Before the biggest games of the college football season, coaches traditionally condemn the distractions that divert their players and assistants from their missions.
Distractions can include interviews with reporters, ticket requests from relatives and even academic obligations. But this week at Ohio State, before the Buckeyes' game on Saturday against Michigan, coach Jim Tressel's diversion was worse. He had to make time to talk with an investigator from the NCAA. "Sometimes, distractions aren't fun," Tressel said.
This investigation rose from charges made by Maurice Clarett, the former Ohio State running back, who told ESPN the Magazine that he got money from boosters at Ohio State for a no-show job, generous use of a car from friendly dealers and improper academic advantages when he helped the Buckeyes to a national championship as a freshman in 2002.
Mike Nugent, Ohio State's senior place-kicker, acknowledged that Clarett's accusations were part of the locker-room dialogue last week before the Buckeyes fell to 3-4 in the Big Ten and 6-4 over all with a 24-17 loss at Purdue.
"Guys were talking: `We heard this, we heard that,"' Nugent said. At Purdue, fans hoisted signs that said "Coach Tressel, I can use a car" and "2002 National Cheaters."
But Nugent said he expects his team, representing one of the most powerful and prestigious programs in the country, to be absolved.
"We've got great coaches, a great staff," Nugent said. "Nothing will come of this. No one would do anything to embarrass this team or this school."
Saturday's game will be the 101st between these two universities from neighboring states and, as has often been the case, it may decide the Big Ten championship. Michigan is 9-1 over all, 7-0 in the conference.
A victory by the Wolverines would clinch the league title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Even in defeat, Michigan could tie for the top and go to the Rose Bowl if Iowa beats Wisconsin. But victories by both the Buckeyes and the Badgers would send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl, and Michigan to a lesser bowl.
As was the case when Clarett led the Buckeyes to an undefeated season, Ohio State and Michigan are counting on talented freshmen.
Michigan quarterback Chad Henne has thrown 19 touchdown passes and tailback Michael Hart has rushed for 1,311 yards. Henne has 10 interceptions in 10 games, but Hart has lost only one fumble in 243 carries. However, neither has played in the intimidating double-decked horseshoe of Columbus.
David Baas, Michigan's senior center, said: "Young guys may have the jitters. It's always easier to play at home. As a leader, you have to keep your team composed."
Michigan officials this week have limited the news media's access to Henne. After a 42-20 victory over Northwestern last week, Henne made a reference to the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, saying, "They hate us and we hate them."
Ohio State's first-year wonder is Ted Ginn Jr., a flanker who started the season as a backup cornerback and has six touchdowns despite touching the ball only 31 times. Three of his scores were against Michigan State: on an end-around run, on a pass reception and on a punt return.
Dustin Fox, a captain and cornerback of the Buckeyes, has faced Ginn's speed in practice. "We're trying to figure out what his niche is and we're trying to get him the ball," Fox said.