NCAA sanctions are often the result of just one particularly stupid act.
Ohio State is now staring down the barrel of a gun because when Chris Cicero found out that Buckeyes were selling memorabilia for tattoos, he sent an email to Jim Tressel, rather than picking up the phone. Had he telephoned the OSU coach, there would have been no paper trail to prove that Tressel lied, when he claimed (many months later) that the violations were news to him.
Of course, Tressel compounded his sin by forwarding the emails to Terrelle Pryor’s “mentor,” Ted Sarniak, while claiming later on that he failed to tell Compliance because he considered them confidential. But even without that error, Tressel was in violation the instant he found out about probable violations, and sat on them.
Without the incriminating emails, this case would have been no different from those of Ray Isaac, Maurice Clarett, and Troy Smith: Tressel would have claimed he knew nothing, and there would have been no way to disprove him. Common sense would suggest that when the same type of violation occurs repeatedly around athletes under your supervision, any coach serious about compliance would see a pattern, and do something about it.
But to find OSU guilty of the most serious violations, the NCAA needs to prove that the coach actually knew, and that’s devilishly difficult to do, unless the coach or someone in his circle is awfully stupid—as Chris Cicero was, in writing to Tressel, rather than speaking to him.
The same thing happened in the USC case. The evidence that anyone on Pete Carroll’s staff actually knew (as opposed to the proverbial “should have known”) Reggie Bush was on the take is actually very limited, and mostly circumstantial: a photo of assistant coach Todd McNair with Bush associate Lloyd Lake, along with cell phone records proving that the two had spoken once (though not what they had spoken about).
You can argue at OSU, as people did at USC, that if Bush was paid to the tune of $700,000 over multiple years, the rest of the team probably wasn’t squeaky clean. But even the NCAA needs actual proof, and that is usually hard to come by.
For that reason, I suspect the worst news about Jim Tressel is already out there. It’s not that the Tat 5 were the first time he cheated. It’s that no one will be able to prove the other times.