Friday, January 3, 2003

Bickering Buckeyes need focus

The Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal

PHOENIX - Say this about recent Ohio State bowl trips: They might not end in victory, but they're almost never dull.

Two years ago, while the Buckeyes were in Tampa preparing for their 24-7 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, we learned that Tyson Walter was suing fellow offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley for sucker-punching him after a conditioning workout the previous winter.

Now the bickering Buckeyes have brought their feuding ways to the desert, where the punches have been of the verbal variety in a regrettable sparring match between flailing freshman tailback Maurice Clarett and tougher-than-he-looks athletics director Andy Geiger.

Clarett threw the first punch Monday by complaining that "football is more important than life" to Ohio State because he couldn't fly home to Youngstown that day to attend a close friend's funeral.

Geiger counter-jabbed by saying Clarett had not filled out the necessary financial disclosure form that would have allowed Ohio State to send him home.

Clarett came back with a stunning right cross Tuesday, basically calling Geiger a liar and insisting he had completed the paperwork before the team arrived in Arizona on Dec. 26.

To which Geiger responded with a left uppercut, saying in a written statement the form was not on file in the financial aid office at Ohio State as of Dec. 30.

"We were therefore compelled to follow the NCAA rules as they apply to the situation," Geiger said in the release. "... I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for our student-athletes to complete this form." It appears Geiger has thrown the last haymaker - at least until after Friday night's national championship showdown with Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.

Clarett did not appear at OSU's players-only news conference Wednesday - he wasn't one of the six players designated to attend - and only head coaches Jim Tressel of Ohio State and Larry Coker of Miami were to meet with reporters this morning in the final briefing before the game.

Tressel has tried not to get his hands dirty in this mess.

"I never addressed whether (Clarett) did or didn't (fill out the form)," Tressel said during his last visit with the media Tuesday, "and I haven't had that discussion." Something tells me by now he has.

Especially because the Fiesta Bowl threatens to become nothing more than part of the undercard for the "new" main event - Clarett vs. the Evil Empire (a.k.a Ohio State).

Whether or not Clarett had filed the papers in a timely fashion, or OSU did everything to see he got home for the funeral of a friend reportedly killed in a drug-related shooting, this is a battle he cannot win.

Clarett seemed to realize that when he said, "The program is always bigger than the players. You could have Jim Brown, Archie Griffin and Eddie George come back, and the program would still be bigger than them." (Especially Brown, since he was an Orangeman for Syracuse and not a Buckeye.) Frankly, this is a battle Clarett already lost in the eyes of Buckeye Nation when he immaturely aired his grievance with the school on such a grand stage, instead of voicing his disappointment behind closed doors.

Sure, he's just a 19-year-old kid and he's obviously distraught over the loss of a friend. But with an entire nation watching, he selfishly let his personal feelings and emotional outbursts infect what should be a feel-good story - the Buckeyes playing for their first consensus national championship in 34 years.

"It's nothing that hasn't been said before or happened before," said tight end Ben Hartsock, sounding weary of the season-long brushfires started by Clarett. "Every time, we've been able to move on.

"He's the kind of guy drama follows around, I guess. If that's something he needs to get ready, that's nothing I would do every week." Remember the 2001 Outback Bowl when linebacker Matt Wilhelm chose the wrong time and wrong venue to criticize the highly-suspect leadership role of captain Ken-Yon Rambo, a couple of days before the Walter-Bentley lawsuit hit the fan? Those two incidents - which played at least a small role in John Cooper's firing after that bowl loss - look like small potatoes now, don't they?

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