COLUMBUS - Jim Tressel completed five seasons as coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes with a win over Notre Dame in the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl, and at that milepost in his career, Tressel carries a record that rivals that of any of his predecessors in the modern era.
Tressel has won 50 games, a national championship, and a share of two Big Ten titles at Ohio State. He has victories in four of five bowl games, and has won all three BCS games with the Buckeyes. The bold line on his resume reads: 4-1 against Michigan.
"He has won a lot of games, and a good many of the big games, and that's what it's all about here," said former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who hired Tressel as a young assistant coach in 1983. "He's won, and he's done it with class. Coach Tressel respects the game and he works at it. He knows how to do things right, and we've all seen the results over the past five years."
Tressel, who turned 53 on Dec. 9, was known as a strait-laced, buttoned-down conservative field general when he came to the Buckeyes after winning four Division I-AA national championships in his 15 seasons at Youngstown State.
Tressel replaced John Cooper, and Ohio State went just 7-5 in his first season in Columbus. But Paul Keels, radio play-by-play voice of the Buckeyes, said there was an obvious change in the order of business once Tressel gave the program his imprint.
"If you look to first year, there was probably a familiarization process going on for both the players and the coaches," Keels said. "A lot of the players were probably shell-shocked at first, but by late in the season, everything kind of fit together. Then they won in Ann Arbor, and the players seemed to realize that what they had been coached to do could work. In his second year at Ohio State, you saw it take off."
That next season was 2002, and Tressel took the Buckeyes to a 14-0 record and the national championship, Ohio State's first since 1968 under Woody Hayes.
"That national title year he caught lightning in a bottle," said Steve Helwagen, managing editor of the Bucknuts Media Network which reports on Ohio State football in meticulous detail across a multi-media spectrum.
"What coach Tressel has done is, he has harnessed the human spirit, no matter how clich that sounds. He finds a way to get everybody to play together. They have had recruiting classes that are consistently in top 10, but not in the top two or three, but he has done more with the talent they have."
Prior to this season, the dossier on Tressel said he was cautious on offense, stout on defense and always played field position and waited for the opponent to make mistakes. That file can be purged now, after Ohio State ran up 617 yards of offensive fury in the Fiesta Bowl.
Tressel showed a willingness to dance with the date that got him to the ballet, and utilized the raw speed of receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr., and the improvisational talents of quarterback Troy Smith as the Buckeyes won their final seven games, and scored points in bunches.
"His reputation might have been different, but what we saw this year was similar to what coach Tressel did at Youngstown State, where his teams showed an ability to adapt, and run different offenses that were base on the personnel at hand," Keels said.
"Football is football, no matter where you coach, and he came here and maintained the high level of success he had at Youngstown."
Tressel, a notoriously close-to-the-vest tactician when it comes to game-planning, revealed a lot, but also very little, when asked late in the 2005 season if the era of the spread offense had taken over college football.
"I think we are officially in the era of everything," Tressel said.
Despite his position of prominence around the state, and nationally, Tressel remains focused on the bottom line and a fairly direct approach. He demands that his players get better with every game, every practice, every rep.
"I haven't been in a game or season that was easy," Tressel said. "You just have to assume when you go out to compete that you're going to do it for 3 1/2 hours as hard and as well you can possibly do it, and learn lessons along the way."
His players are staunchly loyal to Tressel, and his mantra.
"I don't think coach Tressel gets near enough credit for the job he's done here at Ohio State," All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "He's a great motivator, and he makes it a contagious thing. Everybody kind of adopts his passion for the game."
Helwagen said Tressel's numbers are impressive, and he gets bonus points for being at his best when the most is on the line.
"Fifty wins in five years, that pretty much says it," Helwagen said. "He is one of most successful coaches Ohio State has ever had. Cooper won a lot of games, but he couldn't beat Michigan, and he couldn't win bowl games - and that's all this guy does."
By comparison, Michigan's Lloyd Carr put together a record that is nearly identical to Tressel's in Carr's first five seasons as head coach with the Wolverines. Carr went 49-13 in that stretch (1995-99), and also won a national championship in 1997, and a pair of Big Ten titles. And Carr was 4-1 against the Buckeyes in his first five showdowns.
Tressel's current contract, which was extended following the national championship season, paid him about $1.5 million this past year. That will increase to $1.87 million in 2008, the final year of the deal, but Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said recently he hopes to work out another three-year extension of Tressel's contract by March 1.
"When he left to go to Youngstown State, he didn't intend to come back here," Bruce said. "But once you get a taste of Ohio State football, it's hard to not want to be a part of it. Coach Tressel has had a great first five years here, and I'm pretty excited about what he'll do in the coming seasons."
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