- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Memorial Day typically is one of the least significant dates on the college football calendar.
The spring evaluation period for recruiting is all but over, followed by a quiet period that begins June 1. Spring practice is in the rear-view mirror; fall camp is more than two months away. Aside from the occasional player transfer, off-field misstep or academic issue, Memorial Day comes and goes. Coaches can exhale a bit and fire up the barbecue pit.
But few in Columbus, Ohio, ever will forget Memorial Day 2011, even if they'd like to. That morning, Jim Tressel resigned under pressure as Ohio State's coach, nearly three months after admitting he had failed to provide information about Buckeyes players receiving improper benefits from a local tattoo parlor owner.
Five weeks earlier, in what turned out to be his final major public appearance as Buckeyes coach, Tressel, known for his trademark sweater vest, wore camouflage pants, desert boots and a camouflage hat during Ohio State's spring game as a tribute to the military. Then, on a day dedicated to U.S. military members who made the ultimate sacrifice, Tressel, one of the nation's most decorated coaches, stepped down from his post in disgrace.
Tressel's resignation marked the start of a 12-month stretch when college football found itself constantly under siege. The sport endured more coach scandals, including quite possibly the worst in its history at Penn State. There were drug problems, booster problems and plenty of work for NCAA enforcement chief Julie Roe Lach and her team. The realignment landscape also continued to shift with multiple programs on the move, including TCU, which was affiliated with three conferences in a span of several weeks (Mountain West, Big East, Big 12).
"The last year has been difficult for collegiate athletics," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said May 16, "maybe as difficult a year for us and for the collegiate model as I can recall."
There hasn't been a more difficult year for the college football coaching fraternity. North Carolina coach Butch Davis had survived the scrutiny of scandal longer than Tressel, but the school dumped him in late July, weeks after receiving a notice of allegations from the NCAA that outlined several major violations.
Bobby Petrino didn't have the NCAA breathing down his neck. Petrino had few concerns until he wrecked his motorcycle on the night of April 1. Petrino told athletic director Jeff Long that he was alone on the bike before later admitting he had a passenger, a 25-year-old former Razorbacks volleyball player. Not only was Petrino having an affair with the woman, but the married father of four had given her a job with the football program and a $20,000 gift to buy a car. Long fired Petrino on April 10, citing a "pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior."
No one viewed Petrino as a saint, even before the scandal. But the description had been applied to Joe Paterno, the iconic Penn State coach who made numerous contributions to Penn State and to college football for more than 60 years. Aside from an August collision with a player in practice, Paterno's 46th season in State College was going smoothly, as Penn State started 8-1 and Paterno recorded his 409th coaching victory, eclipsing Eddie Robinson for first place on the all-time wins list.
But on Nov. 5, Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State assistant under Paterno, was arrested and charged with sexually abusing boys. The national media descended on State College and questions were raised about whether Paterno could have done more to stop the alleged abuse. Four days after Sandusky's arrest, Paterno announced he would retire after the season, issuing a statement that read in part: "This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Later that night, Penn State's trustees voted to fire Paterno and informed him over the phone. The dismissal sparked outcry from Penn State students and fans.
The unfathomable end to Paterno's storied career reverberates to this day, and the coach's death in January from lung cancer only added to a sad situation. Investigations have been launched by Penn State, the NCAA and the Big Ten into the sex abuse scandal. Jury selection for Sandusky's trial is set to begin June 5.
"If 14 months ago ... we had said this next cycle we will watch the firing of the head coaches of Ohio State, Penn State, North Carolina, Tennessee basketball [coach Bruce Pearl], Arkansas -- all fabulously successful coaches on the floor and on the field -- to see those five men fired for misdeeds, not for failures on the court or on the field, none of us would have believed it," NCAA president Mark Emmert said last month. "I sure wouldn't have thought that was possible."
Player conduct issues also blotched the past year in college football.
In February, four TCU players were arrested on drug charges as part of a police sweep. Police say that the players sold drugs to undercover agents. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that five players tested positive for marijuana following a Feb. 1 test.
An ESPN The Magazine report in April detailed widespread drug use at Oregon. The report included interviews with 19 current or former Ducks players and officials who said 40-60 percent of Oregon players smoked marijuana.
The drug issue also emerged during the season when three LSU players, including eventual Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu, were suspended for a game after reportedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana.
Mathieu wasn't the only high-profile player gaining notoriety during the past year. A week after Tressel's resignation, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, already suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for his role in the tattoo/memorabilia scandal, announced he wouldn't return for his senior season. The NCAA had launched a separate investigation into whether Pryor had received cars and extra benefits.
Earlier this month, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees was arrested for misdemeanor battery, resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor.
Booster involvement with players also added to college football's malaise in the past year. The biggest blow arrived in August, when former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, in jail for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, told Yahoo! Sports that he provided thousands of impermissible benefits, including cash, prostitutes and bounties for on-field play, to 72 Hurricanes athletes in 2002-10. The NCAA has been investigating the allegations for months, and Miami self-imposed a bowl ban following the season in response to the investigation.
Two days before Ohio State's first game, the team suspended three players for receiving impermissible benefits from a former booster, Bobby DiGeronimo. Additional violations involving players and DiGeronimo resulted in a notice of allegations from the NCAA in November, Ohio State's second such notice in seven months. The two waves of allegations resulted in Ohio State receiving a postseason ban for 2012 as well as scholarship losses.
The year in college football didn't pass without another stretch of realignment. The SEC added Texas A&M in September, putting the Big 12 on life support for the second time in three years. Around the same time, the ACC poached the Big East for Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
The Big 12 responded by adding TCU, which played the 2011 season in the Mountain West but had committed to the Big East for 2012. Missouri's decision to depart for the SEC caused the Big 12 to also add West Virginia. The Big East, in total survival mode, scrambled to assemble a coast-to-coast hodgepodge headlined by Boise State as a football-only member.
The realignment wheel continues to spin with several minor moves as well as rumors of Florida State to the Big 12 cranking up. The superconference era could soon be here.
In recounting the past year, Delany said it's important to note Emmert's initiatives in such areas as academic standards, scholarship restructuring, the infractions process and NCAA rules simplification.
"He's heading in a good direction," Delany said. "We have to continue to get better at managing our affairs, working with our coaches, having our coaches act responsibly. But they are human beings and they do make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are difficult to accept and do damage.
"It was a tough year in many ways."
Delany and his peers throughout college football hope the next year brings better headlines.
A quiet Memorial Day would be a nice start.
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