Lessons for Coaches from the Case of Jim Tressel

Jim Tressel resigned his post as head football coach at the Ohio State University (OSU) on Monday under a cloud of scandal and impending NCAA sanctions.  Tressel allegedly attempted to cover-up potential violations by six of his players, who traded OSU memorabilia for tattoos.  A Sports Illustrated article by George Dohrmann (with David Epstein) proved to be the final straw, outlining a pattern of violations that occurred under Tressel.  It was an inglorious end to the OSU career of the coach often referred to as the “The Senator.”

Here are a few lessons that coaches can take from the Tressel situation:

The Cover-up is Worse Than the Crime

If Tressel had reported the NCAA violations by his players upon learning of them, he would likely be the head coach of OSU today.  The underlying violations – players trading memorabilia for tattoos – would likely have resulted in NCAA violations for OSU and perhaps Tressel personally.  But with Tressel’s (formerly) clean reputation, even a finding that he failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance probably would not have resulted in a forced resignation.  Tressel’s cover-up, however, will likely lead to charges that he violated the NCAA’s Rule 10.1 concerning unethical conduct – a charge that most coaches, including “The Senator”, cannot overcome.

Take the Lead on Any Violations

No coach wants to discover that his top players have engaged in behavior that is in direct violation with NCAA rules.  However, once faced with that information, the coach and university have a potentially golden opportunity – the ability to control the situation.  The university and coach can conduct their own investigations, self-report the violations to the NCAA and self-impose sanctions.  This scenario provides the best opportunity to mitigate damage to the program and to the coach’s career. 

Always Know What Your Players are Doing

For coaches, ignorance is not a valid defense.  Coaches are responsible for knowing what their players are doing, what kind of cars they are driving, where they are spending their time and even the origin of their tattoos.  No matter the burden of keeping track of an entire football team, coaches cannot afford to ignore the off-field activities of their players.  Moreover, coaches cannot turn a blind eye to potential violations.  Doing so could cost a coach a job, or even a career.

Start Building Your Reputation as an Assistant

The coaching community is rather small.  Accordingly, coaches must always act with integrity and be aware that an act as a low-level assistant can affect them years later.  Case-in-point the Sports Illustrated story pointed to Tressel’s actions as a Ohio State assistant in the mid-1980s:

According to his fellow assistant, Tressel rigged the raffle so that the elite prospects won — a potential violation of NCAA rules. Says the former colleague, who asked not to be identified because he still has ties to the Ohio State community, “In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That’s Jim Tressel.”

This story is completely irrelevant to the issues with the NCAA and may not even be true.  Nevertheless, it is one of the most striking elements of  the story and is damning in the court of public opinion.

Seek Independent Counsel

Connecticut Sports Law has covered some of the reasons that coaches must engage independent counselJim Tressel has engaged Gene Marsh, former chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions to represent him before the NCAA.  Marsh’s job is to minimize Tressel’s punishment and achieve a resolution that leaves Tressel with the possibility, no matter how slight, to return to big-time college coaching.  However, given Marsh’s connections and experience, he could have assisted Tressel in avoiding this entire situation had he been consulted at the outset.  Once Tressel learned of his players’ actions, he was obligated to report to OSU and the NCAA.  But he could have first consulted with counsel to strategize a way to present his findings in a manner that could best protect him from losing his job and violating NCAA rules. 

Cars, Money and Boosters

The NCAA has struggled to adjust its rules to keep up with advances technology and social media.  Nevertheless, the violations in this case relate to cars, money and boosters, which have presented problems in college football for decades.   Look no further than ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Pony Excess” detailing SMU’s football program.  Although coaches must be in-tune to new technology and the issues that accompany it, they can’t lose sight of the issues that have historically caused problems for coaches.


  1. wwilson2829 says:

    These are good points, but the implicit and entirely false premise is: if only Tressell had known these things, he wouldn’t be in this predicament. Which is absurd. Every big-time college coach already knows every one of these factors — Pearl, Sampson, Rodriguez, Calhoun, Carroll. It’s not a question of ignorance of the rules (no matter what these coaches claim after the fact.) And the NCAA knows full well it’s not a matter of rule-ignorance (and if they thought that were the real cause, AND wanted to do something about it, they would have long ago passed a by law requiring all coaches attend a one or two week initial “certifying” seminar, with annual two day updates, at one location (thereby eliminating the charade of “in-house” training at each school) which would easily and quickly allow the NCAA to categorically reject any claim of ignorance — and whiich would eliminate 80% of all the ersatz litigation before the NCAA, most of which is packed full of middle-aged “professionals” who’ve been in the business for 20 years saying “Gee, I really didn’t know.”)
    What is needed is a pragmatic primer for these big time college coaches who have extraordinary pressure on them to win, just as a businessman needs expert advice from a good accountant as to how to avoid IRS trouble. I.e, how do I win AND minimize my chances of getting caught cutting corners or breaking rules? Which would include things which will maximize later plausible deniability, like: 1) Never use email; 2) Maintain a separate personal (and personally paid for) cell phone account, and put as much of any necessary communication (text, tweet, email, web) on that account; 3) Never use paper memos; 4) Hire people around you to do things for which you give them only oral, or even just implicit instruction. 5)Make sure you have one aide between you and the college’s Compliance office, so that all communication with Compliance is through him; 6) Carefully examine and re-think all compliance related practices if a new AD is hired.
    These are real points. There are many others. And this kind of list is valuable even for the entirely honest and forthright coach (ie, not Tressell) — merely because the NCAA regs are so zany, ever-changing, and oftentimes vague or self-contradictory that any such coach needs to carefully craft his practices with good prophylactic planning.


  1. […] of Ohio State’s self-imposed penalties.  Subsequent to the imposition of those penalties, Sports Illustrated blew the top off of the Tressel story precipitating his resignation.  Although Tressel, was no longer required to attend the seminar due to his departure, Attorney […]

  2. […] their minds.  None of this comes as a surprise considering the NCAA investigation concerning allegations of improper benefits during Jim Tressel’s tenure as head coach.  However, these stories serve as a reminder about a clause in the NLI that could restrict the […]

  3. […]  For more on Tressel, see my article Lessons for Coaches from the Case of Jim Tressel. […]

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