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Published: Friday, 1/19/2001

Ohio State fans uncertain, but Youngstown mourns loss

Upon interviewing Jim Tressel for the first time, Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger essentially told his new football coach, “Don't call us; we'll call you.”

Geiger put Tressel on lay-away.

If Geiger couldn't hire one of the biggest names in the country for his top-10 program, Geiger still had an ace up his sleeve. Even if Tressel's name didn't stir households.

From Columbus to Toledo, Ohio State alumni, fans and friends of the program are relieved the Buckeyes finally put the John Cooper era behind them. But forgive them if they don't know whether to laugh or cry over the hiring of Tressel, who is OSU's fourth football coach in the last half-century.

At Youngstown State, Tressel was considered the top coach in Division I-AA, where he routinely turned chicken salad into chicken cordon bleu. Tressel's teams won four national championships and appeared in six title games in 15 seasons.

I'm not a clairvoyant. There's no way to predict if Tressel's small-school success will continue at the major-college level. For all we know, Tressel would have been better served remaining at Youngstown State, where he was a big fish in a small pond.

All I know is they're hanging crepe in Youngstown, a city of 85,000 hard by the Mahoning River. Tressel was Youngstown's favorite son.

Ohio State could have found another football coach, if need be. Glen Mason of Minnesota was waiting patiently in the wings.

Youngstown State won't be able to find another Jim Tressel.

An entire city is in mourning.

“It is without question a tremendous loss to our community. As a football coach, as a community leader, as a man, Jim is without peer in our community,” Youngstown mayor George McKelvey said.

“The people in Columbus have every right to be somewhat apprehensive. They don't know Jim Tressel,” McKelvey said. “Jim had an uphill battle when he first got to Youngstown. But he earned the trust and the respect of our community. Jim will achieve that same level of success in Columbus.”

In Youngstown, Tressel's football program helped to uplift a city on the rebound.

Over the years, Youngstown has been battered by federal corruption probes and the massive loss of jobs in the steel industry. Since 1980, Youngstown's population has decreased from 115,000, and the unemployment rate has risen as high as 19 percent.

Youngstown's unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in November compared with 3.9 percent statewide.

“We're a community that's been racked over the years by loss of jobs in the steel industry and corruption,” McKelvey said. “Women in sewing circles, people in bingo halls will tell you the shining light in all of this has been Jim Tressel.”

At his introductory news conference yesterday, Tressel became emotional when thanking the city of Youngstown.

“When you're somewhere 15 years it's difficult to walk in a different direction,” Tressel said. “I know full well if it hadn't been for all those years and all those tremendous fans and national championships and those student athletes, I wouldn't be here. I know how blessed I am.”

As Youngstown State's football coach/athletic director, Tressel helped raise $10-million to build the Penguins' 20,000-seat football stadium. Every game was a sellout.

On the field Tressel coached winning teams. Off the field the Penguins were just as successful with a nearly a 60 percent graduation rate - almost doubling the Buckeyes' terrible graduation rate under Cooper. Fifty percent of Youngstown's players had 3.0 grade-point averages in the last quarter.

A tireless worker, Tressel served as spokesman for several local charities, including the American Cancer Society and Ronald McDonald House. Tressel even became involved in a political tug-of-war over a $160 million levy to raise taxes to support the local public school system.

With Tressel's help, the levy passed against great odds. If Tressel had gotten the urge, he probably could have won the Youngstown mayoral race in a landslide. If he turns Ohio State's football team around, he can do the same thing in Columbus.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist.



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