Saturday, November 24, 2001

OSU coach faces test of integrity

        Jim Tressel needs to say no. The Ohio State football coach needs to fight the temptation to forgive quarterback Steve Bellisari for the sake of a better shot against Michigan.

        He needs to send a message that is unmistakeable — that serious mistakes have serious consequences. He needs to balance compassion with conviction.

        Right now, his message is mixed. Tressel suspended Bellisari for last Saturday's game against Illinois after the quarterback was pulled over and blew a Breathalyzer test at more than twice the limit at which a driver is presumed drunk in Ohio. Bellisari's sobriety was such that he was hard-pressed to touch his nose on command. Asked to recite the alphabet, he chose to sing it.

        Yet despite these disturbing disclosures, Tressel reinstated Bellisari Sunday — less than 72 hours after the infraction — in time for a whack at the Wolverines.

        Bellisari is not scheduled to start this afternoon in Ann Arbor. Based on his lack of repetitions in practice this week, he may not even play.

        Still, if Tressel needs a touchdown badly enough — or, this being Michigan, three touchdowns — he may wish to utilize his most experienced arm. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr says he expects Bellisari to play. So do many of the cynics who consider Ohio State the embodiment of college football excess.

Flimsy standards?

        Publicly, Tressel has ruled out nothing. Rather than take a firm position on Bellisari, Tressel has allowed him to make the trip to Michigan and left open the possibility of him playing. Though this may be in part a tactical move to keep Michigan wondering, it suggests Tressel's standards operate on a sliding scale.

        “You're not allowed to take 65 (players) and have one of them stand on the sideline in his street clothes,” Tressel explained earlier this week. “So he would be available to play.”

        This is not nearly as strong a line as Bellisari's behavior deserves. Considering the severity of the charge, it seems appallingly soft.

        In 1988, while coaching Notre Dame to a national championship, Lou Holtz benched both his top running back and wide receiver against No. 2 Southern California. Their crime? Being late to a meeting.

Don't be a hypocrite

        One of the reasons John Cooper lost his job at Ohio State was because of his toothless discipline and its deleterious effect on his players. One of the reasons Tressel was hired was because of his personal integrity and perceived values.

        Putting Bellisari back on the field, so soon after a serious transgression, would reaffirm that Ohio State cares more about results than it does citizenship. It would expose Tressel's purported piety as hypocrisy.

        Were Bellisari a better player, he wouldn't be worth this much trouble. Because Bellisari is erratic, Tressel's decision ought to be easy. But Michigan is Michigan, and the regular rules do not always apply.

        Jim Tressel understands all of this. He knows, too, that the tone he sets this season will shape his whole tenure at OSU.

        If Bellisari sits, Tressel has a built-in excuse and a powerful example of having taken the high road. If Bellisari plays, Tressel looks like another win-at-all-costs charlatan.

        Better to lose a game than one's reputation.

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