By Rusty Miller
COLUMBUS — Ohio State suspended football coach Jim Tressel for two games and fined him $250,000 on Tuesday for violating NCAA rules by failing to notify the school about information he received involving two players and questionable activities involving the sale of memorabilia.
Tressel also will receive a public reprimand and must make a public apology. The NCAA is investigating and could reject the self-imposed penalties and impose additional sanctions.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he never seriously considered firing Tressel for violating his contract, which specifies that he must immediately report any — the word is underlined in the contract — information that pertains to violations of NCAA, Big Ten or Ohio State bylaws and rules.
“Wherever we end up, Jim Tressel is our football coach,” Smith said. “He is our coach, and we trust him implicitly.”
Last December, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four teammates for the first five games of the 2011 season for selling jerseys, championship rings and trophies to a local tattoo parlor owner. The suspensions came just 16 days after the U.S. attorney told the school of a federal investigation that included players.
The school did not learn until January, however, that Tressel had been tipped off to the federal investigation back in April.
“Obviously I’m disappointed that this happened at all,” Tressel said. “I take my responsibility for what we do at Ohio State tremendously seriously and for the game of football. I plan to grow from this. I’m sincerely saddened by the fact that I let some people down and didn’t do things as well as I possibly could have.”
Yahoo! Sports first reported Monday on Tressel’s prior knowledge of the possible improper benefits.
Tressel said he allowed the two players cited in the e-mail to play the entire 2010 season because he did not want to “interfere with a federal investigation” and worried that sitting eligible players would raise a “whole new set of questions.”
Tressel received an e-mail on April 2. A person Tressel identified only as “a lawyer,” mentioned that Ohio State players had been implicated in activities with Eddie Rife, a local tattoo parlor owner.
The e-mail, according to Tressel, said players were selling signed Buckeyes memorabilia and giving it to Rife in exchange for money and tattoos.
The e-mail said Rife had a criminal record and had witnessed one of his friends being murdered in a parking lot.
The Buckeyes coach said he kept quiet out fear for the safety of the two players connected to the federal, criminal drug-trafficking case.
That investigation prompted an Ohio State and NCAA investigation involving players selling memorabilia and getting discounted tattoos.
“I have had a player murdered. I’ve had a player incarcerated. I’ve had a player get taken into the drug culture and lose his opportunity for a productive life,” an emotional Tressel said, tears welling in his eyes, at a news conference on Tuesday night. “It was obviously tremendously concerning. Quite honestly, I was scared.”
Tressel met with Ohio State and NCAA officials in December when the U.S. Attorney’s Office disclosed that Pryor, top receiver DeVier Posey, leading rusher Dan “Boom” Herron, offensive lineman Mike Adams and backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas had provided the memorabilia.
Despite their 2011 five-game suspensions, those five were permitted to play in the Sugar Bowl. With all playing well — Thomas even had the game-saving interception in the final minutes — the Buckeyes beat Arkansas 31-26 in New Orleans.
Shortly after the team returned from the game, the university began reviewing its information on an unrelated legal issue, Smith said Tuesday, and Tressel admitted he had not told everything he knew about his players and their relationship with the tattoo parlor and its owner.
Smith was forced to return to campus Tuesday, skipping meetings with television network officials in New York about this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, to address the NCAA violations.
Smith is the chairman of the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball committee which selects, seeds and brackets the teams.
Tressel is 106-22 in his 10 years as coach of the Buckeyes, with a national championship in 2002.
The Buckeyes open next season with games against Akron and Toledo, likely playing those without their coach and their quarterback.
Ohio State president Gordon Gee said he and Tressel had discussed the violation at Gee’s house for three hours one night.
Gee also said he had not considered dismissing the Buckeyes coach. “No, are you kidding?” he said with a laugh. “Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”