The Buckeyes are on top right now. Maybe not for the 2006 or 2007 season but in general, the Buckeyes are standing on top of the hill, as one of college football’s elite programs, looking down at the rest of the nation. The Big Ten is down, we all know it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ohio State has been to five BCS games (including three championship games) in the last six years. Nor does it change the fact that Ohio State is now dominating recruiting in the Midwest, snatching up players that in previous years would have gone to Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Pittsburgh, etc. The problem is that when you are on top everyone wants to knock you down a couple of notches.
Fans and media love to point at all the problems, perceived or real, with Ohio State football. Favorite topics include the Troy Smith five hundred dollar handshake, the relative weakness of the Big Ten, Ohio State’s record (0-9) in bowl games against the SEC, and of course Maurice Clarett. I cannot say or do anything about the first three topics since they are all true statements. Troy Smith did take $500.00 from a booster; Ohio State has lost all nine of its bowl games against the SEC, and the Big Ten in general has been down. Now the Clarett story, based on the actual events, is not the skid mark in Ohio State’s collective underwear that college football fans around the country would like you to believe.
The problem is that Ohio State fans hate to talk about Clarett while the haters love to talk about him, so over time the story has become distorted. If you objectively look at the facts, Ohio State’s conduct regarding Clarett sets a very high standard, one that most programs in the country would not maintain.
It has now been more than five years since Maurice Clarett has carried the football for Ohio State. The facts are harder to find behind the contorted stories and revisionist mudslinging, but they are there for the determined Buckeye fan that bothers to look. The issue is that most of us change the topic when “Mo C” comes up. So here it is a timeline of events, in which the Buckeyes deal harshly and admirably with arguably its best player of the 2002 season.
At 6’0” 230lbs, Maurice Clarett was a dominating force on the Ohio high school football landscape in 2001. As a senior running back at Warren G. Harding High School in Warren Ohio Clarett, a five-star college recruit, won Mr. Football Ohio and was heavily recruited nationally before deciding to stay at home in Ohio.
Clarett would go on to graduate early and enroll at Ohio State early so that he could participate in Spring Practice, making him much more likely to contribute in 2003. Fortunately for Buckeye fans it worked. Clarett rose to the top of the depth chart and broke out for 175 yards in his first game, the Pig Skin Classic against Texas Tech. Just like that, a star was born.
Clarett would spend the rest of the season putting up exceptional numbers while fighting lingering injuries, rushing for an Ohio State freshman record 1237 yards and 18TDs. The Buckeyes would go on to win the BCS Championship Game as a double-digit underdog against the Miami Hurricanes. Clarett was an integral part of that effort, making one of the best college football plays you will ever see as he stripped a streaking Sean Taylor as he was running downfield to a certain score after picking off a Krenzel pass. Clarett’s star had risen and Buckeye fans sat bewildered, wondering how well a healthy Clarett would play in 2003, but a funny thing happened on the way to the 2003 season.
In April 2003, Clarett filed a police report alleging that over six thousand dollars worth of cash, clothing, and stereo equipment, two built in television screens, and 300 CDs were stolen from his car during a break in on April 17th, 2003. The NCAA and Ohio State Athletic Department jumped into action, immediately curious about how a broke college freshman had even acquired these items.
As a result of the investigation, Ohio State and the NCAA were able to ascertain that Clarett was driving a vehicle improperly borrowed from a small dealership called The Car Store on the north side of Columbus. Furthermore, it was also discovered that Clarett had grossly exaggerated the value of the items that were stolen from the car in an attempt to profit from the pending insurance claim, and ultimately plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge regarding the false report.
Clarett was immediately barred from participating in summer camp, and although it was not required by the NCAA investigation, Ohio State decided to suspend Clarett for the entire 2003 season. Stop for a second and think about that, Ohio State a team that was expected to compete for a 2003 National Championship, suspended its best player and Heisman candidate independently of the NCAA.
That was it, the end of Ohio State’s official affiliation with Maurice Clarett. While the rest of Clarett’s story is the same tragic story of bad advice and self-destruction; it occurred independently of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Yet every story, and there would be a lot of them, following this point was (and forever will be) prefaced with “Ohio State running back, Maurice Clarett.”
