COLUMBUS, Ohio – Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett blames athletes rather than coaches and fans for the culture that created problems in the Buckeyes' football program.
"There's no secret regime, there's no secret congregation of people who sit around at Ohio State who gives young guys money," Clarett said Wednesday on The Dan Patrick Show. "Anything that any player goes and gets is all based on him and who he meets in the community. The coaches and the university have no control over what the young guy's doing."
The NCAA is investigating Ohio State players who allegedly received improper benefits and special deals on cars. Five players have been suspended for the first five games this fall for trading signed jerseys, championship rings and other items for cash and discounted tattoos from a Columbus tattoo-parlor owner.
Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign last week for knowing about the players' involvement but not reporting it as required by his contract and NCAA rules. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of those suspended and a subject of the NCAA probe, announced Tuesday that he would not return for his senior season.
Clarett, ruled ineligible after carrying Ohio State to its first national championship in 34 years in 2002, said the university cannot control everything that players do.
"There wasn't any coach or any booster or any member in or around Ohio State who helps you get a car," Clarett said, recalling his own time on campus. "It doesn't go on. It's just guys doing what they want to. People will forever do what they want to. It's nothing more than young guys making mistakes."
Clarett questioned the foundation of big-time college football, where universities and coaches make millions off athletes yet the players get in trouble with the NCAA for accepting cash for autographs or memorabilia.
"Why are they even in that position? Why is it that a university can profit $20 million, $30 million, $40 million and these guys are in the position that they have to sell their memorabilia — the only thing they have of value at that point?" Clarett said. "Why are they even in that position to do that, when there's enough money to go around?"
Once an elite running back recruit, Clarett seized the starting tailback job before the 2002 season opener and caught the nation's attention when he piled up 230 yards rushing in a victory over Washington State — still the sixth-highest single-game total in school history.
Despite nagging injuries, Clarett continued to play well as Ohio State went through the season unbeaten and was selected as the Big Ten's top freshman.
In the Fiesta Bowl, which served as the Bowl Championship Series national championship, Clarett bulled over the middle in the second overtime for the winning touchdown in No. 2 Ohio State's dramatic 31-24 upset of top-ranked Miami.
Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards in his only season, was suspended the following summer for taking improper benefits, including cars. He never played in another college game.
He did not blame his ineligibility on boosters.
"People didn't reach out to me. I reached out to people," he said. "Just when you're traveling around the community, I reached out to people: 'Hey, I'm struggling with this. Hey, I need help with this.'"
Clarett sued the NFL to enter the draft before he had been out of high school for three years, but lost on appeal. From there, his life spiraled out of control.
He pleaded guilty in September 2006 to having a gun hidden in his SUV and holding up two people outside a Columbus bar in a separate case. He was sentenced to 7½ years in prison, and was released in early 2010 after serving 3½ years.
Clarett played last year for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.
He accused Ohio State of academic fraud during the investigation spurred by his improper-benefits case in 2003. But on Wednesday, he said he had lied and manipulated the professor to get good grades.
Going to prison had altered his view of the world, Clarett said. Five years ago, he said he might have celebrated that Ohio State and Tressel were going through the NCAA problems they are now. But that isn't the way he feels.
Clarett also said he did not consider Tressel, who until a few months ago had a squeaky clean image around the country, to be a cheater or a fraud.
"You can't be a fraud for 30 years. It's impossible," he said. "People can smell a fraud in the first month, two, three, four, five months. They're going to be exposed. To do what that man has done ... it's wrong for that man to get dealt like that."
Asked where his national championship ring is, Clarett said, "That's at my mother's house. There's not one piece of memorabilia that I don't have."