It looks as though school's out for Clarett

Saturday, August 9, 2003

Maurice Clarett was never really a college student and from the look -- and smell -- of things, he won't be a college athlete much longer, either.

Here's one clue to how close to gone Clarett is: Ohio State coach Jim Tressel didn't save a spot for his suspended star in Wednesday's team picture. Back in the days of the old Soviet Union, when Tressel was a kid, getting left (or edited) out of official Kremlin photos was guaranteed to be hazardous to your health.

And when Tressel was asked whether he was comfortable that Clarett hadn't done anything that would get his forehead stamped "ineligible" by the NCAA, he replied: "Nothing that I know of."

Amazing the things coaches don't want to know. Or how selective their memories get sometimes. By and large, the football members of the fraternity haven't had to wrestle with the bouts of amnesia that routinely plague their basketball brethren, but those are coming. There are still far fewer 19- and 20-year-olds ready to play in the NFL than the NBA, but more of them will be coming down the pipeline, too. Which brings us back to Clarett.

The kid knew when he first set foot in Columbus that the odds he would ever pose for a graduation photo were about the same as Mike Tyson leaving home without his American Express card. It could happen.

But that was before Clarett got a taste of what it was like this spring to hang out with LeBron James, out beyond the reach of the NCAA, out where it's OK to have expensive things and not get asked how you came to be in possession of them.

And that was before he played in a $13 million bowl game for the national championship last winter and got a peek at the corporate hospitality tents and cocktail parties surrounding it.

And before Clarett ripped his own school -- just days before the championship game -- for failing to help him return home for the funeral of a murdered friend -- and then raised the ante by calling OSU's side of the story "a lie."

One foot out the door

Everybody from Tressel down to the crazies who set fire to their couches after last season's Michigan game knew Clarett wouldn't hang around Columbus, Ohio, all four years. That was part of the bargain to shed three dozen years worth of going without a national championship, and who really was it going to hurt? But most of them figured Clarett would be at OSU for at least three, if only because the NFL prohibits players from turning pro until they are three years removed from their high school graduating class.

Now it looks like Clarett will need some luck just to get his second season launched.

Between them, the NCAA and OSU are looking into charges that a teaching assistant helped him pass a course; that he was "test-driving" a car outfitted with enough video and stereo equipment to open a Circuit City franchise; and perhaps most damaging of all, that Clarett filed a false report with the cops about who the equipment belonged to and how much it was worth.

Clarett once described his running style this way: "Keep my shoulders square and head north and south," and it was an apt description for his personality as well. He likes to go straight to the heart of things. He was no more likely to back down in a conversation off the field than he was in a collision on it. But that's changed, too.

On Sunday, he blew off a meeting with Marcus Allen set up by his high school coach. Allen had been inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier in the day and graciously set aside some time to offer Clarett some advice. "Didn't even call us," said Thom McDaniels, the kid's former coach.

Tressel would give anything to be able to say the same thing two weeks from now, after all those investigators have finished going over the OSU campus with fine-tooth combs. Clarett, understandably, lowered his profile and bit his lip on more than one occasion. He turned up to work out and watch a few minutes of practice indoors Thursday at the Woody Hayes Center and left without saying anything.

Apparently, that was in keeping with the spirit of things. Tressel's invitation to Clarett through the media a day earlier had been lukewarm at best.

"He's certainly free to stop by. He's not suspended from being on the grounds. But he's not taking part in any of the activities like meetings and practice," the coach said.

"It's just like we have a standing rule with our former players. They can come by practice anytime. They just don't get into the huddle. They don't get involved."

By the close of media day, the Buckeyes to a man bravely said they were prepared to defend their title without Clarett being "involved."

As if any of them, Clarett included, really had a choice.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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