Following the announcement of his one-year suspension Clarett would receive the sage advice of activist Jim Brown, to sue the NFL for early entry into the 2004 Draft. Better advice would have probably been to, “swallow your pride, keep your nose clean, earn your spot back on the Ohio State team, and go to the draft in 2005,” but it is easy to take risks with someone else’s life. Clarett would ultimately go on to lose his case in a Federal Appellate Court, dragging USC receiver Mike Williams down with him.
In the fall of 2004 Clarett broke his silence and spun a story for ESPN writer Tom Friend. In his recounting of the 2003 scandal that resulted in his one-year suspension, Clarett accused the Ohio State Athletic Department and boosters of wide spread benefits violations and preferential academic treatment, asserting that he was the “fall guy.” When reached for comment, then Ohio State Athletic Director, Andy Geiger warned ESPN to consider the source saying, "We dealt with this guy for 18 months. I just hope you've checked into the background and history of who you're dealing with.'' This was sage advice for the sports news network that seems to err on the side of sensationalism to often.
Geiger went on to state that in a recently concluded one-year investigation the university and the NCAA had found nothing to substantiate any of Clarett’s claims and that Clarett’s actions were the actions of a man scorned. Geiger said, "He vowed to me that he would do something to try to get us and this may be what he's trying to do. So he's on his own.” None of Clarett’s accusations were ever substantiated.
Clarett did not play anywhere in the 2004 season, and apparently he did not train particularly hard for the NFL combine as he posted a horrific 4.82 forty yard dash. That time would have been fantastic for an offensive tackle, but an NFL running back? Well, it was not bad enough to completely put everyone off, as Denver’s Mike Shanahan was willing to wager a 3rd round pick on Clarett’s potential.
It didn’t take long before rumors about Clarett began to swirl around Broncos training camp. Apparently Clarett appeared slow, lost, and disinterested in drills. There were rumors circulating that Clarret was malingering (faking a leg injury) and that Clarett was drinking vodka from a water bottle during drills. Ultimately Clarett was cut before the conclusion of training camp, ending the once budding star’s career before it even started.
Without any real skills and no chance in the NFL, Clarett came back to Ohio and completed his self-destruction. Clarett was indicted in February of 2006 for armed robbery after holding up a couple on New Year’s Eve at gunpoint. In true Clarett fashion the robbery was a complete failure, as he was only able to net a cell phone. It is at this point that Clarett’s life was completely wasted. Yes, there were, of course, the rumored ties to Israeli gangsters and the bizarre Grey Goose induced body armor/rolling armory late night police chase while out on bail, but that was just the icing on the cake.
In the end, these actions were long after Clarett had been divorced from any official contact with the university. While he had ultimately made amends with Coach Tressel in the months prior to the arrest, his official contact with the university was ancient history.
In September 2006, Clarett was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison (with possible release in three and half), so the earliest he will breath free air again is in early 2010, but his story and fate will forever be linked to The Ohio State University. Personally, in some ways, I think that is a good thing.
In Clarett, we witnessed the Ohio State Buckeyes do something that very few programs in the nation would do. The Buckeyes acted clearly and decisively when their star player screwed up, suspending him for the 2003 season. Had the Buckeyes had been less scrupulous about the situation, we could possibly be talking about a back-to-back 2002-2003 Championship Team and seven consecutive wins over Michigan today. Clarett was ultimately be replaced by the largely ineffective running of Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross, and that 2003 team would still fall just short of the 2003 BCS Championship Game.
If Ohio State was guilty of anything in this situation it was for giving Clarett a chance in the first place, but isn’t that kind of the point? Should college scholarships only be offered to middle class kids in the suburbs, or should they be an opportunity for some kids that are a little bit rougher around the edges that otherwise may not have them? It is a difficult question, and one that coaches gamble on every year. Sometimes the kids turn out like Maurice Clarett and sometimes they turn out like Troy Smith, but in the end the greatest tragedy would be if the Maurice Clarett’s of the worlds ruined the opportunities for others.