Lantern file photo
In his mind, Jim Tressel is old, his memory deteriorating.
The highs and lows of 37 years of coaching have started to blend together for the Ohio State football coach.
“I don’t know if it’s fortunately or unfortunately,” Tressel said, “but I’m old and I’ve had a lot of games.”
Jan. 18 marked the 10-year anniversary of Tressel’s hire at OSU.
In 15 seasons at Youngstown State, Tressel compiled a record of 135-57-2, winning four Division I-AA National Championships. In his 10 seasons at OSU, he has amassed a mark of 106-22, with one national title and seven Big Ten crowns to his credit. He earned his 100th victory at the Division I level after the Buckeyes’ 38-10 triumph against Indiana on Oct. 9.
More importantly to Buckeye fans, the coach holds a 9-1 record against rival Michigan.
Tressel spoke with The Lantern to reflect on his decade-long tenure in Columbus.
Oh, but a dream
Often, when universities or professional teams hire a coach, the new boss will gush about how he had dreamed of attaining his new gig since childhood. Tressel never considered the Division I college ranks, let alone OSU. Instead, he aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father, Lee Tressel, who racked up 155 victories coaching for 23 seasons at Division III Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
“I originally wanted to be a high school head coach and I never got there,” he said. “All the way up until probably the mid-’80s, through my first 10 or 11 years as a coach, I was thinking I’d like to be a Division III coach like my father was. Then I got the Youngstown State job and enjoyed 15 wonderful years there and I was convinced that I wanted to be there forever. So no, it wasn’t really anything that I thought about really until the day it opened.”
OSU football historian Jack Park said Tressel’s acceptance speech blew him away.
“He just made such a good impression on people in that acceptance speech,” Park said. “Some people can kind of speak well, but it’s kind of shallow; they’re just saying what they think they should to make themselves look good. This was not that. This was genuine.”
Even if he can no longer recall specific emotions or moments in time from games past, Tressel remembers the onerous weight strapped upon his shoulders when he accepted the position at OSU.
“Tremendous responsibility that having this position holds, great tradition, the meaning that this university has to all the students — that’s daunting,” he said.
The night he was hired, Tressel gave a speech at halftime of the men’s basketball game. In his monologue, the new coach guaranteed his team would be prepared for nemesis Michigan 310 days later.
“That’s going to be a big part of his legacy, I think,” Park said. “That night, he set up Michigan as a top priority. You could tell, and of course, look at what’s happened here, 9-1. He set that up as a high priority and followed through with that.”
Rocky 1st year
John Cooper was fired following a loss to South Carolina in the 2001 Outback Bowl that capped an 8-4 season. In Tressel’s first season at the helm, the Buckeyes compiled a 7-5 mark and another Outback Bowl loss to the Gamecocks. It wasn’t exactly an ideal start to his term. He suspended senior quarterback Steve Bellisari for two games following his arrest for drunk driving.
“There were ups and downs that year,” Tressel said. “It was real disappointing when we, right near the end of the year with two games left, we still had a chance to be the Big Ten champs and we had a little off-the-field problem and we had to bench our quarterback for the last two games. So, that was a disappointing time, and then when we beat Michigan at the end, it was obviously a good win for us because they were a very good team.”
Still, Tressel had intended to use his first year as a transition year, and he said he reached the goals he set pertaining to laying the foundation for a new era.
“The thing I wanted to do was create a plan and then develop relationships,” Tressel said. “And then, of course, you wanted to win some games along the way. But I wanted to create a plan for a culture and a set of expectations and get to know the kids and have them get to know me and make sure they knew how much I cared about them on and off the field.”
‘A good deal’
Once the transition period ended, it was full steam ahead. The Buckeyes doubled their win total in Tressel’s second season, becoming the first team in college football history to attain a 14-0 record. OSU capped its perfect season with a 31-24 double-overtime victory against a heavily favored Miami Hurricanes team that entered the title game riding a nation-best 34-game win streak.
“There were two things that I think made it possible,” Tressel said. “One is that we had grown in our relationships very close through the transition year, which is hard for everyone, and the adversity we faced that first year. Then the second thing that made it very doable was because we were talented — these kids were so hungry because they had been here, many of them, three, four, five years and really hadn’t had an Ohio State-type season.
“So, there was a group of them that were seniors that were not going to leave here without having an Ohio State season. And then, the ball bounced right a couple times and our guys kept fighting and it ended up being a good deal.”
The perfect season exceeded any expectations even the most idealistic Buckeye fans could have anticipated, Park said.
“I don’t think the most avid, unrealistic Ohio State fan that thinks we’re never ever going to lose again, in their wildest dreams, would have thought that they would go 14-0 in their second year under Tressel,” he said.
Along the way, the Buckeyes kept suspense high, narrowly escaping the jaws of defeat on a number of occasions. Half of the team’s victories came by seven points or fewer.
“When you end a year like we did in ’02, with that group that had transitioned together and had grown to love one another and compete like crazy,” Tressel said, “it was a little bit melancholy after the game, the fact that we were never going to be together in that fashion.”
Plan now, reflect later
That’s how Tressel thinks. He lives in the moment and plans for the immediate future, opting to save reflection for when he’s in his “rocking chair.”
“The moment a game ends or the moment a season ends, the immediate next logical question by any media person or any coach or young person who’s going to be returning to the squad the following year is that, ‘How are we going to be next year?'” Tressel said. “I’ve always said reflection is for the person who’s not coaching anymore or who’s not playing anymore. Just like a junior who’s heading into his senior year is not going to spend much time reflecting. He’s going to spend time thinking about that senior year. That’s just the nature of what we do. You really don’t reflect on that until it’s over.”
