NCAA sends message to Ohio State

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he is "surprised and disappointed" that the NCAA on Tuesday imposed a one-year bowl ban and other penalties against the Buckeyes football program as punishment for a scandal that involved players receiving $14,000 in cash and tattoos in exchange for autographed jerseys, rings and other memorabilia.

Smith should be relieved the punishment wasn't worse. USC fans are probably asking why it wasn't more severe.

To be honest, I'm surprised the NCAA hit the Buckeyes as hard as it did. I figured The Ohio State University was immune from the kind of punishment that might cripple a program in recruiting and severely sully its once-pristine reputation.

Unlike USC, which was defiant in the face of allegations, Ohio State fully cooperated with the NCAA's investigation. Instead of arguing its innocence, Ohio State admitted to its sins -- or, more accurately, former coach Jim Tressel's sins. Ohio State believed that by saying and doing what the NCAA asked in the wake of the scandal, it would be granted leniency when it was time to pay.

But instead of accepting Ohio State's self-imposed penalties, which included vacating the 2010 season, returning bowl game revenue and applying a reduction of five scholarships over the next three years, the NCAA committee on infractions added some punishment of its own. The Buckeyes won't be eligible to play for a conference championship or in a bowl game in new coach Urban Meyer's first season in 2012, and they'll lose three scholarships in each of the next three seasons.

The punishment may be more severe than Ohio State believes it deserves, but it's still a far cry from what USC received.

In June 2010, the Trojans were hit with a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period. USC was hit with some of the most severe penalties in NCAA history because Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J. Mayo accepted thousands of dollars in improper benefits from sports marketers and agents.

At the time, the NCAA said high-profile athletes required high-profile monitoring.

At least former USC coach Pete Carroll didn't lie to his bosses or withhold information from NCAA investigators.

Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who was forced to resign in May, committed the ultimate sin for a college coach when he withheld information about the scandal from OSU officials and NCAA investigators. In fact, according to the NCAA's infractions report released Tuesday, Tressel had four opportunities to reveal his knowledge of the scandal to the NCAA, but never once told the truth.

The NCAA also didn't buy Tressel's excuses for remaining silent. Before Tressel was forced to resign, he said he didn't reveal that former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other players were trading memorabilia for tattoos and cash because the tattoo-shop owner, Edward Rife, was under investigation for drug dealing. Tressel said he didn't want to jeopardize the federal investigation and feared for the safety of his players.

"The committee found [Tressel's reasoning] not to be credible," the report said. "The former head coach's inaction on four different occasions was in the committee's view, a deliberate effort to conceal the situation from the institution and the NCAA in order to preserve the eligibility of the aforementioned student-athletes, several of whom were key contributors to the team's highly successful 12-1 season in 2010."

SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey, who serves on the NCAA's infractions committee, called Tressel's conduct "very serious and, frankly, very disappointing."

Now Meyer and the rest of the Buckeyes get to pay for Tressel's sins.

As part of its punishment, the NCAA made it nearly impossible for Tressel to become a college coach again. The NCAA hit Tressel with a five-year show-cause penalty until December 2016, under which any school that wants to hire him must submit a report to the NCAA detailing why it needs to employ him and how it would monitor him to ensure he doesn't break its rules again. Any school hiring Tressel during the five-year period would be subject to more severe sanctions if he cheats again.

Even if a school hires Tressel, he will be suspended for the first five regular-season games when he returns, as well as any postseason contests.

The NCAA also ordered Ohio State to disassociate itself from Bobby DiGeronimo, a rogue booster who provided impermissible benefits to OSU athletes for a period of 10 years. The NCAA also directed the Buckeyes to disassociate themselves from Pryor, who is now a backup quarterback with the NFL's Oakland Raiders, for a period of five years. Pryor is prohibited from providing any financial contributions to the OSU athletic department and can't be given sideline passes or complimentary tickets to Buckeyes games. He also is banned from using OSU's athletic facilities.

Ohio State's penalties put a serious dent in the momentum it gained after hiring Meyer, who led Florida to BCS national championships in 2006 and '08. Over the last few weeks, Meyer received verbal commitments from three of the country's top high school prospects and was on his way to assembling what he called the "best coaching staff in the country."

Before accepting the Ohio State job, Meyer said he researched how severe OSU's penalties would be and was confident they wouldn't be too stiff.

Now Meyer has to tell recruits the Buckeyes won't be playing in the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game next year.

"It is still my goal to hire excellent coaches, recruit great student-athletes who want to be a part of this program and to win on and off the field," Meyer said in a statement. "The NCAA penalties will serve as a reminder that the college experience does not include the behavior that led to these penalties."

Since taking office in November 2010, new NCAA president Mark Emmert has repeatedly said he wanted college sports' governing body to get more serious about cracking down on rule breakers.

The Buckeyes are Example A to schools like North Carolina and Miami -- who await NCAA sanctions themselves -- that Emmert is indeed serious.

"I would not suggest this is necessarily a new day, but these penalties are significant," Sankey said.

It might not be a new day for the NCAA, but it's certainly a breath of fresh air.

Even a program like Ohio State isn't immune from paying the price for its sins.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.