COLUMBUS: Any other year Ohio State is unbeaten and ranked No. 4 coming into its annual rivalry game with Michigan, its fans would be trolling the Internet for the best airfares to the BCS title game.
Not this time.
Due to NCAA sanctions, Ohio State is banned from playing for the Big Ten championship next week and going to a bowl, and isn’t a factor in the national-title picture.
So a wondrous and surprising season — 11-0 heading into the home game Saturday with the 20th-ranked Wolverines — will come to an abrupt and premature end on Saturday.
Many of the faithful blame Athletic Director Gene Smith, who gambled and lost that the NCAA wouldn’t levy a bowl ban. Letters to the editor in the local newspaper, calls to sports talk shows and posts on fan websites all spew vitriol at Smith, who had served on the NCAA’s committee on infractions and believed the penalties he and Ohio State’s administrators had proposed would be sufficient to appease the ruling body of intercollegiate sports.
“At the time we made the decision we felt confident that we would not receive the bowl ban,” Smith said Tuesday.
The sanctions stem from former coach Jim Tressel learning in April 2010 that several players had likely received free tattoos and cash from the subject of a federal drug investigation. NCAA rules require coaches to notify the association or their superiors when they have any information that violations may have taken place, including improper benefits to athletes.
Yet Tressel didn’t tell anyone. It was only after the Buckeyes had completed a 12-1 record, won the Big Ten and the Sugar Bowl, that investigators looking into another matter came across incriminating emails, which proved that Tressel had knowledge of potential violations.
Tressel was forced to resign in late May 2011. Ohio State officials worked closely with the NCAA in a lengthy investigation that also turned up evidence of other violations.
In July, roughly a month before Ohio State’s hearing before the NCAA’s committee on infractions, Smith said he believed the self-imposed sanctions, which included vacating the 2010 season, returning bowl money, five-game suspensions for several players, NCAA probation and recruiting limitations, would be enough to mollify the NCAA.
He said there would be no bowl ban “unless something new arises.”
That proved to be prophetic. On the eve of the opening game of the 2011 season, with defensive assistant Luke Fickell taking over as interim coach, three players were suspended for each accepting $200 in cash from a booster at a charity event. Midway through the season, several more players were found to have been paid too much for summer jobs.
By late October of a mediocre season, of course, Ohio State taking itself out of a bowl wouldn’t have carried a whole lot of weight with the NCAA.
When final sanctions were announced shortly before Christmas, a month after Urban Meyer had been hired as coach, they included the 2012 bowl ban.
The NCAA does not explain its rulings. But it stands to reason that the violations that came to light after Ohio State’s hearing might have resulted in stiffer penalties.
“I still don’t think our case overall deserved the bowl ban,” Smith said. “I’ve accepted that. I’ve moved on.”
Meyer and the Buckeyes had some fits and starts but have won every game this season. Should they beat Michigan, it would be only the sixth unbeaten and untied season in Ohio State’s 123 years of football.
Fans look at the Buckeyes’ trip a year ago to the Gator Bowl — where they lost to Florida 24-17 to complete a dreary 6-7 season — and wish Smith and Ohio State would have sacrificed that postseason trip to prevent losing the one this year.