Because of that mindset, Tressel couldn’t pinpoint a specific failure or disappointment that still haunts him. Instead, anytime he comes across a less-than-desirable result, it’s “on to the next one,” he said.
“If we play a ball game I know we didn’t play anywhere near to our capabilities, obviously that’s disappointing,” Tressel said. “But immediately, my thoughts go to, ‘OK, what didn’t we do well? Why didn’t we do it well? What do we have to do to get the ship headed back in the right direction?'”
Tressel said he hopes one day to have time to reflect on the missed opportunities.
“After you’re done passionately working day-by-day, you might say, ‘Oh, that Purdue game from ’09 really bothered me,’ or, ‘That loss to Michigan in ’03, we weren’t ready. I didn’t have them ready,'” Tressel said. “I don’t spend any time today doing that. Hopefully, there will be time for that in my rocking chai
The low point
That approach to coaching helped him bear the pain of a National Championship Game defeat to Florida at the end of the 2006–07 season.
OSU entered the game unbeaten and a heavy favorite after outlasting Michigan, 42-39, in the regular season finale seven weeks earlier. The Gators didn’t care, stymieing the Buckeye offense in a 41-14 rout.
Tressel said the effort exhausted in the epic battle with the Wolverines left OSU ill-equipped for the demands of a national title bout.
“Our ’06 team had been undefeated and had really emptied their emotional gas tank a month before with the Ohio State-Michigan game and No. 1 versus No. 2 and all that stuff,” Tressel said. “You could see it was a little bit difficult, as hard as we tried to be at that same level as we were that day in late November.”
That game was the last time Troy Smith suited up in scarlet and gray. Five years earlier, Smith had accepted a scholarship to play for the Buckeyes.
“Troy came in here as an ‘athlete.’ We did not promise him he would be a quarterback,” Tressel said. “He kind of had to prove that he could. It wasn’t easy for him at first and he didn’t approach it the right way necessarily at first. He let it really affect him through the beginning of his career.”
After redshirting, Smith primarily saw action as a kick returner during his freshman season. He entered the 2004 campaign as the second-string quarterback before taking over the position when starter Justin Zwick suffered a shoulder injury. Smith only relinquished his grip on the starting gig after being suspended for the 2004 Alamo Bowl and 2005 season opener for accepting $500 from a booster.
He eventually regained his spot under center and never looked back, leading OSU to a 34-20 win against Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl before taking the 12-0 Buckeyes to the title game against Florida. Tressel said he remains proud of Smith’s steady maturation, citing the rise of the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner as one of the highlights of his OSU tenure.
“To watch him grow to understand to, ‘OK, I know what it takes to be a quarterback. I know what I have to study, what I have to work on, what I have to be, what I have to get better at and I know the type of leader I need to be,'” Tressel said. “To see him five years later end up the Heisman Trophy winner when he didn’t even come here to be a quarterback, or he did but we weren’t sure, to me, that was very rewarding. Now, it wasn’t without some consternation over the course of time, but it was fun to see the end of the day.”
That progress made during the four or five years a student-athlete takes the field is what Tressel said makes him proud to coach at the collegiate level.
“Those days that I see progress in each of the young people or a particular young person, you see a lightbulb go on in someone’s head or you see someone have a tough situation and then grow from it or handle it,” Tressel said. “My highlight would be progress.”
A lasting legacy
Speculation runs rampant about Tressel’s future.
On Christmas Eve, as Tressel sat at home with his family, a rumor spread throughout the Internet claiming the coach was on his way out of OSU, despite failing to report if he was retiring or being forced out.
OSU athletic director Gene Smith quickly hosed down that fire on Twitter, telling Buckeye fans to ignore the gossip.
“The rumors about Jim Tressel had emerged, so I jumped up and that was probably (my Tweet) that has gotten the most attention,” Smith said.
One thing is certain: Buckeye Nation respects and cares for its football coach.
And although fans might be more appreciative of his 9-1 record against Michigan and the crystal football he helped win at the end of the ’02 season, Tressel values the job he’s done turning teenage boys into professional adults.
“I’ve got a whole box sitting right across from me on the counter of about 15 rings. But you know what? Those rings, the dust is on them; they’re just memories,” Tressel said. “But the progress a person makes, even if they stumble and fall, we stumble and fall individually and as a group, what’s important is at the end of the day, they are ready to go out in this competitive world and see if they can battle their way through this tough, tough world.”
Park said Tressel’s leadership ability will place him among the ranks of Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce, widely considered to make up the top echelon of past Buckeye coaches.
“His legacy here not only will be success, but the way he’s done it and I would say he’s the complete coach,” Park said. “I don’t think he leaves anything to chance. He’s just the complete leader, the complete coach. He has a tremendously clear understanding of where football fits into the university, a player’s career and a player’s life.”
When reflecting on his 10 years in Columbus, Tressel said the one thing he can hang his hat on when he decides to call it a career is the effort he has given.
“I know this: I’ve tried very hard. And I know there have been some good things that have occurred and some ones that haven’t been so good, neither of which have been because we didn’t try,” Tressel said. “I think our intentions have been good and I’ll always feel whenever that day comes that we tried like crazy. I also know that at Ohio State, you can’t win enough games and you can’t visit enough patients in the hospital and you can’t write enough encouraging notes to the military and you can’t send out enough little football cards to the kids that write in.
“I know you can’t be perfect and you can’t get everything done, but while you’re the Ohio State coach, you’ve got to work like crazy and do the best you can and feel good about trying.”