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The demise of Jim Tressel was quick and stunning. It's not surprising to see a major college football program racked by scandal -- that happens all the time -- but Tressel's slide from beacon of virtue to symbol of all that is wrong with college sports was faster than most.
In addition to being unemployed and a pariah, Tressel is now a case study for other college coaches who want to avoid the same fate. But there's good news. It's not hard at all to avoid his fate. All coaches have to do is be a bit proactive and do three simple things I outline below.
Of course, no one doubts the difficulty of the many responsibilities that come with being an elite college football coach. But some things are surprisingly simple. And, coaches, it's not hard to make sure your program is on the up and up. I promise that none of these steps will take up more than a few minutes of your very valuable time.
Coaches love to refer to their players as "student-athletes." And that's great. But remember that there is a transition from the student role to the athlete role and vice versa.
See that term? "Student-athlete"? Think of the hyphen in the middle as a road -- the literal road your players drive on from the practice facility back to their apartment or campus. Really! This happens! Your players don't just magically appear in a classroom after stepping out of the locker room.
Most campuses are so sprawling that walking is too time-consuming, and even Ivy League schools -- the programs in which "student" should legitimately be listed before "athlete" -- have yet to develop teleportation technology. So your players may very well be driving to practices and games. We have established that now. But what are they driving? Hmm. Tough question.
To the parking lot!
All right. Now you're in the parking lot. See that expensive car? (For purposes of this exercise, let's say it's a ... I don't know, a Nissan 350Z.) Is the car yours? No? Is it the athletic director's? No? Does it belong to your highly paid offensive or defensive coordinator? No? Were any wealthy boosters visiting practice today? No? Hmm. A mystery!
Now walk back into practice, gather your team around and ask: "Gentlemen, who has a Nissan 350Z parked out there?" Anywhere from zero hands to the hands of every player on your team will be raised. If every player puts a hand up, you probably have a very good team. Congratulations! But there might also be something amiss. Better pass this information along to your compliance office.
Now, if no one raises a hand, you must take your sleuthing to the next level. After practice is over, look out at the parking lot and -- this part can be pretty complicated -- see who gets into the car. There's your driver! Neat, huh? And mystery solved!
With the driver identified, here's the part where you put on your critical thinking cap. Critical thinking is supposed to be a skill of all elite coaches, right? OK, here we go. Does the player who got into the car come from a wealthy background? What do you mean you have no idea? Come on. Think hard. You spent parts of two years recruiting him and visiting his house. Remember how you talked to his parents about how the opportunities your program provides would allow him to better the path of his whole family? Riiiiiight. Now it's coming back to you. That was pretty much the crux of your whole recruiting spiel. His parents weren't wildly wealthy, correct? Correct.
OK, question No. 2: Does the player have a lucrative part-time job? No, because that's pretty much impossible under NCAA rules, right? OK, last question: Are you sure you're a college coach and not an NFL coach? If you answered "no", "no" and "yes" to the three questions above, then there may be something amiss. You better let your compliance office know about this player with the expensive car.
All of that wasn't too hard, right? It didn't take more than 10 minutes.
But if 10 minutes is too much of your valuable time to take -- after all, you are a COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACH, America's most important job (at least based on state employee salaries) -- try this instead. Call your lowest-level intern into your office. Tell him to poke around on online message boards, including the boards for your team and its biggest rivals. In about an hour, he will know the car make and model, diamond jewelry size and price, girlfriend age and measurements, and last bar fight date and time of every one of your players. Really. It's all out there. Granted, some of it is wrong -- OK, a lot of it is wrong -- but you'll at least be tipped off to a few things you might want to ask around about. And all it took was a 30-second conversation with an intern and you didn't even have to look out your window to see what cars your players are driving.
Look at your team. Use the most recent team photo. Or look around in the weight room. Or flip on a video of your most recent practice or game. Do you see a lot of markings on the players' arms, legs, chests, backs and necks?
Did you know these markings are called tattoos? They are not just intricate birth marks. And here's another fact: These "tattoos" are placed on your players' bodies by tattoo artists. And another fact: These tattoo artists charge money for their services. Or, in some cases, trade their services for valuable memorabilia.
Now take a look at images of your players from a few years ago. You can look at old team photos. Or old game tapes. Or, better yet, the endless footage you had of the players from when you were scouting them in high school. After all, outside of people nabbed on "To Catch a Predator" and producers of crappy music competition shows, college coaches own the most videotape of teenagers of anyone in America.
Do you see a change? Do their bodies have more tattoos now than when they were juniors in high school? Significantly more? Hmm. That could be a red flag.
You see, tattoos can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the size and design. So let's try that critical thinking exercise from before. Is the heavily tattooed player wealthy? No? Does it seem odd that a person of limited means, who struggles to even get the necessities of life and who is barred from getting a job, somehow has enough cash to get a few thousand dollars worth of tattoos? Yes. It does seem odd.
Perhaps it's time to call your compliance office again.
Here's the thing: If you take a few minutes to look at the cars your players are driving or all the tattoos they're getting (or jewelry and clothes they're wearing), you can find out some things that you may not want to know. Or, you may already know them, but you don't want to admit to yourself that they're happening. Or, you may have admitted to yourself that they're happening, but you don't want to do anything about it because the whole house of cards could fall down around you.
So perhaps it's better not to do anything at all. In fact, just throw out the number to the compliance office. If you don't have the number, you can't report anything, right?
No, it's better to continue on as is and just hope your program isn't the next one to get singled out. A lot of people are counting on you. A lot of people believe in you. And you can't let them down. It's not just about winning. It goes beyond that. If your program goes down, it will also take down the local car sales and tattoo-based economy, too.
DJ Gallo is the founder of SportsPickle.com. His first book, "The View from the Upper Deck," is available from only the finest bargain-book retailers. His next book project will be released soon. You can follow him on Twitter at @DJGalloESPN.
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