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Anatomy of a Powerhouse: Ohio State football coaches always feel the heat

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
On the field or off, the pressure rarely lets up for the head coach of the Ohio State football team, as Jim Tressel learned in his 10-season tenure in the 2000s.

Editor's note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience.

Today: Cauldron

The opportunity to be the head football coach at Ohio State mattered to Jim Tressel almost on a molecular level.

The son of a coach, Tressel was raised in a family with an appreciation for what the Buckeyes meant to Ohioans even without attending the university. That feeling of responsibility was one he brought with him when he was hired to replace John Cooper in January 2001. When Cooper was fired, it made him the sixth consecutive Ohio State coach to either quit or be fired, a streak stretching back to Paul Brown in the early 1940s.

For the next decade, Tressel would take his turn before resigning on May 30, 2011. His tenure was marked by the program returning to its place as a perennial national power, and the responsibility of leading the Buckeyes was not lost on him, Tressel said.

Call that feeling pressure, responsibility or whatever else you'd like, but a few days after leaving the job Tressel got a phone call that made him realize life was suddenly different.

“I was riding down the street and my phone rang and I didn’t have a concern about what was on the other end because I didn’t have really a whole bunch of responsibility at that moment,” Tressel told The Dispatch. “When I had the responsibility of a hundred young people and a dozen coaches and a lot of people to answer to, every time the phone rang there was a chance it was going to be something that was going to be not fun to deal with.

“Yeah, I could tell a little bit of difference right off the bat.”

Coaching stress is not unique to Ohio State. All coaches feel it to some degree, regardless of the level or location. It’s just that at Ohio State, history has shown that there are few parallels to the level of pressure the head coach of the Buckeyes feels.

A football-crazed state with just one powerhouse college program ensures that while individuals might root for the likes of Bowling Green, Kent State or Youngstown State, odds are they are pulling for Ohio State when the Buckeyes are on the field.

And while there’s a lot of good that comes with those expectations, there’s plenty of pressure, too.

John Cooper lasted 13 seasons as Ohio State coach, from 1988 to 2000, but his fingers sometimes bore the brunt of the job's stress.

“This is one of the best coaching jobs in college football, no question about it,” said Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes for 13 seasons. “You have to realize you’re not going to please everybody, but you don’t have to. There’s going to be some highs and lows, but the highs certainly outweigh the lows.”

The truth of that might depend on whom you ask.

'Graveyard of coaches'

While the pressures of being a football coach aren’t unique to Ohio State, they were especially prevalent during a 12-year span that began during World War II. When Francis Schmidt closed the 1940 season, his seventh, with a 4-4 record punctuated by a 40-0 home loss to Michigan that marked his team's third straight loss to the Wolverines, he was fired. That sparked a stretch of five coaches that culminated with the start of the Woody Hayes era in 1951.

As the program churned through a cycle of names, the pressure to get it right only intensified, especially after the Buckeyes seemingly had their man in Brown, who after being hired in 1940 won the program’s first national championship in 1942. He was replaced on a temporary basis by assistant Carroll Widdoes after Brown was drafted into the Navy, and Widdoes coached Ohio State to a 9-0 record behind Heisman Trophy winner Les Horvath in 1944 as the interim coach.

When in 1945 Brown decided to sign with the new Cleveland pro football team playing in the All-American Football Conference for nearly triple the salary he had been making at Ohio State, athletic director Lynn St. John made Widdoes the full-time coach.

He lasted one season.

“When that season was over, Widdoes went to St. John and said, ‘I want my old job back as an assistant coach. I don’t like the head coaching job. I don’t like the pressure with it,’ ” Ohio State historian Jack Park said. “He basically said, ‘I never applied for this job. I never wanted to be the coach.’ ”

Carroll Widdoes, fourth from left, with clipboard, served as Ohio State's interim coach in 1944 while Paul Brown served in the Navy. But when Brown left OSU to coach the Cleveland Browns, Widdoes lasted only one season in charge before demanding a return to the assistant ranks. He was replaced by Paul Bixler, second from left, who coached only one season.

St. John flipped Widdoes and assistant coach Paul O. Bixler, who also coached only one season, going 4-3-2 and losing to Michigan 58-6 before he resigned from the pressure and moving on to Colgate, where he would continue to coach with significantly less stress.

Bixler then gave way to Wes Fesler, a three-time All-America selection as an Ohio State player, but by the time Fesler's fourth season came to a close he was suffering from severe headaches and left following the infamous “Snow Bowl” loss to Michigan in 1950.

“The pressure of the job, he was taking more pills than some of the players who were taking them for injuries,” Park said.

Hayes would succeed Fesler and last through the 1978 season, a program-record 28 seasons, but he dealt with his share of criticism. If not for a four-game winning streak to close the 1967 season, he likely would not have had the chance to coach the “Super Sophs” to the 1968 national championship.

His tenure ended the notion that a coach couldn’t stick at Ohio State, but not to the stresses that come with the position.

“If you coach here for 10 years, you will be in the college hall of fame, let’s put it that way,” Cooper said.

He’s right: The quartet of Ohio State coaches to last for 10 years or more — John Wilce (16 years), Cooper, Tressel and Hayes — are all members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Moving on

It’s also true that when Urban Meyer retired after the 2018 season, he became the first Ohio State coach to leave on his own terms since Brown went to Cleveland. Meyer remains around the program as a member of the athletic department, watching as Ryan Day prepares for his second season at the helm.

When Cooper was fired after a 24-7 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl to close the 2000 season, it marked the end of his coaching career but not his time in Columbus. He remains a central Ohio resident, living “three minutes away” from Scioto Country Club, where he is a regular golfer. His daughter lives next door and his son roughly a mile away.

“I love Columbus,” Cooper said. “A lot of times you get fired or whatever from a job, you don’t stay in that town. You leave and go back home or a better place to retire. We’re happy here. Some of my friends around the country ask me why I stay up here. All I say is, why not?”

Now in his seventh year as the president of Youngstown State University, Tressel is the longest-tenured person in his position among the 14 public universities in Ohio. The job elicits similar feelings to being the Ohio State football coach, he said, particularly when the phone rings unexpectedly.

But nothing compares to the feeling of being the Ohio State football coach.

“While there is pressure and/or responsibility, the honor of doing it and having been given that responsibility really outshines the pressure or responsibility,” Tressel said. “When you’re coaching and there’s been a tradition of Big Ten championships and all the rest, you feel that responsibility to do your part.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

There is nothing easy about coaching Ohio State, former coach Jim Tressel said, but the benefits of the job include some glorious perks.