buckeyes' new head coach.

Three days after that, Clarett, the nation's top high school running back, orally committed to Ohio State. Jim Tressel was a driving reason.

* * *

As a high school player in Youngstown, Clarett was hard to ignore. Tressel first became aware of him by happenstance while attending his nephew's high school game. Clarett, just a freshman, ran for 246 yards on the nephew's team, Berea. "I said, holy smokes," Tressel recalls. "You could tell he was going to be good."

Clarett had his eye on the NFL from early on. Three years later, in a foreshadowing of events to come, Clarett was on an early recruiting trip to Notre Dame. Standing in the Irish locker room after a 27-24 overtime loss to Nebraska. Urban Meyer, then a Notre Dame assistant, now Utah's head coach, turned to him and said, "Well, what do you think?"

"I want to come to Notre Dame," Clarett announced.

"Well, that's great," said Meyer, startled. "We'll count on it."

"No, you don't understand," Clarett said. "I want to come to Notre Dame right now."

"But ... you're a junior. You can't do that."

"I'll graduate early. Skip my senior year."

"But Notre Dame has never done anything like that."

"If you don't take me," Clarett said, "I'm going to Michigan."

So, according to Meyer, Notre Dame got moving on the paperwork. Then Bob Davie was fired as head coach, putting all plans on hold. And elsewhere, Tressel, Youngstown's civic hero, was hired to replace John Cooper at Ohio State.

Tressel understood what he was getting into with Clarett, and vice-versa. At Youngstown State, the coach knew the family through his recruitment of Maurice's older brother Marcus, who would later sign with the University of Buffalo. Maurice had attended Tressel's camps and gone to Penguin games. Tressel knew the area's high school coaches, heard the stories, and was especially tight with Clarett's coach, Thom McDaniel of Warren G. Harding, where Clarett had transferred to as a sophomore.

Rules, or at least norms, were going to have to be adjusted to accommodate the impatient Clarett. First up: Ohio State would allow him to enter college in January before other freshmen arrived, as Clarett had graduated high school early. By the end of summer, he had earned the starting tailback job and, unlike regular freshmen, was living off campus.

"They made a major mistake by letting him enroll early," said Myke Clarett, his father, whose relationship with Maurice began to deteriorate around the same time. "When the season started and he exploded, he was on every talk show. He was treated like a rock star. That really distorts a person's personality because everywhere you go people want to do favors for you."

Cash and car keys fell into his hands, the son now says. Clarett knew these gifts were only lamented when given to so-called amateurs. Once his friend LeBron James was permitted to go straight to the NBA, accepting the inevitable favors of fame no longer was regarded as a moral flaw. But Clarett's white-hot desire to make a living in his sport had to be deferred and then channeled through, in stubborn parlance of the NCAA, intercollegiate athletics, where a grant-in-aid allows a student-athlete to pursue the primary goal of an education.

Except class could not interfere with football practice. And counselors were steering players into junk courses. And fans outside the 100,000-seat Ohio Stadium were selling "Maurice the Beast" T-shirts. And Clarett's number 13 jersey was flying off the rack. And Ohio State football, professional in every way except player compensation, was reporting that revenues during its national championship season jumped to $53 million, against expenses of just $15 million.

Clarett's cut that year? $13,379, the average annual cost of a full scholarship for in-state athletes.

Financially vulnerable and increasingly cynical, Clarett became a magnet for opportunists. He felt it, writing "Not for Sale" on autographs after he saw on eBay how much money others were making from his signature. The NCAA felt it, launching a four-alarm investigation when a black Monte Carlo he was driving turned out to be a loaner from a local used-car lot. Ohio State felt it, suspending Clarett, under pressure from the NCAA, for his sophomore season for accepting gifts from a hometown associate. Clarett had received $500 in cash and allowed thousands of dollars in cell phone bills to be paid for by Bobby Dellimuti, a caterer who, as ESPN.com later discovered, also gambled regularly on football.

And once again, Tressel was faced with the question of how much he really wanted to know about his rainmaker. Clarett's recent contention that Tressel actually directed him to those who loaned him cars makes those questions more pressing.

"If there were problems with Maurice, Tress should have seen it," said Vince Marrow, an inner-circle advisor to Clarett and former NFL player.

The Columbus Dispatch reported last year Tressel had said during the national championship season that Dellimuti's name didn't ring a bell. In fact, Tressel had knowledge of Dellimuti before Clarett even played a game. When pressed by ESPN.com, Tressel said he first met Dellimuti in the spring before Clarett's freshman season when Dellimuti introduced himself after practice. "I knew he was a booster of the Warren high school program and a fellow who was very involved with coach McDaniel," Tressel said.

Tressel declined to detail any specific efforts he made to learn about Clarett's actions when rumors began to circulate about his receiving impermissible benefits. Speaking in general terms, he said, "Do I think I didn't work hard on trying to be cognizant of Maurice or anyone else? I think we've worked very hard on it. It's a difficult task. We need to do it better."

Yet even when questions about Clarett became public, Tressel seemed to barely notice bombs dropping in his midst. He astounded reporters at the Big Ten media day before the 2003 season when, asked for his response to a New York Times story 13 days earlier about alleged academic fraud involving Clarett, Tressel responded that he hadn't read it. "Bits and pieces," he said at the time. Then, more than three months after the April break-in of Clarett's loaner car that piqued the NCAA's interest, Tressel declined comment on that situation, too, because he hadn't read that report.

Ultimately, no NCAA violations were found in either of the above situations. As for the Dellimuti-related violations, Ohio State avoided the potential penalty of game forfeitures from the national title season by arguing that school officials were unaware of those gifts back then. People with ties to Clarett, though, find that contention hard to swallow.

"C'mon," Myke Clarett said. "Tressel is acting like Sergeant Schultz."

Tressel's former Youngstown State players have seen this scenario play out before. At the time, some players wondered about the cars that Isaac was driving around town. But Tressel, if he did notice red flags, never asked questions, to the appreciation of his players.

"What would you do, man?" said Shawn Patton, a teammate of Isaac in 1990 and the leading rusher on the 1994 national champions at Youngstown. "Do you turn your head when some kid gets some money he's not supposed to? Or do you (pursue the truth and) see your whole program go down?" Patton, a warehouse laborer, shook his head so gently his dreadlocks barely moved. "The NCAA? It's just the mob. Just a bunch of crooks stealing money from a bunch of kids."

If Tressel shares that sentiment, he does not let on.

"You do wrestle with that question of, should players get paid? And, what's wrong with that (free) cell phone?" he said. "But I always revert to that motive of why these rules were made. They're not perfect, but I really think their intentions are steeped in what's good for the universities, what's good for the sport, what's good for the culture, and what's good for the kids.

"They're for the masses. And the masses aren't going to the NFL."

Therein, perhaps, lies the conflict. Maurice Clarett knew he was special.

No longer. He is the Youngstown guy in Tressel's rear-view mirror. To borrow from Springsteen, Ohio State is rich enough to forget his name.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN television. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.