For the May 30, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine, senior writer Ryan McGee wrote the cover story on the allegations, scandals and violations -- Jim Tressel's and Ohio State's among them -- that have consumed college sports over the past year. Following the announcement of Jim Tressel's resignation Monday, McGee followed up with this column.
Jim Tressel is gone. However, the damage he leaves behind won't be cleaned up for a very long time. Maybe never.
The most serious wreckage has nothing to do with whatever NCAA sanctions may or may not come down the line at a future date. And those whom it affects the most don't work in Ohio State's administrative or college football offices.
No, the people that have had to trudge through the deepest mudholes of the Tressel mess, and will have to continue to do so in his absence, are the ones who have spent their entire lives proudly wearing the scarlet and grey. The folks who have the Block "O" in the back window of their SUVs, who dress their kids like Brutus for Halloween, who have "Hang On Sloopy" played at their wedding receptions.
It's this level of passion that causes them to lash out when they feel as though those teams are being attacked, defending the coaches and administrators to no end, even as the evidence begins to mount. And it's that passion that makes it sting so badly when having to see one's colors splashed across magazine covers and leading cable newscasts as the symbol of everything that's wrong with college sports.
They ultimately pay the school's bills, with money, cheers and tears. But when the beneficiaries of their efforts go wrong, the short-term embarrassment for the guilty pales in comparison to the long-term shame forced on the fan.
"There's nothing anyone can do to make me stop loving my school," says Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a Tennessee alum. "But it wears you out having to talk to people about Bruce Pearl and Lane Kiffin all the time. And they're not even there anymore."
It's not fair. It's reality. Those who create the stain leave it for others to clean up. How long does it take for that mark to go away? However long it takes for a punch line to run its course. Free Shoes University is still alive and well whenever anyone mentions Florida State, despite the fact that the infamous Foot Locker shopping spree took place in 1993. SMU supporters still hear about the Death Penalty. Michigan fans have to watch an ESPN documentary that ends with images of Final Four banners from the Fab Five Era being rolled up and stored in the basement. And just last week, USC loyalists were forced to see their beloved Troy leading the news once again after a failed NCAA appeal, five and a half years after the initial Yahoo report on Reggie Bush that started the dominoes falling.
"It's just your worst nightmare," Oval Jaynes said two weeks ago, as the Ohio State situation crept toward a crescendo. Jaynes worked in college athletic departments for more than 50 years as football coach and athletic director, from Auburn to Pitt to most recently Jacksonville State, where he retired in February. "You don't want to be the person or the group of people that causes your biggest supporters any kind of embarrassment, the people who live and die by what happens in your athletic department. It's one thing to do by losing games. That's temporary. You can fix that. But a reputation, that's hard to fix."
When asked for the most effective solution to such a problem, Jaynes shook his head and uttered only one word. "Time."
And that's the most frustrating reconstruction strategy of them all. Why? Because it can't be steered from the inside, no matter how hard the school and its supporters work at it. The outsiders, the haters, the ones who had been lying in wait just looking for an opening, they are the ones who ultimately control how long the pain lasts. Not until the "Liar, Liar, Vest On Fire" billboards stop popping up along I-94 or people finally tire of talking smack when they see an Ohio State bumper sticker at the gas pump.
Buckeyes fans will undoubtedly do as the others have. They will circle the wagons even tighter, take everyone's best shots, and try to come out on the other end stronger for it all.
They deserved better.