Sports

A Pox on Both Their Big Houses

Ohio State wins by ignoring NCAA rules and exploiting its players. Michigan loses by following NCAA rules and also exploiting its players.

Josh Metellus tackles Rashod Berry around the waist while Khaleke Hudson goes for Berry's left leg. Berry is clutching the football.
Michigan Wolverines defensive back Josh Metellus and linebacker Khaleke Hudson tackle Ohio State Buckeyes tight end Rashod Berry (center) on Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State beat Michigan in football last weekend, a now-annual occurrence. While the programs were for many decades prior usually well-matched in talent—hence the rivalry—Ohio State has moved into a higher tier. SB Nation’s Bud Elliott tracks the percentage of each college football team’s recruits that are rated as elite prospects; Michigan’s team this year is sixth in the nation with a roster that’s 60 percent elite, but Ohio State, at 81 percent, has the most talented program in the country. Although Ohio State also benefits from good coaching, anyone with access to a recruiting website could have guessed that the Buckeyes were highly likely to win this year’s version of The Game, and those in the seven years before it, without having watched a second of actual football.

Why is Ohio State able to recruit better players than Michigan? Ohio State supporters would likely answer that success breeds success, and would also point to those better coaches—Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, and now Ryan Day, who’s currently 15–0 as a head coach—all of whom have succeeded at a level far beyond that achieved by Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke, and Jim Harbaugh (who, in fairness, is far more competent than Rodriguez and Hoke). Better players, Ohio State partisans would argue, will gravitate to a program that wins more and puts more alums in the NFL.

Michigan has a different explanation: Ohio State breaks the rules. This is not just a complaint made by sour-grapes fans like me: It’s essentially the official position of the program as articulated by Harbaugh. In his new book Overtime, John U. Bacon documents Michigan’s exacting academic and disciplinary standards before quoting Harbaugh as saying that it’s “hard to beat the cheaters.” The story goes that Michigan is at a permanent recruiting and talent-retention deficit compared to Ohio State and other college football powers because it won’t enroll players who have “disciplinary” issues or whose educational backgrounds haven’t prepared them for college, and because it makes those players go to class and observe the NCAA ban on receiving cash or perks once they’re on campus.

Michigan is half-correct about this. Ohio State is the bad guy. But Michigan doesn’t have much to be smug about either.

First, Ohio State. Tressel and Meyer were good at the football part of football coaching: player development, offensive and defensive scheming, etc. They would’ve been successful, probably, even if they followed all the rules. But they didn’t. As Sports Illustrated documented in detail a decade ago, Tressel supervised a program in which players were connected with local businesses and boosters that provided them with money, cars, tattoos, and other NCAA-forbidden benefits. Many observers, this writer included, would consider such transactions benign, even admirable. The problem here, ethically, came when the players involved got “caught” taking under-the-table compensation. At that point, Tressel and his bosses sold them out, lamenting their alleged failures of character and issuing dubious denials of the school’s complicity in their activities in order to maintain good standing with the NCAA.

In 2003, the New York Times reported allegations that running back Maurice Clarett and other members of the school’s 2002 national championship team had maintained academic eligibility while frequently missing classes and having their homework done by tutors; Clarett would later say coaches also arranged for him to receive a no-show job and free car. The school dismissed Clarett from the team, denounced him as an unreliable witness, and told the NCAA that it had no “institutional involvement” in his violations. At a press conference, the school’s athletic director gravely avowed that Ohio State coaches and administrators “live by the rules.” In 2010, a new athletic director said that a compensation scandal involving star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and as many as two dozen other players was “isolated” to the “young men” involved.

Tressel and the administrators he worked for were willing to ignore NCAA rules to win, but not because of principled beliefs. When necessary to continue winning, they were also willing to blame and disparage players for having participated in the system they’d created. You’d think this sort of behavior would create a long-term recruiting disadvantage, but this is the way almost every top program operates. There is no John Calipari in college football—no one who will say in public that a program’s top priority is preparing players for pro careers, or that they should be compensated above and beyond the value of their scholarships.

When Tressel’s culpability in the extra benefits process ultimately became impossible to deny, he was let go. In a signal about how seriously the school took his behavior, he was replaced by Meyer—who, when he coached the University of Florida, allowed players to take the field after they’d been arrested for such offenses, per the New York Times, as “aggravated stalking, domestic violence by strangulation, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and fraudulent use of credit cards.” (One of the players Meyer kept on the roster despite continuous legal issues was Aaron Hernandez.)

At Ohio State, Meyer himself was the out-of-control star talent. He won a national championship and several Big Ten titles with his trademark offensive system. He also brought on a former Florida assistant named Zach Smith without telling Ohio State administrators that Smith’s wife had accused him of shoving her. Then he kept Smith on staff even after learning that Columbus police were investigating him over new accusations of domestic abuse. Then, in 2018, when Smith was accused of domestic abuse yet again, and the matter became public, Meyer lied to the press about his knowledge of the subject. For this, the head coach served a three-game suspension against inferior opponents before returning for the team’s conference schedule—and a win over Michigan. It was a penalty with symmetric resonance: In 2013, Ohio State’s star running back, Carlos Hyde, was initially suspended indefinitely after being captured on video swinging at and possibly striking a woman at a club. After she decided not to press charges, Meyer announced that Hyde would miss three games—against cupcakes San Diego State, Buffalo, and Cal.

