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The more I read about what Coach Jim Tressel apparently did the more distressed I get. Here is a highly successful coach of a major university football program, a person who at various times touted his Christian faith, and a man who seemed to embody certain virtues-in-leadership. Now it’s come crashing down.

I react in part because—except for six years in West Virginia and New York—I am a lifetime resident of Ohio (grew up there, went to three universities there) and Michigan (for the past 20 years). I like football, have watched hours of it, and am steeped in the Ohio versus Michigan rivalry. And for a long time I’ve liked Tressel. So this hit home.

At a minimum it appears Coach Tressel lied to his superiors, or at least did so by omission in terms of things he didn’t tell them (there’s enough information now to conclude with a fair degree of certainty that he did). Assuming this is so he succumbed to a major breech in professional and personal integrity. No matter his success winning football games or helping student-athletes turn into men, Tressel violated one of the fundamental tenets of leadership. He proved himself untrustworthy.

I don’t think he is alone in this. The Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith and President E. Gordon Gee were kept in the dark for a few months, but they’ve known about all this now for several months. Their knowledge seems to reach back into the fall. If so, they allowed athletes to play in a bowl game when they should not have been allowed to play. And if Tressel deserved to be fired he deserved to be fired back then. Both the A.D. and the President have handled this matter poorly, even flippantly in the case of the President.

But the primary responsibility lies with Tressel. After all these years working with young men, he knew what his athletes were capable of doing and likely what they were actually doing. So maybe it’s a case of “What did he know and when did he know it?” But Coach knew a long time back, covered it up in classic Watergate fashion, by doing so lied to the public and the NCAA as well as his superiors, and tried to finesse his way through. What could have and should have been a serious matter involving a few athletes was thereby magnified to a very serious matter trashing Coach’s reputation, costing him his job, and putting the entire athletic program and university at risk.

Integrity is a powerful thing. When it exists it creates strength. People admire and follow leaders who evidence integrity. When integrity is violated it weakens leaders and leadership, and once gone it is difficult to impossible to rebuild in a given assignment.

Perhaps Coach Tressel can confess his mea culpa and begin anew somewhere else. I hope he possesses the integrity to do this and also that he demonstrates the resolve to “make things right” as opposed to riding off into the sunset. In any event, there was no way he was going to begin anew at OSU, and I think the same may apply to the A.D. and President. For OSU to move on it needs a clean slate and that means the A.D. and the President also need to fall on their sword. Whether they or the Board of Trustees will possess the courage to act remains to be seen.

One last thought: USC and Michigan have come under NCAA sanction and other programs like Auburn have been investigated. What happened at OSU under Tressel is wrong, unprofessional, and possibly illegal. And unfortunately it’s happening at other schools as well. The NCAA needs to step up to the moment and put in place more teeth and more reforms for ethical compliance in university athletics.

In the end this is another lesson in how greed, power, winning-at-all-costs, and hubris can tempt leaders into actions that destroy their character and opportunities for future achievement. It’s sad, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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