COLUMBUS — The challenge that day in August came not from a coach or a captain but the front man of Ohio State’s athletic department.
Gene Smith urged a football team stripped of its usual targets to be remembered among the greatest in school history.
To be perfect.
“They have an opportunity to differentiate themselves in our great history and tradition that we have here,” Smith said in a phone interview. “They can be an undefeated team. They have that capacity. I told the team that. … I hope these young men can accomplish that, and we’ll create some celebratory way to recognize that accomplishment.”
Of the celebration not including a bowl trip, Smith said, “We’re beyond that. We’ve moved on.”
Others have been slower to do so.
As the sixth-ranked Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) foray deeper into their unbeaten season — and the stakes of a one-year postseason ban rise — a growing batch of national observers have cast a spotlight on an enduring barroom debate in this state.
If OSU had voluntarily spurned a bowl invitation after last season, would that self-imposed punishment have staved off a bowl ban for this year?
It is a hypothetical question with few good answers, though a line of revisionist historians have taken their shot. A recent headline splashed across the front of CBSSports.com blared, “Massive miscalculation in 2011 will cost Ohio State dearly this season.” Others suggest the NCAA may have sneered at an after-the-fact decision when little was at stake — the Buckeyes were 6-6 heading into the Gator Bowl last season — and still meted out their own ban.
A cross-section of former members of the Committee on Infractions and sports law experts said there was little way to predict the whims of the NCAA.
“Is it inconceivable that if the postseason ban had been imposed last year, the committee would have accepted that and done nothing more? Yeah, sure,” said Jo Potuto, a former chair of the Committee on Infractions who now serves as Nebraska’s faculty athletics representative. “But there’s a lot of different things that could have happened.”
Smith said he has no regrets.
“No, we made the decisions based upon the information we had at the time,” said Smith, now in his eighth year as OSU’s athletic director. “I wish I was fortunate enough to be like all the experts that have the ability to make decisions in hindsight.”
The time being revisited is last December when the Buckeyes accepted an invitation to play Florida in the Gator Bowl.
Although Ohio State was subject to harsher than usual punishment because of its repeat-violator status — the school remained in the five-year window from violations committed under former basketball coach Jim O’Brien — Smith did not believe a postseason ban was warranted.
School officials felt the core of OSU’s infractions case — former coach Jim Tressel’s failure to notify superiors of players receiving illegal benefits from a tattoo parlor — was less egregious than other recent high-profile violators. (Alabama, for instance, received a two-year bowl ban in 2002 and 2003 after boosters allegedly paid for recruits.)
Based on precedent, they also felt further issues did not meet the threshold for postseason banishment. When the NCAA in November charged Ohio State with failure to monitor — and complicated OSU’s portrayal of Tressel as a lone rogue employee — the school self-issued penalties but did not want to punish the 2011 team. OSU instead stripped itself of five scholarships over three years after the NCAA found Cleveland-area booster Robert DiGeronimo had provided extra benefits to players.
One sports law expert said OSU should have better grasped the scope of the investigation and responded convincingly.
“If you look closely at any big-time college sports program, as soon as you start looking closely, you’re going to find problems like this,” said Geoffrey Rapp, a law professor at the University of Toledo. “There’s just too much money, too many shady characters involved. … Once it was clear that the NCAA was going to be looking closer, I think Ohio State should have been a little more aggressive in figuring out what their areas of exposure were beyond tattoos and self-imposed more robust sanctions to try to nip the investigation in the bud.”
One possibility was a bowl ban. Though no one but the muzzled 10-member committee of academics and lawyers can say if that would have saved the Buckeyes’ 2012 postseason hopes, sports law attorney Robert Clayton said bypassing the Gator Bowl trip would have been a powerful olive branch. Clayton argued it did not matter that Ohio State would have been sacrificing its least successful team in years.
“The issue is not the bad season,” said Clayton, a Washington-based attorney at Gonzalez, Saggio and Harlan who has represented universities before the Committee on Infractions. “The issue is whether or not you’re bowl-eligible. If you had not been bowl-eligible and you impose a one-year bowl ban, then you can say that’s not a penalty. … To a certain extent, one could say that if you impose a penalty of a bowl ban when you are bowl-eligible, that you’re self-imposing a harsher penalty than [the committee could].”
What might have been? The debate continues. Everywhere but in Ohio State’s football facility, where the Buckeyes have moved on to a new question.
Can they burrow into school lore?
“I told the team that if you’re fortunate enough to accomplish [a 12-0 season] with the adversity that you’ve had to overcome, that sends a significant message,” Smith said. “These seniors who graduate will have something to walk away with. An undefeated season is still pretty special.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.