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After Scandal, Ohio State To Hit Football Field

New Ohio State head football coach Luke Fickell at an Aug. 30 press conference.
Tom Goldman
New Ohio State head football coach Luke Fickell at an Aug. 30 press conference.

College football fans are ready to explode in celebration on Saturday, the first weekend of the new season. If the screaming seems a little louder in Columbus — home of the Ohio State Buckeyes — it's understandable: A scandal involving Ohio State players and popular head coach Jim Tressel dominated the off-season news. It reached a low point in May when Tressel resigned amid a scandal over several of his players' selling memorabilia.

The recent scandal at the University of Miami pushed Ohio State out of the headlines. And that's fine for many in the Buckeye State.

But for one reformer there, the problems are better not forgotten.

Coach Fick

New coach Luke Fickell replaced Tressel — abruptly — in May. Fickell is joining a list of head coaches whose names are spoken with almighty reverence in the Buckeye State — Woody Hayes, Earl Bruce and, yes, even Tressel. At his first press conference of the 2011 season, Fickell answered a question about the scandal by focusing on playing:

"There's been a lot of talk, but talk is that. Our performance will be what we want to define us," Fickell said.

The players echo the "speak through action" theme in a video that's become a YouTube hit. But will action translate to success? Because of the scandal, five of the best players were suspended the first five games of this season. One of them, star quarterback Terrell Pryor, bolted for the NFL. So the Buckeyes are embracing an underdog role, with a slogan of "shock the world."

A Crusader

Ninety minutes south of Columbus, in Athens, Ohio, there's concern that the start of the season might also signal an unfortunate ending.

"I do think that a lot of this momentum, if we want to call it that, is really going to slow down," says Dave Ridpath, assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University. Ridpath is talking about the momentum for change in college sports.

And over the past year of scandal at Ohio State and other high-profile schools, Ridpath has been an outspoken critic of a college sports model he says is broken. He's been saying it for years, as a member of the Drake Group, a faculty organization devoted to college athletic reform.

Ridpath is 46, with a shaved head and athletic build. He was a wrestler and wrestling coach. Ridpath is not your stereotypical corduroy-jacket-wearing faculty member railing about college sports. In fact, he was way on the inside, working in college athletics for a dozen years.

"I was of the opinion that athletics paid the salaries of faculty members. The fiber of the whole institutional soul depended upon the athletic department. That's what I thought," Ridpath says — until he was hired as assistant athletic director at Marshall University.

Ridpath was at Marshall in the late 1990s. In 1999, the school became embroiled in a scandal involving academic fraud and football players. Ridpath reported violations to the NCAA but ended up getting blamed for the problems. He sued members of the athletic staff, and they settled before trial. The experience created a crusader.

"If somebody like me can get forced out of college athletics, and the people who really committed the violations can get by — and not only get by but get raises and continue on — it made me think something's wrong here," Ridpath says.

Looking For An Answer

What's wrong can seem like a multiheaded hydra: boosters run amok, recruiting violations, football and men's basketball coaches getting paid the biggest salaries on campus, rising student fees propping up overspending athletic departments. But Ridpath and the Drake Group have distilled it all down to one question they say should be the foundation of reform: Do we want college sports played by college students?

"Are we really bringing kids in for an education?" Ridpath asks.

If the answer is yes, he says, great — then make freshmen ineligible to play sports so they can get a year of academics under their belt first. Offer multiyear athletic scholarships rather than the current one year, which forces athletes to focus primarily on their sport so the scholarship won't get yanked. And, Ridpath says, with a nod toward the scandal at Ohio State, make sure those scholarships cover the true cost of attendance.

"With that, we eliminate the excuse at least of saying, 'I didn't have any money so I had to go trade my jersey to get a tattoo,' " he says.

If we're not really bringing kids in for an education, then stop the charade of saying all athletes are students, too, Ridpath says: Separate big-time college sports from schools, make teams self-sufficient private entities, pay the kids and let them go to school on their own time if they want.

"Could that really happen? Bigger things have happened in our history. I can remember when it was like, 'Oh my gosh, they're letting professionals in the Olympics.' It was supposed to be the death of the Olympics. Olympics are probably more popular now than they've ever been. It would be a dramatic change," Ridpath says.

John Chubb, aka Buck I Guy, standing next to his vintage 1970 Chevy Impala — his "Buck I Guy Mobile."
Tom Goldman / NPR
John Chubb, aka Buck I Guy, standing next to his vintage 1970 Chevy Impala — his "Buck I Guy Mobile."

The less dramatic changes Ridpath is talking about actually are on the NCAA's radar screen. Action on the scholarship proposals could come as soon as next month, when the college football season is going full steam.

A Full Belly

John Chubb aka "Buck I Guy" is sitting on the patio of Eddie George's Grille in Columbus. He's dressed in his attention-grabbing white 10-gallon hat and a white cape, with Ohio State written on everything — his lucky outfit, he says. He wears it to every home game, where he sits in the front row at Ohio Stadium, nicknamed The Horseshoe or Shoe. Behind the comic book appearance, Chubb, 51, seems smart and thoughtful. Does a man so steeped in fandom think about the problems in college sports and the kind of reform about which Ridpath is so passionate?

Chubb tries to answer, but like following a divining rod, the words find their way to his beloved stadium down the street.

"That's my single-minded focus — get back to where it is, that I need to be, that comfortable place, that lovely place, over in the Shoe, as we like to call it, the Ohio State University," Chubb says.

Ridpath says college sports fans are like people who eat at a favorite restaurant but don't dare go in the kitchen because they might see something that turns their stomach. As football fans across the country prepare to gorge, Ridpath, who likes watching football, hopes enough change can come to college sports — that fans can go in the kitchen and keep eating to their heart's content.

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Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on