COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel received an e-mail last April telling him that two of his players were caught up in a federal drug-trafficking case and the sale of memorabilia, breaking NCAA rules.
Tressel responded: "I will get on it ASAP."
But he never mentioned it to Ohio State's compliance department or his athletic director for more than nine months.
On Tuesday, Tressel was suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season and fined $250,000 for violating NCAA rules by failing to notify the school about the players' involvement. He also will receive a public reprimand and must make a public apology.
The NCAA is still investigating and could reject Ohio State's self-imposed penalties and add more sanctions.
"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."
Last December, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four teammates for the first five games on 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.
Yahoo! Sports first reported Tressel's prior knowledge of the possible improper benefits on Monday.
"I think that your No. 1 critic is yourself," he said, tears welling in his eyes at a Tuesday night news conference. "You spend time thinking about how you can do things better. I don't think less of myself at this moment. I felt at the time as if I was doing the right thing for the safety of the young people and the overall situation."
Asked when he first realized that he had violated NCAA rules, Tressel blinked, faltered and hesitated — momentarily speechless.
With Ohio State again being investigated by the NCAA, college football is digging out of yet another scandal. The 2010 season was weighed down from start to finish with NCAA issues, from North Carolina being investigated for players having improper contact with agents to the play-for-pay scheme involving Cam Newton's father that was uncovered in November.
Last week, Oregon announced the NCAA and Pac-10 was looking into the school's arrangement with a recruiting service.
The NCAA has faced criticism for going easy on rule-breakers, especially for letting Ohio State's guilty players participate in the Sugar Bowl and for not punishing Newton, the Auburn quarterback, for his father's misdeeds.
Tressel said he never thought of resigning, and 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 which 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."
On April 2, 2010, Tressel received an e-mail from a person he identified only as "a lawyer," who wrote that Ohio State players had been implicated in activities with Eddie Rife, a local tattoo-parlor owner, whom the federal government was investigating on charges of drug-trafficking. The e-mail, released to reporters but with the names redacted, said players were selling signed Buckeyes memorabilia and giving it to Rife in exchange for money and tattoos.
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."
The Buckeyes coach said he was trying to protect his players by not breaking the confidentiality of the federal investigation.
"Admittedly, I probably did not give quite as much thought to the potential NCAA part of things," he said.
Along with Pryor, starting receiver DeVier Posey, leading rusher Dan "Boom" Herron, offensive lineman Mike Adams and backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas were suspended for selling memorabilia, but allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, which the Buckeyes won 31-26 against Arkansas.
Shortly after Ohio State returned from New Orleans, the university began reviewing its information on an unrelated legal issue, Smith said Tuesday, and Tressel acknowledged he had not told everything he knew about his players and their relationship with the tattoo parlor and its owner.
"I plan to grow from this," Tressel said. "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."
This was not the first time Tressel or his players have run into problems with the NCAA.
Ray Isaac, a star quarterback at Youngstown State, accepted improper inducements including cars. Tressel was found to have done an incomplete investigation of those allegations, with Youngstown State later serving penalties. In addition, Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship, and Troy Smith, winner of the 2006 Heisman Trophy, were suspended by the NCAA for receiving money and other benefits from boosters.
The Buckeyes open next season with games against Akron and Toledo, likely playing those without their coach and their star quarterback.
Ohio State president Gordon Gee said he and Tressel had discussed the violation at Gee's house for 3 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."
The team resumed workouts this week — with all of the suspended players participating, and with Tressel in the middle of practice with a whistle around his neck.