Starr on Corruption and College Football

Recently I was driving through Ohio along the construction site formerly known as Interstate 70, grooving to some Tom T. Hall and Johnny Paycheck tapes—yes, grooving, and, yes, tapes—I had made 30 years ago. In other words, I was in my usual full retro mode. So inevitably, as I motored past the football capital, Columbus, my thoughts turned to the late Ohio State coaching legend Woody Hayes.

Hayes presided over the Buckeye football empire for 28 seasons and was viewed by many as the nation’s archetypal coach. With his run, run and run again offensive philosophy, immortalized as “three yards and a cloud of dust,” Hayes was never regarded as a coaching genius, despite his two national championships and eight Rose Bowl appearances. Nor, outside of Ohio, did Hayes appear to be a particularly engaging man. He evoked military metaphors and President Nixon liked him, which not everyone saw as a sterling recommendation. In his toughness and stoicism, Hayes made the University of Alabama’s Bear Bryant look like Mr. Rogers.

Nothing prepared either Woody’s fans or his detractors for the day in 1978 when everything came crashing down around him. Ohio State had gone to four consecutive Rose Bowls starting in 1973 but that season had lost to archrival Michigan for the second straight year. Hayes wasn’t happy with the Gator Bowl as a consolation prize. And given his distaste for that modern innovation known as the forward pass, he was even unhappier when a Clemson interception snuffed out Ohio State’s final shot at victory. That’s when the unimaginable happened. As his opponents celebrated, Hayes ran onto the field and smacked the Clemson player who had made the interception with a roundhouse right. Ohio State fired him the next day. Hayes never coached again. He also never bothered to explain his actions, let alone apologize.

Once upon a time, Hayes’s folly may have set the standard for ignominious ends to a lifetime of football glory. At the very least it was a low-water mark for Ohio State’s storied athletic programs. But I got thinking this past weekend, as I watched Ohio State confirm its preseason No. 1 ranking by walloping defending national champion University of Texas on the Longhorns’ home field. While I was impressed by the Buckeyes’ prowess, I started wondering where Hayes’s kamikaze act would rank today in the school’s Hall of Shame.

Because from where I’m sitting that sweet smell of success emanating from Columbus has a little stench in it. Perhaps it’s not fair to make too much of the most recent misstep—standout quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Troy Smith’s taking about $500 from a booster. Ohio State certainly didn’t, settling on a two-game suspension as appropriate for a petty affair.

Perhaps more to the point is the sad saga of Maurice Clarett, the hero of Ohio State’s last national championship team in 2002. When the freshman running back scored in overtime to secure Ohio State’s national title, who could have imagined that it might be the last shining moment of his life? The next year he was suspended from the team for multiple violations of NCAA rules, and it has been downhill ever since. Next week he is scheduled to go on trial for robbery. And while out on bail, he was re-arrested after a highway chase and a confrontation with police, who found four loaded weapons in his SUV.

The Clarett case can, of course, be considered a regrettable lapse in judgment, an exception among all the fine young men who sojourn in Columbus. But last week I read in the Washington Post that Ohio State is a leading contender —among 20 schools that have offered scholarships—to land a standout linebacker from the D.C. area. This football stud’s most notable distinction, outside of his tackling prowess, is that he is scheduled to go on trial in November for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery, two felony charges that carry a maximum penalty of 20 years each. According to the Post, he is required to wear an ankle monitor even while he plays. We might not have known about Ohio State’s pursuit had the case not required a judge’s ruling that the young man, whom the Post reports has a prior juvenile offense involving a stolen credit card, can visit the Columbus campus next month. During the hearing, the young man testified that while some schools, including Notre Dame and North Carolina State, stopped recruiting him after his arrest, he still received frequent text messages from the Ohio State coach, as well as others. Should make everyone in Columbus proud at homecoming.

Yeah, I know: innocent until proven guilty; every kid deserves a second chance (and every football player a third or fourth); and, of course the most important mission on God’s earth is beating Michigan. Still, you have to wonder why—at a time when Clarett is imprisoned right nearby—Ohio State wouldn’t want to let this one kid, who at the very least comes with warning signs, matriculate elsewhere.

We haven’t even discussed the lawsuit Ohio State lost last month. The university was ordered to pay $2.2 million to its former basketball coach Jim O’Brien, who was fired in 2004 for making illegal payments to a recruit and trying to cover up the violation. One might think this was a case of Ohio State trying to do the right thing. But apparently its contract with O’Brien didn’t stipulate that violating NCAA rules was a no-no—or at least not a sufficient one to warrant a swift firing. And you might have foolishly thought that that might be standard in all coach’s contracts.

Ohio State is hardly the only university where blemishes in the athletic programs have provoked embarrassment (though, sadly, never quite enough). USC, the University of Texas, Virginia Tech, the University of Oklahoma Auburn, Miami, Florida State, Duke and I could go on and on. Our college sports powers produce a steady parade of unfortunate episodes—petty crimes (and sometimes less petty crimes), booster payoffs, phony academics, no-show jobs and a host of other forms of rule-shaving and bad behavior. So maybe Ohio State doesn’t deserve to be singled out. But right now the school happens to be singular, as in No. 1. And it would be nice to see that while aspiring to replicate past glories, Ohio State is equally as concerned with not repeating past mistakes.