Meyer resigned last year and was replaced by Day. Under its new head man, Ohio State recruited transfer quarterback Justin Fields, a sophomore who told the press in September of this year that he hadn’t “been around campus that much” because he only takes online classes and spends most of his time at the football facilities. Last month, the school discovered an NCAA violation by star defensive end Chase Young: He’d borrowed money from an agent to fly his girlfriend to the Rose Bowl. I would argue that Young should be able to take as much money from as many agents as he wants to take. That’s not what Ohio State argued. “We never cover anything up. We’re never going to do that, … My integrity’s all I got,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the same guy who blamed Terrelle Pryor for Jim Tressel’s problems and then hired Urban Meyer. Smith’s integrity, it turned out, called for Young to be suspended for games against Rutgers and Maryland (combined record 5–19) and reinstated for games against Penn State and Michigan (combined record 19–5).

In ways both relatively benign and much less so, Ohio State has designed its football program to win games first and address every other consideration later, if at all. Michigan has different standards and is extremely eager to tell you about it. It sells itself to recruits as something like the football version of the Marines. It attracts players whose parents were in the military, or whose parents are doctors, or who want to be doctors themselves. As recruiting-history guru Seth Fisher of the indispensable MGoBlog told me, Michigan almost never wins a head-to-head battle for a prospect against Ohio State or top SEC programs unless the player has expressed an unusual level of interest in academics or comes from a relatively well-to-do family. According to Bacon’s book, Michigan cuts about half the high school prospects on its target list after seeing their transcripts, and Harbaugh is reputedly obsessed with keeping the program’s NCAA-measured Academic Progress Rate above that of Stanford, where he previously coached.

This commitment to the student half of the student-athlete formulation does have useful dividends. Graduating with a degree from a highly esteemed university with one of the largest and most engaged alumni networks in the world is … well, it’s good. Harbaugh’s team takes annual booster-funded trips abroad—past destinations have included Normandy, France; South Africa; and Rome—and, at least by coach standards, he’s relatively socially conscious.

But while a concern for the well-being of players might be one of the things motivating Michigan’s tough-love program, so is a concern for the school’s sense of superiority. After being complicit in one of the most notorious player-payment scandals in NCAA history under basketball coach Steve Fisher, the school veered hard in the direction of monastic propriety. That sanctimony manifests, for instance, in fans gloating that the school’s loss to Louisville in the 2013 NCAA Tournament final is mitigated by then–Michigan coach John Beilein having been “cleaner” than Rick Pitino. (As Deadspin documented, celebrations of Beilein’s distaste for player compensation became their own subgenre of sports writing—one led by Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg, a Michigan alum.) Judgmental insinuations about other schools’ “bag men” are a message-board motif whenever a sought-after prospect turns the Wolverines down. In a previous book, Bacon—a Michigan professor and alum—noted with pride that star Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and his heir apparent, Devin Gardner, drove ancient, barely functioning cars.

Indeed they did. This is college sports, where “clean” programs prove their cleanliness by keeping their players away from the big piles of money that TV networks are paying to broadcast their games. Despite his access to superior vehicles, Pryor may not have been well-served by his role as a cog in Ohio State’s winning machine. But Robinson and Gardner also didn’t get what they deserved. Both were spectacular players who singlehandedly kept the team competitive (and watchable) during lean seasons, and both sacrificed their bodies in ways that likely damaged their future earning potential. Robinson injured his elbow during a game in his senior season, which left him unable to throw; Gardner was sacked so often on account of the incompetent coaching of Hoke’s offensive coordinator, Al Borges, that he seemed to regress as a quarterback the older he got. Robinson played his senior year against Ohio State with one working arm. Gardner finished a subsequent game against the Buckeyes on a broken foot. Both players nearly led overmatched Michigan teams to victories in The Game despite their injuries.

For those acts of heroism, the pair have been repaid in lasting fan esteem. But you can’t use campus-legend points to pay the rent or reimburse the doctor who treats your chronic pain. Robinson played a few seasons in the NFL as a running back but had continuing problems with his elbow, then got into coaching. This season, he was on staff at Jacksonville University, but the school just announced that it is eliminating its team. Gardner tried to make the NFL as a wide receiver but didn’t catch on. He now coaches youth players in the Detroit area and does guest spots on sports radio. Hoke and Borges, on the other hand, made enough money coaching Robinson and Gardner that they can retire comfortably whenever they choose. Anyone who watched Michigan football during the years in which those four men were involved knows that this is a criminally absurd allocation of spoils.

These are standard college-sports injustices, and they exist at every high-level program. What makes Michigan such a galling case is that it could do something about this. The school has a credibility with college-sports traditionalists that, let’s say, Florida State and Baylor do not. It has a coach with a national platform and a reputation as a true believer in the ideals of college athletics, and a school president who comes from the Ivy League. For such people to make the case that college-sports ideals are not incompatible with player compensation—for Harbaugh to become the Calipari of football—would be a significant step in the direction of justice.

Instead, the current Michigan regime appears committed to working within a bad system and wagging its finger at those who (whether for moral or immoral reasons) choose not to be constrained by that system’s dumb rules. This fall, California passed a law legalizing the compensation of NCAA players for the use of their name and likenesses (if it goes into effect in 2023, and if it survives potential court challenges). When reporters asked Harbaugh about this, he said that he would prefer for college football to remain an “amateur” sport. (He did add that he would eliminate the rule that prevents players from going pro until they’ve played three college seasons.)

Harbaugh might not be a hypocrite on this issue like some of his peers are, but he’s also not thinking outside his own experience. It’s not fair to expect every high school prospect to survive academically at supra-Stanford levels. It’s also not fair to expect that every Devin Gardner will drive a 2002 Chevy Craplass on the chance that he’ll get a Range Rover with his NFL paycheck, because he probably won’t. The people in charge of Ohio State might be pigs, but Michigan is just lipstick.