Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel issued an apology at his first public appearance since the announcement of his tw0-game suspension and fine for covering up knowledge of improper benefits received by his players.
Tressel arrived just before noon Monday for what was at least his 25th annual appearance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club at Tozzi's on 12th, a Canton restaurant. He was greeted with a standing ovation and polite applause from the crowd of nearly 400, but the reception was less enthusiastic than in past years.
Last week the university announced Tressel would be suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season against Akron and Toledo and be fined $250,000. He could still be subject to further penalties from the NCAA.
Tressel was also required to make a public apology, and he may have fulfilled that requirement in Canton.
"I don't know what you mean by that. I've tried to apologize all along,'' Tressel said as he was whisked away, headed to the airport for an alumni gathering in Toledo.
Tressel didn't hide from the scandal, opening with the apology during his 40 minutes at the microphone.
"I can't talk to you a whole bunch about what has recently gone on because of the nature of our situation, but I can tell you this, I consider all of you a part of the Buckeye Nation. I sincerely apologize for what we've been through in this recent time,'' Tressel said. "I apologize for the fact I that wasn't able to find the ones to partner with, perhaps handle our difficult and complex situation. I also apologize because I'm going to have some sanctions and that's the way it is, and as it should be.
"But the mission doesn't change. That's what's most important. That's the pledge I have to you. The mission we've always had is to make sure we help young people change their lives.''
Tressel referred to a conversation he had with former player Kirk Barton on the drive from Columbus to Canton. Barton, a Massillon Perry product, is now a quality control coach at Ohio State and is working on his master's degree in business administration.
"Our young people have so many more challenges than they had seven or eight years ago,'' Tressel said. "The interest in what they're doing, the interest in their recruiting, the number of people who are talking to them and touching them and telling them how wonderful they are, it's made it a lot more challenging for our young people.''
Tressel finished by apologizing for stealing the spotlight from other Ohio State sports teams. The men's basketball team is ranked No. 1 in the nation and received the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes open play Friday in Cleveland.
"I also need to apologize at this point for the fact that with some of the news we've had going on, it's taken a little bit of attention away from our Buckeye basketballers,'' Tressel said. "We have one of those special teams. We have four guys who have been there for a long time and they welcomed three guys coming in who are special talents. They've blended unselfishly into one of those special groups. Any attention taken away from them is really disheartening to me and I feel bad about that. Also our women's basketball team had some early struggles and all of a sudden caught fire and won the Big Ten Tournament. To take some of the attention off of the things going on, that's also very disappointing to me.''
Tressel said the recent scandal hasn't changed his focus.
"The thing that fuels you is the passion you have for your mission,'' he said. "I know there are a lot of former coaches and teachers in here. The reason we went into that world was to see if we could make a difference with young people. You have a great opportunity to ... see if you can move them along in their lives. One of the great things we talk about, in terms of the valuable things that come out of this experience of education and sport, is handling adversity.
"We talk all the time, there's two things you'd better understand. Over the course of time you're going to have adversity; you'd better handle it. Over the course of time you're going to have success; you'd better handle it. Those of us who have been around sports have all gained so many valuable lessons through adversity, within games and within seasons and within careers and within our personal lives. I would probably venture to say that I've gained a great deal more from adversity-type situations than I have the wonderful things that have come my way.''
It was revealed last week that in April 2010, Tressel received e-mails from Columbus attorney Christopher Cicero, a former OSU football player, alerting him to the fact that two players were selling jerseys and memorabilia to the owner of a local tattoo parlor who was also the subject of a federal drug trafficking investigation. Cicero told ESPN last week the players were quarterback Terrelle Pryor and receiver DeVier Posey.
Tressel had numerous opportunities to reveal his knowledge of the situation, but allowed the players to play all last season, which ended with a victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. The violations were revealed in December before the bowl game, but all six players involved were allowed to play. Five (Pryor, Posey, running back Dan Herron, left tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas) were suspended for the first five games next season and one (Jordan Whiting) for one game.
Also in the audience were Dustin Fox, Tim Anderson and Barton, former OSU players under Tressel who attended presumably of their own volition. Fox and Anderson were members of OSU's 2002 national championship team. Last season, Anderson served as a volunteer coach for the Massillon Perry wrestling team. Fox has a full-time job in medical sales and works part-time for WEWS Channel 5 in Cleveland. Barton served as his bodyguard and rear blocker as Tressel made his way out of the banquet room.
"I don't think you can judge one man's character and one man's legacy off one instance where maybe a lapse in judgment occurred,'' Fox said. "I don't necessarily question his intentions, either. You don't know what went through his mind. It's hard to put yourself in his shoes.''
Fox, a GlenOak product, said he had sent a couple texts back and forth with Tressel since last Tuesday. Fox disagrees with critics who believe Tressel should be fired.
"The guy's helped more people since he's been at Ohio State, he's won more games, he's done more for this university....'' Fox said. "He's changed my life. Obviously I'm very fond of the guy. Shoot, I'm so far from perfect that I can't sit here and throw stones. Can't do it.''
Tressel even took questions from the crowd, none of which concerned the scandal. He charmed the group in his familar way, including with his answer on whether any OSU basketball players want to play football.
"I told (Jared) Sullinger, 'Tight end? You don't even have have to practice, just show up,''' Tressel said. "Satch (Sullinger's father) wouldn't let him.''
As the questions concluded, one man from the back of the room said, ''Coach, we all know you've got a lot going on in y0ur life right now. Take care of yourself and hang in there.''