On June 9, I wrote here that the media, despite the resignation of Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor’s decision to leave Ohio State, had jumped to the wrong conclusions and were chasing the wrong questions. There I asked several questions which had yet to be answered, among them “Why would Jim Tressel treat the Pryor situation so differently?” and “Was the ‘unrelated incident’ that Gene Smith spoke of connected to the federal investigation?” Thanks to the release yesterday of the transcript of the NCAA’s interview with Jim Tressel, these questions have been answered. What the answers show is that, contrary to the media’s narrative, this was not a case of an out-of-control football program breaking numerous NCAA rules. Instead, Tressel’s testimony only confirmed our speculation here that Eddie Rife was the central figure of a larger federal investigation and that both Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor were a part of that investigation.
There are two important elements that reveal much that’s “between the lines” in the Tressel transcripts. First, as we reported back in June, Tressel did, in fact, speak with a federal agent. After being informed of the situation by Columbus attorney, Christopher Cicero (who, to be kind, had “associates” in low places), Tressel did contact a federal agent. It’s not clear whether that contact was put together through Cicero or whether Tressel sought it out on his own. What is clear is that Tressel knew from the beginning that Pryor’s involvement with Rife was “not like the guy who calls from the bar and says they might be getting a free drink. This is frightening.” Furthermore, the fact that Tressel and OSU received the “hallelujah letter” from the Department of Justice confirming that Pryor was not involved in illegal activity cements Tressel’s involvement in the investigation. The FBI doesn’t make it a practice to inform organizations associated with investigatory targets that “oh, by the way we’ve been surveilling your guy and he’s clean.”
When asked by Chuck Smrt why he contacted Ted Sarniak, Pryor’s de facto “parent”, and not compliance, Tressel replied, “To me, it wasn’t simply an NCAA rule… it was way beyond an NCAA rule… it was a security issue. It was a federal crime issue. It was a narcotics issue… where do you turn?” Where Tressel ultimately turned, which is not disclosed in the transcript is the federal government, who advised Tressel to do nothing as it would interfere with their investigation.
At that time, not only was Rife being targeted, but the FBI was monitoring Pryor to get a charge on Rife, one they hoped (and still do) would lead to more indictments of higher-ups in Rife’s “organization.” Tressel alludes to this twice in the transcript saying, he was concerned that Pryor was part of getting the “next big fish up the line” and “being one of the ones the feds are using to get to the next guy.” In short, what Tressel learned from the feds was that Pryor was indeed associated with Rife who was the target of a federal investigation. They counseled him to sit on that information to protect both Pryor and their investigation. The only person Tressel then told about the situation was Sarniak, and even that was in general terms. Tressel specifically mentions during his testimony not even discussing this with his wife because he feared for those who might have knowledge of the investigation.
The most revealing evidence from Tressel’s deposition was when he said this: “When the feds want you involved, they’ll get you involved. As it turns out…I didn’t know that then, but we now know that that’s what they did.” Earlier, Tressel also had described saying to Cicero, “Now that you’ve pulled me into this operation…”. These statements confirm what sources have claimed that Tressel was actively cooperating with a federal investigation in which Terrelle Pryor was being used as “bait.”
That brings us to the second fact which must be understood to understand Tressel’s testimony: this deposition doesn’t contain the entirety of the information surrounding Pryor’s involvement with Rife. At several points in the transcript, Tressel is either reminded by Beth Chapman of OSU compliance, or reminds himself, that he’s “talking too much” and has gone beyond the parameters of what was going to be discussed “on the record.” There is also a point toward the end of the deposition in which Doug Archie, OSU director of compliance, asks for a break to confer with Tressel. Both Tressel and Ohio State were very concerned about divulging their active involvement in the federal investigation.
The reason for this was twofold: First, the investigation is not over. Eddie Rife has been indicted and is cooperating with authorities and as far we know, the OSU part of the investigation is finished. But as Tressel alluded to, the FBI is still after “the next guy up the ladder.” Rife was not acting alone. He is part of an organized crime syndicate that is quite possibly deeply involved in college sports. Tressel’s concern with narcotics was tied to Rife’s main business (along with prostitution), the FBI is very interested in possible gambling involvement, not at OSU per se, but at NCAA member institutions as well as the origins of the money being used by “street agents” in the recruitment of players. You may have heard of a case about a guy named Newton down in Alabama that is still very much on the FBI’s radar screen.
The key question to ask here is why Tressel, even in February when everything was out in the open, would testify to the NCAA that in hindsight, he still would not have reported this incident to compliance and athletic department attorneys? Instead, Tressel says, he would have gone to university counsel. Tressel’s fears for the safety of his players are well documented. Was he afraid that having this issue in the NCAA’s hands at that point was dangerous? If so, why? It’s clear that Tressel was aware of the “inevitability” of NCAA sanctions, and yet even in the rear-view mirror claims he wouldn’t have disclosed this to the NCAA.
So while the media express their outrage at what they perceive is OSU’s “light” treatment by the NCAA, they ignore that OSU had a model program of compliance in place and that Jim Tressel’s history in no way suggests he ever went around it. In fact, Tressel tells of calling Doug Archie while at a Ohio High School Athletic Association banquet to ask about the propriety of taking a picture with an award recipient. In their desire to latch onto a scandalous narrative, to this point, they’ve missed the bigger picture going on behind the scenes, a picture that is much, much larger than Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, and the NCAA.