CHICAGO — Amidst the chaos, the turmoil, and the uncertainty over potentially crippling NCAA sanctions, the Ohio State Buckeyes are locked in with a consistent mantra — that all of the adversity has made them stronger.
That theme was repeatedly woven into the comments and observations of new head coach Luke Fickell and the three senior Buckeyes who accompanied him to the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this week.
Minus an iconic head coach, a record-setting quarterback, 12 wins from last season, and sporting an image in desperate need of some restoration, Ohio State’s leaders for the 2011 season took a unified stance. They contend that despite the tattoo and memorabilia scandal that has shaken the program to its foundation, the Buckeyes will emerge from the mess as still a powerhouse in college football.
“We settled that issue a long time ago,” defensive back Orhian Johnson said Friday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place hotel and convention center, south of downtown. “What’s done is done, and we can’t control what the NCAA might do next, so we don’t focus on that. We moved on as a family. It’s our mission as a team to uphold the Ohio State tradition in every way.”
Since news broke last December that Ohio State players had sold prized memorabilia for cash and discounts on tattoos, and that former head coach Jim Tressel had been aware of the apparent NCAA violations but had failed to report them, the program has been in disarray.
Top players were suspended, Tressel resigned in disgrace, and quarterback Terrelle Pryor skipped out of Columbus and sought entrance into the NFL. The OSU program went under the magnifying glass and was widely criticized for a lack of monitoring its players. Last season’s wins were stripped from the team, wiping out a 12-1 season with a Big Ten championship and a Sugar Bowl title.
“There was a lot of bad news. It seemed like every day there was some new story, some accusation about this or that,” center Mike Brewster said.
“Coach Tressel leaving was probably the toughest part, but the guys that are here, we all hung together. We got closer. We decided not to dwell on it . . . instead we worked harder. Nobody was walking around feeling sorry for themselves, and I’m convinced we’ll come out of this stronger than ever.”
The Buckeyes, who have either won the conference title outright or grabbed a share of it for six consecutive seasons, have given Fickell enough indications that the team he greets at the opening of fall camp in another week will be unified and strong, despite what has transpired.
“I like what I’ve seen from our guys, so that isn’t a concern of mine,” Fickell said.
“How you handle these things is the key, and I think they have handled it very well. They’ve worked extremely hard in the off-season and they’ve focused on football, not the outside stuff. There’s been adversity, no question, but I’ve seen no signs of it tearing us apart. I think we’ll come out of all this ok.”
Ohio State, which opens the season at home against Akron and Toledo and then goes on the road to play at Miami, is facing a potential bowl ban, loss of scholarships, and possible additional sanctions on top of the five-game suspensions of four offensive starters and the vacated wins from 2010.
Tressel and other Ohio State officials go before an NCAA infractions panel in Indianapolis in two weeks, and that group will determine the Buckeyes’ fate.
Brewster said regardless of the past tumult and what might come out of that session, he believes the Buckeyes have closed ranks and will emerge from the ordeal in good shape. Brewster said he expects the team to compete for a Big Ten championship again this season.
“Nobody likes what happened and all that we’ve been through, but I honestly believe we’re stronger than all of this,” he said. “As seniors, we’re not going to let what we have here at Ohio State go down the drain. We’re not going to let our senior season be a bad one.”
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