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Keeping Tressel could have been costly for Ohio State

At some point, Ohio State had to determine the cost of doing business with Jim Tressel — and without him.

Just a few days after the NCAA shot down Southern California’s appeal of harsh sanctions, the Buckeyes — facing their own NCAA investigation — parted ways with one of the most successful coaches in college football. Maybe that will keep Ohio State from getting the USC treatment.

“The recent situation has been a distraction for our great university and I make this decision for the greater good of our school,” Tressel said in his resignation letter.

Only the timing of Tressel’s resignation Tuesday was shocking.

“I think everybody’s been bracing for it for a while,” said former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who hosts a sports talk show on SiriusXM satellite radio.

Tressel acknowledged in March he withheld information from the NCAA and his bosses about Ohio State players trading their trophies, rings, jerseys and other memorabilia for tattoos. No matter how effusively athletic director Gene Smith and President Gordon Gee supported their coach, there was no doubt his job could be in jeopardy.

While it may very well be a coincidence that the end of Tressel’s mostly glorious 10-year run in Columbus (9-1 against Michigan and a national title) came four days after the NCAA showed USC no mercy, it’s easy to draw a correlation between the two scandals.

In fact, Tressel’s Memorial Day surprise provides a neat bookend to a calamitous calendar year in college football. Agent scandals, a pay-for-play scheme and improper benefits have dominated headlines.

Even as Auburn and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Cam Newton, accepted the crystal ball after a 22-19 victory against Oregon in the BCS title game, fans couldn’t help but wonder: Will they get to keep those trophies?

Add in the Fiesta Bowl’s transgressions — inappropriate use of funds and illegal campaign contributions — and college football’s image has taken a massive beating the past 12 months.

It was June 10 of last year that the NCAA unleashed its fury on Southern California for violations committed by former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush during Pete Carroll’s dominant decade with the Trojans.

The NCAA basically said that a then-USC assistant, Todd McNair, knew Bush was breaking rules and did nothing — sounds familiar — and that USC’s athletic department leadership had created a lax atmosphere when it came to compliance.

The most damaging of the sanctions USC received were a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 football scholarships over a three-year period. USC appealed to have those shackles loosened a bit, and the NCAA didn’t budge.

Bids to marquee bowl games, the kinds that programs such as USC and Ohio State get invited to, are potentially worth millions to a university and a conference.

So subtract those payouts, plus whatever USC loses in dollars and prestige when the effects of those scholarship losses kick in and the Trojans have a 5-7 season, and the sanctions represent a potentially enormous financial drain on not just USC football, but on its entire athletic department.

But coaches who have proved they can win like Tressel are even more valuable than a blue-chip quarterback. The players come and go. It’s up to the coach to keep the program on top. Tressel was making $3.5 million a year, among the highest paid coaches in college football.

There is little doubt Ohio State was getting tremendous returns on that investment. Tressel had led the Buckeyes to eight BCS appearances, including last season’s Sugar Bowl. Those games are worth about $17 million to the teams that get to play in them, though they do have to share that windfall with the rest of the conference.

Tressel’s teams filled Ohio Stadium — capacity 102,329 — even when overmatched opponents came to town. Heck, Tressel’s Buckeyes would draw 80,000 to the spring game.

But at some point Smith and Gee had to ask themselves:

—Will the NCAA go easier on Ohio State if Tressel is no longer the coach?

—Is it worth risk taking the NCAA’s best shot to keep one of the country’s best coaches?

Unlike USC, Ohio State has not been charged with lack of institutional control for the violations committed by players and Tressel during tattoo-gate.

The NCAA aimed its toughest charges directly at Tressel, accusing him of unethical conduct.

Is Tressel is being made the fall guy for problems at Ohio State that run deeper than his own missteps?

“If he is, he is,” Leach said. “But if other people had responsibility in this, it’s important to address that, too.”

With an athletic budget of about $120 million, Ohio State knows it can always go out and get the best coach money can buy. Urban Meyer?

“I don’t know if there is state that has more coaches from it than Ohio,” Leach said. “They certainly will have a wide variety to pick from.”

Now Smith can stand before that NCAA committee in August and say he got rid of Tressel, so go easy on us.

And if the NCAA complies, the next Ohio State coach should be just as successful on the field as Tressel.

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