Tressel Reflects on OSU Days, OSU Legacy
By Patrick Maks
Jim Tressel, circa 2011
Photo by Jim Davidson
The last ten years of Jim Tressel’s world came rushing back in the form of snippets of memories from a past life.
As about a dozen of his past players surprised the former Ohio State coach and reminisced about their time as Buckeye at a June 24 charity social in Columbus, Ohio, Tressel became lost in the moment.
And it wasn’t just because he says he hates being in the spotlight.
“You know, as those guys were up there talking, I’m not sure that I heard exactly what they said because kind of my life with them was flashing by,” he said.
One-by-one, Tressel’s former players, or the “guys” as he calls them, shared their fondest recollections regarding the 59-year-old, and what he meant to them.
Likewise, Tressel dug through his own collection of abstract, immaterial souvenirs from an earlier time.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“(I was) thinking of them when I was in their living room recruiting them and thinking of their parents, thinking them as a freshman at Ohio State and as a sophomore and so forth,” he says. “And then, (I was) thinking of them playing in the NFL.”
The boys he recruited as the head coach of arguably the most successful decade of Buckeyes football had become men—and Tressel seemed to know it.
“I was just kind of looking at them,” he said. “It was an emotional time for sure.”
Moved by the notion, Tressel says it was a moment that reminds him of how blessed he is.
“Those guys are very high-profile, high-name guys, but they’re still guys. They’re still my guys that I love.”
For 37 years, Tressel was a football coach—arguably one of the best in his time and one of the best to roam the sidelines of the legendary Horseshoe.
Jim Tressel with the 2002 National Championship trophy
Photo by Jim Davidson
After a national championship and ten-year period of unprecedented dominance in the Big Ten, such success that could have been perhaps been even greater never was.
In the wake of major NCAA violations involving the former OSU coach, Tressel was urged by athletic director Gene Smith to step down.
On the Monday morning of May 30, 2011, he did exactly that.
Almost exactly 14 months later, Tressel finds himself full-circle at the University of Akron, a place where he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant.
Now the Vice-President of Strategic Engagement for the Zips, Tressel says his new role at the university deals all the way from recruiting—academically speaking—kids to Akron to their future role in returning as involved alumni.
It’s the former coach’s first non-athletic role at the college level, but Tressel says the transition hasn’t been as hard it might seem.
“I’m used to working 80 hours a week and that’s what this is,” he said. “I like burning the midnight oil and I think the other thing is coaching is really no different than what I do from the standpoint (that) relationships are the key to everything.”
The kind of relationships, he says, that he had with his players in Columbus.
“Obviously my players at Ohio State wanted to win, and they wanted to win the Big Ten and they wanted to go to the NFL and they wanted to get their degree, but we made it clear that their experience there was not gonna be just about football,” he said.
Similarly, Tressel says he’s found that the same things he did in coaching—like the bonds he formed or the desire to have his players “ready to face the world” both on and off the field—carry over to Akron with relative ease. He says that message remains consistent now in his new role.
“We know they want jobs—they want to be engineers and business folks and writers, attorneys, doctors, and teachers,” he said. “We know that’s what they want to be. But we also want them to be well-rounded and difference makers in areas outside of their expertise.”
“I tease people around here that I used to have 100 players,” he said, “and now I have 30,000 students.”
Most of which, staff included, all know who Tressel is. They all know who Tressel was.
He says the familiarity is the result of a combination of three things.
“At Ohio State it was because people were interested in Ohio State and where as here, it’s a little bit of a combination of those people that are from over in the Youngstown area and remember what we did over there and the people here at the University of Akron,” he says. “The neat thing that I’ve always enjoyed about Ohio State is that it really doesn’t matter where you go to school in Ohio—still one of your teams is the Buckeyes. That’s just the way it is.”
Tressel’s reputation in the state of Ohio, however, seems to walk a fine line between love and hate.
While some love the former coach for the incredible success he had in ten years in Columbus. Others hate him for his role in a scandal that left the university with a black eye.
For Tressel, though, his memory, say some-30 years from now, isn’t something that can necessarily be framed in a one generalized verdict.
“You know, I think like any of us, I’m going to be remembered based upon the experiences someone had with me,” he says.
It’s the folks, he says, that he’s met over the years who will be the judge of that.
“I think I’ll be remembered specifically by those experiences and those relationships with all those people,” he says.
Tressel, though, knows he can’t control what people outside of those relationships will think.
“I think there’ll be some people that will remember me as I coached at Ohio State and won some games and some championships and there will be other people that might remember me as: ‘Oh man, that guy wore that sweater vest and he was too conservative in his play-calling,’” he said.
“There’s going to be such a wide array of people that remember, that think of you. But the ones that are important are the ones that I actually had an actual connection with.”
That’s not just a physical connection, he says. It’s an emotional one too.
At Ohio State, Tressel says he thinks that the relationship between the coach, the team, the students and the marching band was special.
“We had a lot tighter relationship than that even if we didn’t get to have one-on-one, intimate, day-to-day things,” he says. “I think by that group of people, it’ll be a fond memory.”
In light of what his legacy might be, Tressel is still focusing on the things he can see in front of him.
“I got great advice when I was a grad assistant here at Akron 38 years ago. The AD told me: ‘If you want to succeed in life, keep your mind and your rear end in the same place,’” he said.
Throughout his career, Tressel says he worked not thinking about where his next stop was.
It’s why he hasn’t entertained the thought of return to Ohio State in similar non-athletic role someday.
“You know, I really haven’t given that any thought. I’ve enjoyed each day here and feel as if I have a good role,” he said.
But Tressel says he knows how organizations change.
“You know how any organization is. Right now, I’m part of the organizational team here, and 25 years from now it’s not going to be the same organizational team. Who knows if I’ll be a part of it our not.
“Who knows, I might be in my rocking chair finally getting the chance to go back and watch some of those old DVDs of those games I haven’t seen.”
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