The Week That Was

How the Hell do the Angels Keep Winning?

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Dear Coach Tressel

Our college football column debuts with an open letter to the embattled ex-Ohio State coach

You are not a respectable man, nor are you a monster. You’re a standard late-model male of the species, skillful at one niche enterprise and hapless when it comes to morality. You’re like so many of us — justifying transgressions committed in the name of profit, hoping the line between right and wrong is broad and smudgy and if you stay busy enough, you won’t have to ponder it. There are televangelists preying on our grandmothers and folks whose job it is to turn down health insurance claims or market cigarettes, so let us not convince ourselves that a cheating coach is some bloodthirsty demon who ought to be stoned to death on his way into an Outback Steakhouse. Nor, though, should we be unclear about the essence of your Ohio State run, Coach, now that it has come to an end. Now that a couple of months have passed. Now that the blame-Terrelle Pryor/isn’t-that-a-shame-about-good-old-Coach T crowd has quieted and come to terms with slogging through the upcoming season with a no-name, lame-duck head man and a quarterback who last year at this time was facing off against the defense of Huber Heights High.

What you were doing the past decade, Coach, was not a bit more and not a bit less than your job requires. You were winning almost all of your conference games and getting the best of rival Michigan. Had you not been succeeding in those two endeavors, you would have been fired and forgotten, but since you succeeded you were retained and lauded. Your former job as head football coach at a powerhouse program brings with it much more pressure and longer hours than that of a dolphin trainer, watch designer, or poet, and the compensation for that public and unceasing pressure and those red-eyed hours was the gazillion dollars you were paid. You received money in exchange for games won, so all’s fair between you and OSU. They weren’t paying you to be a bastion of integrity any more than they were paying you to paint murals or check pH levels at the campus pool. You were paid by a football factory to perform the specific function of outrecruiting the other Big Ten teams and consequently winning the conference.

Coach, you did your job and did it well (until maybe at the culmination of each year, when you ran into a team of equal recruiting prowess and were handed your ass). But here’s the thing: If you’d had any interest in doing something that transcended your job description, something that might impress — rather than your choir of Buckeye faithful, someone like St. Peter, that something you could’ve done, particularly, would’ve been taking a kid whose head was ballooning and who was in dire need of tutelage concerning what it means to be a decent person and teammate and who before he ever attended a single college two-a-day was flashing signs of assholehood by ignoring the designated signing day all the other players abide by and waiting until every last ounce of attention was focused on him alone before bestowing the promise of his presence upon Columbus — taking that kid, Coach, and guiding him away from assholehood. That’s what you could have done.

What you did was fine; you worked at a factory for 10 years and met expectations and got paid. But you could have, had it been important to you, made an effort ((unapologetic soap-boxing in progress)) to instruct your star players as to the permanent value of solid character and the fleeting rush of self-aggrandizement. This route, this road of moral vigor, sometimes requires punishment, such as suspending a player for a bowl game. Yup, you’ll likely lose the bowl game (on the field, which is much worse than having to give the victory up later on paper), which might cause fans and analysts to poke fun at you because you can’t beat an SEC team, even the fourth-best one, but that’s something a respectable leader does. He takes whatever heat necessary in order to do right by his charges.

Believe me, I understand that many of these elite players are already doing 10-over on the parkway to Assholeville when they reach college, but instead of treating them to a tank of high-test and sportily slapping their back bumpers, you could throw up a speed bump or two. But I know: Speed bumps to Assholeville are often roadblocks to Titletown. I know, Coach.

And I know there are a lot of transgressions occurring in the shadowy corners of the program that the coaches know nothing about, that a coach could credibly cry ignorance of, but when your players, many of whom you personally courted in bleak neighborhoods, are driving nicer cars than their professors, it’s prudent to administer a bit of rudimentary detective work. This could take the form of saying to the player, “Hey, what’s with the car?” You know, real cloak-and-dagger techniques like that, real superslick espionage operations, like tapping the player on the shoulder and saying, “Where did you get the money for that car and those Hope Diamonds in your ears?” Direct somebody in the compliance department to, oh, I don’t know, stroll past the parking lot. So if you’re following me, although I know I’m falling into a lot of esoteric private-detective jargon, in this case the investigation opens with a visual comparison of your players’ cars with their professors’ cars. Professors, Coach Tressel, are those dweeby dudes you keep seeing scurrying in and out of the library. They wear sweater vests, like you, which might help you in spotting them. The confusing thing is people call them doctors, but they’re not medical doctors.

At this juncture, dear reader, in the name of equal time, I’ll ask you to exercise your ability to suspend disbelief, as well as your forbearance, as I expand the theoretical recipient of this letter from Coach Tressel to include also his former player Ray Small, Ohio State receiver, who came out to the media, god knows why, after the scandal broke, and revealed that while in college he sold his championship rings in order to pay his car note and avoid eviction from his apartment.

Ray,

Yikes, man. Yikes. So, for starters, you want us to believe that a star player on a powerhouse college football team would be allowed to be homeless? That’s your premise, your excuse, that you were in legitimate peril of being out on the street, living by your slim wits? Getting on the waiting list at the shelter? If you didn’t pawn your gear and pay Mr. Furley, you would’ve been wandering the alleys of Columbus? Really? So practice is wrapping up, the sun a fat lick of color in the low branches of the hardwoods, the wholesome smell of hard-worn pads being ushered off by the chill Midwestern winds of October, another hard day’s work endured and enjoyed.

