Ohio State's proposed "sweet spot" of self-imposed penalties on its football program ultimately proved distasteful to the NCAA. The NCAA shocked the team yesterday by banning the Buckeyes from postseason play at the end of next season, even as new coach Urban Meyer works to land blue-chip recruits. The ruling kills any hope of Big Ten or national championships in 2012.
Ohio State's proposed "sweet spot" of self-imposed penalties on its football program ultimately proved distasteful to the NCAA.
The NCAA shocked the team yesterday by banning the Buckeyes from postseason play at the end of next season, even as new coach Urban Meyer works to land blue-chip recruits. The ruling kills any hope of Big Ten or national championships in 2012.
"I went from stunned and disappointed to angry and all the emotions you can imagine. I'm just really disappointed and saddened for the players," athletic director Gene Smith said.
Smith and university President E. Gordon Gee said Ohio State would not appeal the NCAA's penalties, even though officials thought they had built a persuasive case that the school already had punished itself enough.
"We made a mistake, and we were taking our medicine," Gee said.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions, however, deemed Ohio State deserving of a stiffer slap because the school failed to monitor a booster - Cleveland-area businessman Bobby DiGeronimo - and because of former coach Jim Tressel's "unethical conduct" in hiding his knowledge of rules violations.
The third big factor, according to infractions committee member Greg Sankey: Ohio State is a repeat offender. In 2006, the university was slapped for a major violation in the men's basketball program.
"I get it. I understand how they got" to the harsher penalties, Smith said. "I think the umbrella used for us is we're a repeat violator."
Besides the postseason ban, the NCAA stripped Ohio State of more scholarships - nine instead of five over the next three years - and extended its probation through 2014. Ohio State had vacated victories from the 2010 season, including the Sugar Bowl, among other penalties.
OSU experienced a series of scandals, which began when players improperly sold memorabilia. Then Tressel's actions came to light. Finally, officials discovered that athletes were being paid by DiGeronimo for attending a charity event and for hours not worked at part-time jobs. OSU players received about $17,000 in combined improper benefits.
After Tressel's actions became public, Ohio State suspended him and instituted other penalties. At the time, Smith said he thought the university had hit the "sweet spot" for issuing punishments that the NCAA would consider appropriate.
"I think we stumbled out of the gate, we made some mistakes initially." Gee said last night, "(but) we gathered ourselves, put together a good approach, and from that point on I think we've done very well."
Sankey said the Buckeyes gained an improper "competitive edge," and the team was unjustly rewarded with a spot in last January's Sugar Bowl, a Bowl Championship Series game, after Tressel knowingly fielded ineligible players throughout the 2010 season.
Tressel, who was forced to resign on May 30, was separately issued a show-cause penalty. If any NCAA school wants to hire him in the next five years, it must first persuade the NCAA why it wants to hire a known rules violator and agree to certain restrictions.
Asked if the NCAA was signaling tougher penalties for future violations, Sankey, an associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, said: "I would not suggest this is necessarily a new day, but these penalties are significant."
Michael Buckner, a Pompano Beach, Fla., lawyer whose firm represents universities facing NCAA investigations, was surprised by the bowl ban.
"Normally, that penalty would be imposed if there had been ineligible players taking part in a bowl, but those players that took part in the Sugar Bowl last year for Ohio State had already been reinstated by the NCAA for that particular game," he said.
Smith said that, in hindsight, he would not have worked to ensure that those players, including former quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey, were eligible for that game. "(With) what I knew at that time, it was the right thing to do," he said.
Gee said Ohio State also had considered self-imposing a bowl ban for the current season, but added: "There's no guarantee that that would have made any difference anyway."
Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee, called the penalties harsh given the school's cooperation with the NCAA. He said the NCAA appears to have "given a lot of weight" to Ohio State's failure to monitor DiGeronimo.
Mitten, an Ohio State graduate, also said he thinks the NCAA was unfairly hard on Ohio State for Tressel's actions. "Tressel concealed those violations, not the university - and the NCAA even said that."
The NCAA's report said it considered even tougher penalties against Ohio State, including a multiyear postseason ban or stripping more scholarships, but chose not to after considering cases at other schools. It mentioned prior "failure to monitor" cases involving boosters at Alabama and Arkansas and appeared to slot Ohio State's penalties between those handed to those two universities.
Alabama, like OSU a repeat offender, received a two-year bowl ban and narrowly escaped the "death penalty," a suspension of the football program. Arkansas, which had no recent major infractions, avoided a bowl ban.
The report called DiGeronimo an "insider" who long received special access to coaches, players and facilities not afforded other boosters. The NCAA and Ohio State reported that DiGeronimo paid players who attended a charity event and paid others for hours not worked at part-time jobs at his company.
The players' dealings with DiGeronimo led Gee to admonish Smith for failing to keep tabs on DiGeronimo, who the NCAA said fell off Ohio State's radar despite concerns over his dealings with players.
Gee has been consistent in his support of Smith, and he reiterated that support yesterday. He also said that while he's disappointed with the NCAA penalities, "I'm very relieved because I feel closure. I think we can now move forward."
But yesterday's ruling means Ohio State is again considered a repeat violator of NCAA violations, a designation that could worsen penalties for any violations during the next five years. To avoid problems, the university plans to create a centralized compliance office in which athletic overseers no longer will report to Smith.
"You can't legislate integrity," Smith said yesterday. "However, there's things we could have done better in the past from a monitoring point of view, and that was highlighted in the (NCAA) report. … We learned from those. …
"We're going to be a lot more focused on monitoring as we move forward. Our compliance office does a great job, but there's a lot of things we can do better."
Dispatch reporters Bill Rabinowitz, Encarnacion Pyle and Bob Baptist contributed to this story.