INDIANAPOLIS – Ohio State has made it through its meeting with the NCAA committee on infractions. Now the Buckeyes have to play the 2011 season knowing that just before their annual showdown against rival Michigan, they could get slapped with a bowl ban.
School officials appeared Friday before infractions committee, which heard how players received improper benefits from a tattoo-shop owner and how ex-coach Jim Tressel learned of those NCAA violations and covered them up. The bottom line: Tressel used players throughout the 2010 season he knew were ineligible.
"We look forward to the committee's report in eight to 12 weeks," athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement afterward. Most such decisions are rendered in six to eight weeks.
If it takes three months, that would mean Ohio State will receive word on penalties in the second week of November — shortly before the Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor for their annual all-or-nothing game with Michigan on Nov. 26.
Friday's meeting took only four hours, with the 10-member committee not even breaking for lunch. That could be a sign the panel, chaired by Mideastern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dennis Thomas, had few questions and largely accepted Ohio State's version of events following months of investigation.
The school also announced it will repay the $338,811 it received for playing in the Sugar Bowl, a 31-26 victory over Arkansas. Previously, Smith had said Ohio State's proposed sanctions — the departure of Tressel, player suspensions, vacating the 2010 season including the Sugar Bowl win and going on two years of NCAA probation — were severe. But Ohio State changed its self-imposed penalties shortly before the hearing.
Not only could the NCAA committee tack on a bowl ban, it could also limit the Buckeyes' number of recruits, among other possibilities. The NCAA has informed Ohio State that the two most serious findings it could hit the school with — lack of institutional control and failure to monitor players and coaches — are off the board based on information it has received so far.
No one from the public or media was permitted into the hearing room, a hotel ballroom which had 38 microphones placed on tables set up in a square. Guards were stationed outside the doors.
Tressel, eschewing his customary sweater vest for a gray suit, declined to answer questions as he hustled with his attorney through the hotel's lobby and slipped into an elevator.
He did leave behind a news release.
"I had an open and constructive exchange with the committee on infractions," the statement read. "They were well prepared and will now go about their work in deliberations. Again, I would like to apologize to the Buckeye nation, most especially to the players, staff and fans who remain so dear to me."
Ohio State President Gordon Gee also weighed in.
"I appreciated the opportunity to appear today," he said in a statement. "The committee treated us fairly and gave us ample time to share our perspective. Throughout, we have been determined to do what is right in responding to the information we discovered."
School officials held a five-hour strategy session with their lawyers at the hotel on Thursday night.
The central point of the hearing was the contention — admitted by Tressel — that he alone among Ohio State officials broke NCAA bylaws when he learned some of his players had accepted improper benefits from a Columbus tattoo-parlor owner in April 2010. He then declined to tell Ohio State or NCAA officials for more than nine months, contrary to his contract and other NCAA rules.
Tressel's decision led Ohio State to pressure him to step down in May after 10 seasons, a 106-22 record, seven Big Ten titles and the 2002 national championship. It also sparked the NCAA investigation.
Six Ohio State players were suspended for the first five games this fall for trading memorabilia for cash and discounted tattoos. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of those suspended players, gave up his final year of eligibility for a shot at playing in the NFL. One other player has left the program; yet another player will sit out the season-opener.
Smith told The Associated Press earlier this week that the investigations into the players' actions and those of Tressel have cost Ohio State's athletic department about $800,000 so far. Records released by the university Friday showed how some of the money was spent. Ohio State paid $270,000 to a New York PR firm to help it manage publicity stemming from the scandal, plus another $162,000 to a Kansas firm that specializes in NCAA compliance consulting.
Ohio State officials have worked closely with the NCAA since last December. In a climate where several big-time football (Southern California, North Carolina) and men's basketball (Tennessee, Connecticut) programs have been or are in trouble, there is an undercurrent of feeling that the NCAA may choose to take a hard line on the Buckeyes' violations.
The most recent spate of rule-breaking at Ohio State also overlapped with probation remaining from when the men's basketball program committed major violations under then-coach Jim O'Brien in 2004. That makes Ohio State a so-called repeat violator and could affect the school's treatment by the NCAA.
ESPN.com reported earlier this week Ohio State had received a letter from the NCAA saying that it was looking into additional allegations. But Smith, reading from a statement, said, "The NCAA staff concluded that the evidence at this time does not warrant additional allegations and that our joint review of any remaining items did not necessitate a delay to today's hearing."