Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
For a brief moment in time, Jim Tressel was the spotlight during an Ohio State football game, like old times.
Make no mistake about it, though: OSU’s 26-21 win against Michigan to polish the program’s first perfect season since the former coach’s 2002 Buckeyes was far more about OSU’s future and Tressel’s successor than the triumphs and ghosts of its past.
Saturday was the finale of coach Urban Meyer’s first season in Columbus as the commander of the OSU football team. Amid the thousands of adoring believers rushing the field at the end of the last game of a new chapter, it seemed Meyer had restored order to Ohio’s capital city and, maybe, the state itself.
OSU was back to being OSU. Back to beating Michigan. Back to winning.
Back to the way it was under Tressel.
While the day was so much more than the 59-year-old’s return to the Horseshoe as one of many members of the 2002 national championship team to mark the 10-year anniversary of the feat, it’s impossible to understand the significance of Saturday’s win against the Wolverines without understanding Tressel’s role in the moment.
Where the Buckeyes’ football program is, where it will be and where it has been are all interconnected and intricately woven so that they’ll forever go hand-in-hand.
It seemed fitting then that the celebration of a new era in Buckeye football was joined with Tressel, a man partly responsible for this year’s postseason ban and, perhaps, its ultimate nadir.
Tressel tumbled under NCAA violations stemming from 2010’s “Tattoo-Gate” scandal that cost him his job in May 2011 and effectively shattered any chance he had at sainthood among the city’s locals.
Now, Tressel works as the University of Akron’s vice president of strategic engagement where he’s in a non-football role at an academic institution for the first time in his life.
Ever since taking that position closer to his Northeast-Ohio roots, he’s stayed out of major headlines. But Saturday’s season climax against the Wolverines and the circumstances surrounding it thrust Tressel back into the headlines.
Between the game’s first and second quarters, the 2002 national championship team marched into the stadium’s north end zone for the 105,000-plus in attendance to see.
Clad in an OSU letterman-style jacket, there was Tressel, front and center with the gang that helped him unlock college football’s most sought-after pinnacle.
While his former players towered over him, there was little trouble finding the man who instilled such joy and such agony for a fanbase that heeded his every word.
But Tressel’s reception was that of a hero – a consistent roar that grew as more fans began to notice his face on the stadium’s massive video board.
The man responsible for the bitterness Buckeye Nation felt regarding the team’s inability to play in the postseason was exalted as a champion and lifted upon the shoulders of the players who surrounded him.
It’s a word that’s far too often overused in sports, but the moment was surreal.
Without his headset and his sweater vest, Tressel’s first venture back into a place where he’d roamed the sidelines for so long brought the “Tattoo-Gate” saga full circle.
It was a day when Meyer’s Buckeyes were playing for the program’s first undefeated season since Tressel’s squad had done it a decade earlier.
And there they were – the past, present and future of a program that connected them long before Saturday’s game against Michigan – two of modern-day college football’s titans, about 30 yards apart from one another.
Their last on-field meeting was a handshake after Meyer’s Gators throttled Tressel’s Buckeyes 41-14 in the 2006 BCS National Championship game.
Now, Tressel’s misdoings were a central pillar as to why Meyer’s Buckeyes are barred from competing for a Big Ten or national championship.
In any other circumstance, a win against Michigan could’ve sealed OSU’s spot in the national championship.
Ironically, the man who is largely at fault for the season’s sudden ending was sharing the spotlight with the players he recruited to Columbus years ago.
Hardly, though, did the feeling of animosity ever seem to manifest itself on Saturday.
The Horseshoe seemed at peace.
In their final game under the NCAA’s postseason sanctions, maybe the Buckeyes and their faithful needed one last rendezvous with the coach who had given them so much.