An audio recording of Jim Tressel's five-hour interview with NCAA investigators before his forced resignation as Ohio State football coach highlights the fear and desperation heard in his voice upon learning in April 2010 that some of his players were involved with a local tattoo parlor owner who was under FBI investigation for drug trafficking.
A text version of the transcript was released by the university in July, but the university has released an edited, audio copy of the Feb. 8 interview in response to a public records request by "Outside the Lines." Names of players and other information is redacted in the audio, consistent with the July transcript.
Still, the audio represents the first opportunity for the public to hear Tressel address in depth -- and in his own words -- the events that led to his departure from football program. Since his departure from the school, he has held no news conference and given only a couple of brief interviews to media.
In the interview, Tressel comes off as polite to investigators, if nervous, smacking his lips to compose himself and choosing his words carefully as he explains his behavior.
Under questioning by the NCAA enforcement representative Tim Nevius, Tressel admitted to breaking NCAA rules.
Tressel first learned that players may have sold memorabilia in an April 2, 2010 email from attorney and former player Chris Cicero. In the note, Cicero wrote that players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, had provided items to tattoo parlor owner and FBI target Ed Rife, who was dealing drugs and at one point had witnessed a murder. Tressel said he was scared when he learned about Rife.
He did not tell anyone at Ohio State about the email. But a day later, he forwarded the Cicero note to Ted Sarniak, an associate of Pryor's from his Pennsylvania hometown who Tressel had come to know during the recruiting process. Tressel didn't think Sarniak was a bad influence on Pryor. He asked investigators in the middle of talking about Sarniak whether the media would hear what he had to say.
Julie Vannatta, an attorney for the Ohio State athletic department, said it might ultimately be possible for others outside the investigation to learn of what Tressel had to say. The more than five-hour recordings include beeps and silent moments -- redactions of information by Ohio State officials who contend that athlete names and other information are exempt from public disclosure. (ESPN is suing the university over that issue in relation to other documents). But several times throughout the recordings Tressel seems to be talking about Pryor.
Tressel's faith in Sarniak may have been misplaced. After Pryor applied for the NFL, he alleged that Sarniak provided him with cash and benefits in violation of NCAA rules.
Tressel spoke with Pryor shortly after he was tipped off by Cicero, but didn't ask him specifically about Rife -- and wasn't sure he would get the truth out of Pryor anyway.
Chuck Smrt, an outside consultant hired by the university to help manage the NCAA investigation, pressed Tressel for not asking the players about specifics related to the tip he had received about the tattoo parlor.
At the time, Pryor was finishing up his sophomore year, having led the Buckeyes to a pair of Big Ten championships. Tressel said once he learned of the Rife situation, he didn't know what to do.
The thought of players trading their championship rings for cash from Rife shook Tressel so deeply, he says, he stopped wearing his own rings. Tressel said he was so concerned about the possibility of criminal behavior by his players that he actually felt relieved last December when the U.S. attorney sent a letter to the school saying only that their memorabilia had been acquired by Rife. No Buckeyes would be prosecuted.
Tressel, now a game-day consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, faces a "Show Cause" charge for an undetermined number of years that would require any school that wants to hire him to justify the move to the NCAA Committee on Infractions. He joined the club last week after the NFL delayed his start due to the violations at Ohio State.
Tom Farrey is a reporter with Outside the Lines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Producer Justine Gubar contributed to this story.