Coach Tressel — “Good work out there, fellas. Proud and hungry. Proud and hungry. Get on home and get some rest because you’re going to need it. Integrity on three. One, two, INTEGRITY!”

Ray (wandering up to Coach Tressel sheepishly after the other players have dispersed) — “Um, Coach. Well, um. It’s just that …”

Coach Tressel — “Out with it, son.”

Ray — “Remember that stuff you said about going home?”

Coach Tressel — “You mean just now?”

Ray — “Yeah.”

Coach Tressel — “Yup, I said do not pass go. Get on home and lick your wounds.”

Ray — “Thing is, I can’t.”

Coach Tressel — “?”

Ray (tears welling) — “I don’t have a home. I got evicted today. They changed the lock while I was helping out at the community garden. I can’t get to any of my stuff — all the letters my family wrote me since I moved away, my Bible, my schoolbooks, my bracelets. My bed.”

Coach Tressel (removes glasses and nods thoughtfully) — “Well, that is unfortunate, Ray. I had no idea.” (Puts hand on Ray’s shoulder.) “I’m glad you came to me. I know it wasn’t easy for you. I may be able to help.”

Ray (the dark clouds of his countenance parted by a sunny grin) — “You can? You can help me?”

Coach Tressel — “You see that bunch of trees over there where the sun is setting?”

Ray — “Yeah.”

Coach Tressel — “On more than one occasion I’ve seen a few of the local hobos making camp in there, and I’ve often envied their freedom, their happy-go-lucky mode of life. I think they have one of those big barrels you can make a fire in, and of course camaraderie keeps them warm. They’re kind of a team. You know how to be on a team, Ray. It’ll take some toughness, but you’re a tough kid. The trees will provide a windbreak, and you’ll be really close to the practice field tomorrow morning. Just roll right out of bed and — well, not bed.”

Ray — “But what if it rains, Coach?”

Coach Tressel — “Well, let’s see. I can give you the cover off my Porsche to bundle up in. Kind of like a sleeping bag. Like camping! Also, I saw on Man vs. Wild that if you stuff your sweatshirt with dry grasses it provides insulation. A lot of the hobos I’ve seen drink Mad Dog, but you’re an athlete, so no drinking. OK, good night, Ray. See you tomorrow. And nice grab today on that skinny post.”

That it, Ray? Something along those lines? Additionally, at the risk of giving you a heart attack, let me hip you to the fact that though a number of college students don’t have a car note because their fathers are rich, another number of them don’t have the worry of a car note because they don’t have a motherfucking car.

Here’s my advice (and now the theoretical scope of recipients of this single letter rises from two to countless, obliterating the original conceit) to players who would cry poor as an explanation for knowingly violating rules. Simple. Say the big, mean old bank is threatening to foreclose on your parents. If people think you need money to eat at Outback Steakhouse every night because you’re too good for Burrito Brothers, they judge you harshly. If they think you’re getting into the hustle for purposes of keeping Mom safe and warm, well, who can knock that hustle? The beauty of it is we strangers out in TV-land don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not. We have to give you the benefit of our doubt. Just a tip from Uncle John.

So. Tressel. Ray Small. There’s a point begging to be made, and I’m very quickly going to make it. To either vilify or to feel sorry for cheating coaches and players is disingenuous. None of us at the power schools (I’m a Florida alum) wants great graduation rates and a .500 team. No fan base chants, “Our program is clean! Our program is clean!” in the final minutes of a loss to a rival. In this country (probably in all countries) you don’t get paid a gazillion dollars to be fatherly. You get paid a gazillion dollars to beat the other guys who are making a gazillion dollars. Those coaches who can be leaders of young men and also win enough to remain employed, well, they are heroes. Not everyone can be a hero. Sort of a crucial facet of heroism — not just anyone can do it.

As for the players, do all you waiters report your tips? Do all you physical therapists always follow the billing rules as laid out by Medicare? How many of you mechanics have never performed an unnecessary service? Senators, you sleep at night on mattresses lumpy with special-interest cash. Why do we all do this stuff when we know it’s not strictly right? To get a little more money, that’s why.

At the same time, to feel sorry for players because they don’t get paid is misspent empathy. The deal they’re offered is to play football in exchange for a free ride to college. The deal, as deals will, comes with rules. Take it or leave it, just like everybody else. The Man offers you a deal and you take it or leave it. No one can force you to take it. If you don’t like the deal being offered by the university, you’re free to do something else. How about community college? How about going down to the temp agency and signing up for general labor? Dishwasher at Outback Steakhouse? What’s that you say? The university sounds better than those other options? You’d like to exercise and occasionally read amongst 20,000 cute young women rather than do those other things that are available to you? Now you do realize that someone else is going to profit from your work, just like what happens to 99 percent of other folks in the world? And you still prefer playing football and getting a degree to apprenticing to be a plumber or enlisting in the Army? OK then. If you’re sure.

John Brandon is the acclaimed author of Citrus County. He’ll be writing weekly on college football for Grantland.


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