Any other year Ohio State is unbeaten and ranked No. 4 coming into its annual rivalry game with Michigan, its fans would be trolling the Internet for the best airfares to the BCS title game.
Not this time.
Due to NCAA sanctions, Ohio State is banned from playing for the Big Ten championship next week and going to a bowl, and isn’t a factor in the national title picture.
So a wondrous and surprising season — 11-0 heading into Saturday’s home game with the 20th-ranked Wolverines — will come to an abrupt and premature end on Saturday.
Many of the faithful blame athletic director Gene Smith, who gambled and lost that the NCAA wouldn’t levy a bowl ban.
Letters to the editor in the local newspaper, calls to sports talk shows and posts on fan websites all spew vitriol at Smith, who had served on the NCAA’s committee on infractions and believed the penalties he and Ohio State’s administrators had proposed would be sufficient to appease the ruling body of intercollegiate sports.
“At the time we made the decision we felt confident that we would not receive the bowl ban,” Smith said on Tuesday. “Obviously, when we received it we were shocked and devastated.”
The sanctions stem from former coach Jim Tressel learning in April 2010 that several players had likely received free tattoos and cash from the subject of a federal drug investigation. NCAA rules require coaches to notify the association or their superiors when they have any information that violations may have taken place, including improper benefits to athletes. Also, Tressel’s contract clearly specified that he was required to report any hint of wrongdoing.
Yet he didn’t tell anyone. It was only after the Buckeyes had completed a 12-1 record, won the Big Ten and the Sugar Bowl, that investigators looking into another matter came across incriminating emails which proved that Tressel had knowledge of potential violations.
Tressel was forced to resign in late May 2011. Ohio State officials worked closely with the NCAA in a lengthy investigation that also turned up evidence of other violations.
In July, roughly a month before Ohio State’s hearing before the NCAA’s committee on infractions, Smith said he believed the self-imposed sanctions, which included vacating the 2010 season, returning bowl money, five-game suspensions for several players, NCAA probation and recruiting limitations, would be enough to mollify the NCAA.
He said there would be no bowl ban “unless something new arises.”
That proved to be prophetic. On the eve of the opening game of the 2011 season, with defensive assistant Luke Fickell taking over as interim coach, three players were suspended for each accepting $200 in cash from a booster at a charity event.