FOOTBALL

Life as Ohio State coach, Youngstown State president an 'impossible' grand adventure for Jim Tressel

Steve Doerschuk
The Repository
Jim Tressel celebrates after OSU beat Miami 31-24 to win the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS National Football Championship at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, on Jan. 3, 2003.

CANTON TWP. − It turned into a common theme during Urban Meyer's run through Columbus.

"Meyer is doing a good job," a fan would say, "but I had more fun following the Buckeyes when Jim Tressel was the coach."

If that view was not universal, it was common. Comparing the regimes became one of Ohio's favorite sports.

The congenial Tressel won a national championship in his second year, 2002. His overall record in 10 seasons was 106-22. The unapproachable Meyer won a national title in his third year, 2014. His record in seven seasons was 83-9.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel holds up the championship trophy after Buckeyes beat Miami 31-24 in two overtimes in the Fiesta Bowl to win their first national championship in 33 years.

What Tressel and Meyer thought of each other's programs never was quite clear, and it became no more so Monday when Tressel addressed the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club.

Meyer's name didn't come up.

Those wondering what Tressel thinks of the current Ohio State football coach, though, got some clarity.

"I'm a Ryan Day fan," Tressel told a full house at Tozzi's on 12th. "I think he's got something about him."

Ohio State Buckeyes head football coach Ryan Day leads his team in warmups prior to the Peach Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Dec 31, 2022, in Atlanta. Georgia won 42-41.

Day is 45-6 at Ohio State, although losses to Michigan in 2021 and 2022 bruised his popularity. A chance to join Tressel and Meyer as a national champion ended in a 42-41 loss to Georgia on New Year's Eve.

Tressel talked about Day while expressing his views of the transfer portal, and of name-image-likeness (NIL) benefits, neither of which existed when he and Meyer were Buckeye pilots. The absence of NIL factored into Tressel's resignation in May of 2011. He was implicated in a cover-up of players selling memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules.

Day coaches in a different world, one Tressel said Day seems equipped to handle.

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day high fives offensive lineman Dawand Jones (79) during the second half of the Peach Bowl in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Dec 31, 2022, in Atlanta. Georgia won 42-41.

"The people who spend a lot of time whining about (transfer portal and NIL) aren't going to progress," Tressel said. "The people who try to figure out how to do it well are going to be much ahead.

"I think Ryan Day is going to navigate this. Sure, he's going to lose some players, and, sure, there's going to be a player or two who comes to him.

"He's never going to be a guy who who runs all over the place and has 19 roster changes. He's going to recruit well and build within."

The transfer portal, enacted in 2021, allows players to bolt to another program without sitting out a year.

"I've never been a believer in being immediately eligible if you (transfer)," Tressel said. "The argument is, well, coaches can change, why not players? And it's a good argument. But …

"I'm not sure what the exact value of fighting through tough times is, but I think it's pretty high. I'm a little nervous that the portal is not mandating that you have to fight through adversity.

"But it's the rules of the game. We're going to have to live with it."

One of the all-time transfers occurred on Meyer's watch. In 2017, Joe Burrow was in his third year at Ohio State, No. 3 on the QB depth chart behind J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins. He left for LSU in 2018 and did not have to sit, based on having earned an undergraduate degree at Ohio State.

"I was OK with the graduate thing, where the student went through and got a degree," Tressel said. "They did what we asked, which was to earn a diploma, and maybe they weren't playing quite enough.

"It's not like someone doing it after a freshman or sophomore year."

Burrow won the 2019 national title in his second year at LSU. With the Bengals, he is headed for his second straight AFC championship game.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow signals for a touchdown during an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Orchard Park, NY.

Meanwhile, Tressel is wrapping up a run as president of Youngstown State University that began in 2014. His last official day is Feb. 1.

"It's my 48th year in higher education," he said. "I just hit the ripe old age of 70. I've worked 48 years, seven days a week. I'm gonna cut back to four or five days a week starting Feb. 1. That'll probably go back up to six or seven. Ellen (his wife) will kick me out of the house."

Tressel said a big part of his aim has been preparing students for jobs amid evolving technologies and shortages of skilled workers. The grand plan has been to "rebuild and repopulate" Northeast Ohio, he said.

Former Ohio State football coach and current Youngstown State president Jim Tressel speaks to the Mansfield City Schools employees in 2019.

"It is so critical for our region to stay competitive with where the world's going," he said. "Education is so critical."

Football is so popular. That's where Tressel made his name.

As head coach at Youngstown State and Ohio State from 1986-2010, he posted a 229-79-2 record. In terms of all-time wins, his 229 rank just ahead of Steve Spurrier (228) and not far behind Bo Schembechler (234) and Woody Hayes (238).

Members of the 2002 Ohio State national championship team hoist coach Jim Tressel as the team is recognized after the first quarter of a game between the Buckeyes and Notre Dame at Ohio Stadium.

"People ask, which was more fun, being a head coach or a president?" