Jim Tressel resigned as football coach at Ohio State on Monday, an abrupt move in a long but escalating scandal that has ensnared the university in an NCAA investigation and sullied the reputation of a coach once thought above reproach.
Tressel flew to Columbus, Ohio, from a vacation in Florida on Sunday night to meet with university officials, and his resignation was confirmed Monday morning. Tressel said it was in the best interest of the university to step aside. The NCAA investigation that began over Buckeyes players who sold memorabilia to a tattoo parlor owner was compounded by Tressel failing to notify university officials when he learned of it. The university also recently said it was investigating 50 car sales to players by dealerships for possible violations.
Assistant coach Luke Fickell, 37, was named interim head coach through the 2011 season. Speculation on a permanent replacement centered on ESPN analyst and former Florida coach Urban Meyer, FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, ESPN analyst and former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
Meyer, who left Florida after last season citing health reasons, said he will not pursue any coaching jobs this fall and wished Tressel well.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who was at the Rays-Rangers game at Tropicana Field, called the resignation "a shame because Jim is a phenomenal guy."
"I haven't been around him a bunch, but the times I've been around him, he's a credit to our profession, he's a great guy," Fisher said. "I don't know all the details of everything that happened, nobody does. But it's a shame … he's had a phenomenal career at the I-AA level, at the I-A level, and he's always done things with a lot of integrity and a lot of class. We don't like to see that at any one of our schools in our profession."
Ohio State had seemingly backed Tressel throughout the scandal, even as he acknowledged he had not revealed the players' transgressions when he learned of them in April 2010. Until Monday, the only hint of discord was athletic director Gene Smith saying last month that he believed Tressel should have apologized for the scandal at a March 8 news conference. The university had fined him $250,000 and suspended him for five games.
"After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach," Tressel said in a statement. "The appreciation that Ellen (his wife) and I have for the Buckeye Nation is immeasurable. We know that God has a plan for us and we will be fine. We will be Buckeyes forever."
The university held no news conference, but Smith released a video statement, thanking Tressel for his contributions to the program.
"We look forward to supporting Luke Fickell in his role as our football coach," Smith said.
Until recently, Smith and others were expressing their full confidence in Tressel, even as the NCAA's notice of its allegations took pains to point out Tressel's failure to report the violations. Tressel, 58, was not only successful as a coach at Ohio State — going 106-22 with a national championship in 2002 — he was held up as a paragon of virtue. He wrote three books, one published in February, Life Promises for Success, that is a collection of Bible verses, motivational quotes and inspirational readings. His signature sweater vest signaled an old-fashioned, honorable sensibility.
His nickname was the Senator, reflecting his stately bearing, patriotism and deftness at dodging direct questions.
But as the scandal unfolded slowly, Tressel's honor was repeatedly called into question. A story from Sports Illustrated due out in the June 6 edition (it was posted at si.com late Monday) says that the memorabilia-for-tattoos violations stretched to 2002, Tressel's second season at Ohio State, and involved at least 28 players. After the article's release, Smith issued a statement Monday night that any new allegations would be investigated.
The unraveling began in December, when an FBI investigation of local tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife unearthed the sale of memorabilia by six players. The NCAA suspended five players for five games next season, and the sixth received a one-game suspension. They played in the Sugar Bowl last season.
At the time, Tressel said he was surprised by the news but later revealed he had known as long ago as April 2010 about potential NCAA violations but did not report them to university officials. When that became known, Tressel received his fine and suspension — first for only two games before Tressel requested five to match his players' — but Smith and president Gordon Gee expressed support and said he would not be fired.
The university said this month it was also investigating the car sales to Buckeyes players by two dealerships. And last week, former player Ray Small said memorabilia sales by players were common and few worried about NCAA regulations.
Ohio State is to go before the NCAA's infractions committee Aug. 12 to answer questions about the player violations and why Tressel did not report them.
Former Ohio State player Chris Spielman, now a TV analyst, has said he believed Tressel would resign. He was saddened at the news.
"I kind of had an idea that more was coming," Spielman said. "I don't think you can justify knowingly playing ineligible players. You just can't do it."
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.