COLUMBUS - No matter who would have been named the 22nd head football coach at Ohio State University, it would have been baptized as, “A new era.”
That it was Jim Tressel lends credence to the designation.
There was the sometimes curmudgeon Woody Hayes, the man with the iron will who ruled with an iron hand and got ironclad results. He was followed by his disciple, Earle Bruce, an excellent motivator who was sometimes a little crass.
Then came John Cooper, the man with the twang who pitched hot tubs early on until some OSU alumni got hot about it. You knew the Buckeyes were in trouble when Coop would say, “That dog won't hunt.”
Tressel, the former Youngstown State coach, stood before a very large gathering at his official inauguration here yesterday with the demeanor and appearance of a CEO and the polished pitch of a guidance counselor. He even went so far as to say he would encourage players to talk to the press because it's a good experience for them to learn how to communicate.
At that point he was reminded that he was the new coach at Ohio State University, where practices are closed and the media is usually barred from contact with the football program after Mondays until post-game interviews the following Saturday.
Last night, Tressel stood before a crowd of over 17,000 in Value City Arena with the basketball Buckeyes leading Michigan 41-26 at halftime, and said, “I'm so proud and so excited and so humble to be your football coach at The Ohio State University. I will assure you that you can be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the football field.”
That drew the loudest roar of the night, maybe the season as a fan located high in the stands yelled, “Beat Michigan” throughout Tressel's short oration.
The Michigan issue is the main issue, the only issue with many Ohio State football fans. Cooper, fired Jan. 2 after the Buckeyes lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, was 2-10-1 against the Wolverines.
Does Tressel understand the significance of the Michigan game? Of course. He was an assistant coach at OSU for three years (1983-85) under Bruce.
His first year as the head coach at Youngstown State in 1986, Tressel moved the Penguins' big rivalry game with Akron from the Saturday afternoon of the Ohio State-Michigan game to the Friday night before in respect of the huge rivalry.
“When you grew up in the Woody Hayes era, he had a way of making that something that you as a person in the state of Ohio weren't going to miss,” Tressel explained. “It's like no other game. It's like it should be the only game in the country played on that day.”
He was also reminded that Hayes, Bruce and Cooper, the three most successful OSU football coaches, were all fired.
“The way I look at that is they won a lot of championships and produced a lot of all-Americans,” Tressel responded.
Moving from a Division 1-AA program, where Tressel won four national championships in 15 years, to the Division 1-A fishbowl that is Ohio State may be somewhat of a culture shock.
“It's all about people. I have every confidence that if we're able to create unselfishness and a team concept at Ohio State, that the talent this university attracts will make the transition one we can make.”
OSU athletic director Andy Geiger also was prepared to address what appears to be the only unfavorable aspect of Tressel's hiring.
“He's been in this big stadium, Syracuse and other big stadiums around the country, and he has competed at the highest level of his division,” Geiger said. “We think as much as coach Hayes played at Denison and coached at Miami before coming here, Jim can make that same transition without missing a step.”
Tressel, from Berea, Ohio, played for his late father, Lee, at Baldwin-Wallace, then served as an assistant coach at Akron and then Miami before moving on to Syracuse and then Ohio State.
As to how he will handle the fishbowl scrutiny, Tressel had a simple answer.
“I don't know,” he said. “I do know this. There are certain things that are a priority in my life and need to be used to build a football family.
“If I can do a good job of staying grounded with my priorities and values personally and professionally, then I think I'll be able to handle the fishbowl. If I let the things outside that core set of values start to control by thoughts, actions and time, it will be more difficult.”
Tressel had a graduation rate of 54 per cent at Youngstown State, compared to Ohio State's 28, per cent, lowest in the Big Ten. He's also considered a strict disciplinarian.
He met with the team yesterday for about 45 minutes and told the players the only excuse they had for missing class was if there was a death in the family ... their's.
“I don't have any questions as to whether he can coach the game or not,” Geiger said. “He won four national championships. He had four different quarterbacks and played four different styles of football. He puts the team together according to the talent he has available. To me that's the prime characteristic of an excellent coach.
“I don't worry about his abilities from a technical football point of view. He's tremendous from intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and motivational concepts of life and how life should be lived.”
Tressel said he will move slowly in regard to assembling a staff.
OSU quarterback Steve Bellisari, who served on the advisory committee that was part of the selection process, said Tressel made a big impression on the team when he spoke yesterday.
“As soon as he came into the room everyone had their heads up and started to pay attention,” Bellisari said. “He wants to get to know us and our situations. He's a real honest guy and very knowledgeable. He's going to have to win some people over, because there was a change and some people don't like change, but it will work out well in the future.”