Jim Tressel's Road Taken

One of my favorite novels is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (stick with the book; forget the movie). It tells of the story of a father and son navigating through a post-apocalyptic world, dodging bandits, exhaustion and coming to grips with the end of civilization after a disaster. Although I would never equate college football with an Armageddon-like event (although I met some folks in Georgia who might disagree), Ohio State coach Jim Tressel reminds me of the book's protagonist.

Like the father in The Road, Tressel wants us to believe he is one of the "good guys." In the book, the unnamed father reminds his son that humanity is still possible in a bleak, hopeless world. Tressel writes his own books in hopes of elevating his stature in the otherwise bleak, hopeless world of college sports (well, gosh, if he's a published author he must be an advocate for all things wholesome and decent. How noble! He's must be different than all the others). In The Road, the father puts himself at risk in order to protect his child. Tressel would want us to believe he is doing the same with this latest act of selflessness -- he asked his boss at Ohio State to increase his recent suspension for next season to five games so it would be equal to that of the players he admitted to lying for. Coaches are constantly preaching about accountability so the decision to align the suspension with that of his players is consistent with that belief structure.

The problem is, Tressel can no longer claim that space. He vanquished it forever when he chose to take the road of big time college football coach.

In The Road, the father and son were burdened by circumstances beyond their control (not dissimilar to what we've been witnessing in Japan this past week). Thrust into survival mode, they press on, hoping to grasp onto any remaining threads of a moral reality. With Tressel, he chose his path. When he took the Ohio State job in 2001, he made the conscious decision to thrust himself into a world where doing what's right is the actions of fools.

The son of a high school and Division 3 coach, Tressel could have followed the road taken by his father, Lee. In that world, platitudes hyping the development of the "whole student athlete" and "football is just part of the educational experience" are actually put into practice. I'm sure on drives home from practice and at the dinner table, Tressel heard his father preach those principles. And like the father in The Road who in his heart knows his soul to be pure, Tressel wants to honor his father by believing his is unstained. But in the non-fictional culture of big time college sports, Tressel knows he can't have both -- a winning program and unpolluted honor code.

I wonder how is conscience is holding up these past few months.

At the end of The Road, the father cannot carry on, although he manages to find a family to look after his son. I wonder if things won't end the same for Tressel at Ohio State.