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Thursday, November 10, 2011
NCAA case just won't go away for Buckeyes

By Brian Bennett

Drip, drip, drip.

Every time Ohio State thinks it has fixed a leak, the NCAA problems keep flowing. It was last December when the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal broke. And it might not be until this December, or later, until the Buckeyes finally get their punishment from the NCAA.

The Buckeyes went before the NCAA committee on infractions Aug. 12, but even that wasn't the end. They were sent another notice of allegations last week involving disgraced booster Robert DiGeronimo, and now they'll have to go back before the committee again. The NCAA told Ohio State it would review the school's response at the next infractions committee on Dec. 10 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but Ohio State has requested that be done via teleconference the week of Nov. 28.

It's no coincidence that date corresponds with the last week of the football regular season. What if the team made the Big Ten title game, won it but then was told a week later that it could not participate in a BCS game? A far-fetched scenario, for sure, but surely the school wants a final answer sooner than later.

The latest allegations include a failure-to-monitor charge, which the NCAA had previously said wouldn't be handed out in the tattoo case. Failure to monitor is the second-worst charge the NCAA can level, though it's far less devastating than lack of institutional control. Michigan, for example, was charged with failure to monitor in the practice-time allegations, and the Wolverines were hit with probation and some reduction in allotted practice hours. Not exactly the end of the world in Ann Arbor.

But Michigan also didn't have other pending charges at the time it was hit with failure to monitor. Ohio State has already stripped itself of five total scholarships over three years for this latest case, which is significant, but hardly anything that would keep the Buckeyes from competing for Big Ten titles. The school hopes that, plus the concessions it gave in the tattoo case --- vacating the 2010 season, giving back the Sugar Bowl money, firing Jim Tressel -- are enough. Yet it's also safe to say that the NCAA infractions committee isn't like a sub shop that gives you a free sandwich on your 10th visit; repeat appearances are generally not a good idea.

Ohio State can blame this latest mess on DiGeronimo, who apparently just couldn't stop rubbing elbows with players and coaches to make himself feel more important.

DiGeronimo was a booster in every sense of the word, donating more than $72,000 to the athletic department since 1988, according to OSU's response. Not surprisingly, he wanted some extra access in exchange for his money. Ohio State said DiGeronimo was given locker room and sideline access under former coach John Cooper, and that he often bought lunch for Buckeyes coaches. When Jim Tressel became coach in 2001, he banned boosters from the locker room, and Gene Smith prohibited sideline access to all but media, game-day personnel and former players in 2006.

But DiGeronimo wouldn't be stopped, according to this revealing passage from the response:
"After Tressel implemented this restriction, DiGeronimo and another individual impermissibly gained access to the locker room prior to a home football game. Tressel saw DiGeronimo attempting to hide in a locker to listen to Tressel’s pregame speech. DiGeronimo and the other individual were told to leave the locker room."

Ohio State basically told DiGeronimo to stop coming around its players, coaches or facilities in 2006. But the school said he just started contacting the players directly after that. Strangely, though, the school still allowed players to attend charity events organized by DiGeronimo and to work summer jobs for his company. That raises an obvious question: if Ohio State was as concerned by DiGeronimo's red-flag raising behavior as it claims in its response, why would it permit players to spend time under his watch in a different city without close scrutiny?

I imagine that question might come up a time or two in Fort Lauderdale or over the teleconference. Ohio State's argument in the response goes along these lines: "We didn't fail to monitor DiGeronimo because we knew he was a problem. And he would have broken the rules anyway since he never listened to us when we told him to go away in the past. Hey, what are you gonna do, right?"

The NCAA says the DiGeronimo charges came about after a interview with an Ohio State player led to a review of his bank records, which showed a check for $200 from DiGeronimo's company. That triggered a further investigation. The player's name was redacted, but it's quite obviously Terrelle Pryor. The gift that keeps on taking for Buckeyes fans.

With everything that's happened at Penn State, it's more difficult to summon outrage at players getting free tattoos or a couple hundred bucks from a booster. That doesn't make it any less serious in the eyes of the NCAA, which doesn't seem capable of punishing the Nittany Lions for true lack of institutional control.

The Buckeyes must hope that their own self-imposed sanctions are enough, that they can simply avoid awarding a deserving walk-on or two a scholarship the next three years and be done with this mess. They can't feel comfortable, however, until this faucet is finally turned off.