‘Mr. Integrity’ OSU Coach Fired For Tressel Offense

On June 24, 2004, Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger wrote the following in a letter addressed to OSU basketball coach Jim O’Brien:

Jim Tressel

‚ÄúSection 4.1(d) of your employment agreement requires you to ‚Äėknow, recognize and comply‚Äô with all applicable rules and regulations of the NCAA and to ‚Äėimmediately report to the Director [of Athletics] and to the Department of Athletics Compliance Office‚Äô if you have ‚Äėreasonable cause to believe that any person *** has violated *** such laws, policies, rules or regulations.‚Äô You have materially breached this important term of your contract.

‚ÄúUnfortunately, your admitted wrongdoings leave the University no choice. Pursuant to Section 5.1 (a) of your employment agreement, we intend to terminate such agreement for cause effective at 5 pm today, June 24, 2004.”

Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports broke the news Sunday that Jim Tressel had covered up and - as was later revealed by Ohio State - misled OSU officials as to how much he knew about past and present Ohio State football players selling OSU player gear and awards to a Columbus Tattoo parlor owner in exchange for cash and tattoos. Those actions by Buckeye football players were later confirmed as NCAA violations.

Jim O'Brien fired for lesser offense than Tressel

In their piece, Robinson and Wetzel noted two key provisions of Tressel’s Ohio State contract:

Section 4.1(d) of Tressel‚Äôs contract with Ohio State stipulates that he ‚Äúsupervise and take appropriate steps to ensure ‚Ķ members of the Team know, recognize and comply with any such laws, University Rules and Governing Athletic Rules and immediately report to the (Athletic) Director and to the (Athletic) Department‚Äôs Office of Compliance Services in writing if any person or entity, including without limitation, representatives of Ohio State‚Äôs athletic interests, has violated or is likely to violate any such laws, University Rules and Governing Athletic Rules.‚ÄĚ

Section 5.1 (m) of his contract also states that failure to promptly report ‚Äúany violations‚ÄĚ could lead to ‚Äútermination by Ohio State for cause.‚ÄĚ

In a 2006 argument to the Ohio Supreme Court that challenged Ohio State firing O’Brien for cause, the coach’s lawyer said of Ohio State’s official termination letter:

The letter clearly identifies the contractual provisions upon which defendant relies in exercising its right of termination. Specifically, defendant claims that plaintiff breached Section 4.1.

OSU AD Geiger also wrote the following in O’Brien’s termination letter:

Furthermore, for each of the past five years, you violated NCAA Bylaw 30.3.5 which, by your signature on the annual NCAA Certification of Compliance form, requires you to confirm that you have self-reported your knowledge of any NCAA violations. We have self-reported this matter and other allegations related to the program to the NCAA.

Indeed, as noted by O’Brien’s lawyer to the Ohio Supreme Court in ‘06:

On September 15, 1999, plaintiff [O’Brien] signed an NCAA Certificate of Compliance certifying that during the 1998-1999 academic year he had ‚Äúreported through the appropriate individuals *** any knowledge of violations of NCAA legislation involving [the] institution.”

In its report this week to the NCAA noting NCAA rules violations committed by Tressel, Ohio State reported that the coach:

Signed the NCAA certificate of compliance form on September 13, 2010, indicating he has reported possible  violations to the institution.

The school also reported that Tressel repeatedly lied when asked directly by OSU officials on Dec. 16, 2010, about Ohio State players’ involvement with the Tattoo parlor cited in the emails the coach had received in April and June, 2010:

[Tressel] did not report the information in the emails or his knowledge of potential violations on December 16, 2010. when asked by institutional officials about his knowledge of the student-athletes’ involvement in these activities. More specifically, while conducting its inquiry,institutional officials interviewded the six involved student-athletes. Following the interviews, University officials informaly questioned Coach Tressel about his knowledge of this information.

When Coach Tressel was asked if he had been contacted about the matter or knew anything about it, he replied that while he had received a tap about general rumors pertaining to certain of his players, that information had not been specific and it pertained to their off-field choices. He implied that the tip related to the social decisions/choices being made by certain student-athletes. He added he did not recall from whom he received the tip. He also started that he did not know that any items had been seized.

At the conclusion of the NCAA report, the following statement was attributed to Ohio State school president Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith:

With the exception of this mistake, he is a man of integrity and high moral standards.

For failing to report possible NCAA violations for 10 months and repeatedly lying to Ohio State officials about his knowledge of such impropriety, Tressel was suspended two games by Gee and Smith.

Six years earlier Ohio State cited the same two specific contract provisions as contained in Tressel’s contract in its termination letter to O’Brien.

Two days after O’Brien was fired, Dick Vitale wrote the following on ESPN.com:

I was shocked and stunned to learn of Ohio State’s decision to fire Jim O’Brien. If there’s one head coach who has been considered Mr. Integrity over his 28 years of coaching — from being an assistant at Connecticut to his head-coaching stints at St. Bonaventure, Boston College and Ohio State — it’s O’Brien.

Jim O’Brien coached Ohio State to the 1999 Final Four, where the Buckeyes lost to eventual national champion Connecticut. During those 28 years, there has never been a hint of impropriety. Anyone who knows him feels that he’s as honest as they come. He’s a class guy in the coaching fraternity, and that’s why I was shocked to hear of his dismissal.

In O’Brien’s final two seasons as Ohio State basketball coach, the team accrued a record of 31-31 overall and 13-19 in Big Ten conference play.

Meanwhile the Buckeye football team has gone 23-3 overall under Tressel the past two years, with a 14-2 mark in Big 10 games.

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