COLUMBUS, Ohio — A day after coach Jim Tressel’s forced resignation for lying about Ohio State players receiving improper benefits, the focus has shifted to the investigation of star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and his succession of used cars.
The salesman who put Pryor behind the wheel of several expensive vehicles said in a sworn affidavit released by Ohio State on Tuesday that he didn’t offer any special deals to Buckeyes.
“The deals that I did for Ohio State student-athletes were no different than any of the other 10,000-plus deals that I’ve done for all my other customers,” Aaron Kniffin said in the statement.
Tressel’s 10-year reign as coach of the Buckeyes ended in disgrace Monday as he was forced to step down for breaking NCAA rules. He knew players received cash and tattoos for autographs, championship rings and equipment and did not tell anyone at Ohio State or the NCAA what he knew for more than nine months. NCAA rules — and Tressel’s contract — specify that he must disclose any and all information about possible violations.
Pryor, one of the highest-profile recruits of Tressel’s 25-year coaching career, is one of five Buckeyes who have already been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. The players were suspended for taking money and tattoos from local tattoo-parlor owner Edward Rife, who pleaded guilty last week to federal drug trafficking and money-laundering charges.
Ohio State confirmed that the NCAA continues to look into potential violations, including Pryor’s cars.
“I can tell you that obviously you have an open investigation,” Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch said Tuesday. “The university and the NCAA are working jointly to review any new allegations that come to light. We’re going to continue to do so until their investigation wraps up.”
The Columbus Dispatch has reported that the NCAA and Ohio State are investigating more than 50 vehicle purchases by Buckeyes players, family members and friends over the past. Sports Illustrated, citing a source close to the investigation, reported that Pryor, who will be a senior this fall, might have driven as many as eight cars in his three years in Columbus.
Even though Pryor’s vehicles have been a focal point of the investigation for weeks, that doesn’t mean he has been riding a bicycle around the city.
Pryor drove up to a players-only team meeting on Monday night in a coal-black Nissan 350Z sports car with 30-day plates. The automotive information site Edmunds.com lists a recent, used 350Z, which it calls “a proper sports car for the everyman,” as costing between $16,000 and $27,000.
Pryor was stopped three times for traffic violations over the past three years, each time driving cars that were owned by Kniffin or a Columbus used-car dealership where he worked, the Dispatch has reported. Kniffin, owner Jeff Mauk of Jack Maxton Chevrolet, Inc., and Jason Gross of Auto Direct Columbus, Inc., each provided affidavits to Ohio State officials earlier this month.
They said that all transactions associated with an Ohio State athlete were cleared through Ohio State’s NCAA compliance department.
“If the OSU Compliance Department approved the transaction terms, the transaction would be finalized and the vehicle would be delivered to the customer,” Mauk said in his statement.
Even though the dealerships have dozens of signed jerseys on display in their showrooms, Kniffin and the dealerships said that was not part of any deal.
“OSU student-athletes weren’t given any enticements to buy the car at my dealership,” Kniffin said. “At no time did memorabilia come into play when it came time to negotiate a deal or buy a car. I was never given any memorabilia from a student-athlete in exchange for a car deal.”
Late on Monday night, Sports Illustrated reported that the memorabilia-for-tattoos violations actually stretched back to 2002, Tressel’s second season at Ohio State, and involved at least 28 players — 22 more than the university has acknowledged. Those numbers include, beyond the six suspended players, an additional nine current players as well as other former players whose alleged wrongdoing might fall within the NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations on violations.
After the article’s release, athletic director Gene Smith issued a statement.
“During the course of an investigation, the university and the NCAA work jointly to review any new allegations that come to light, and will continue to do so until the conclusion of the investigation,” he said. “You should rest assured that these new allegations will be evaluated in exactly this manner. Beyond that, we will have no further comment.”
Smith and Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee declined comment Tuesday when contacted by The Associated Press.
The turmoil at Ohio State comes at the same time PGA Tour pros are arriving at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club in suburban Dublin for Thursday’s first round of the Memorial Tournament.
Nicklaus, a standout golfer at Ohio State while Woody Hayes was the football coach in the early 1960s, was asked about Tressel’s downfall.
“Well, obviously the coverup was far worse than the act,” Nicklaus said Tuesday. “And once you got the coverup, it became a situation where Jim had to say some things that turned out to be that weren’t exactly truthful. And so that’s where he got himself in trouble.”
Nicklaus said that now that the NCAA is continuing to investigate, almost any result is possible.
“Once one of these things happens, by the time they get through digging they’re going to find whether somebody had a hangnail someplace or not, whether somebody replaced it improperly,” Nicklaus said.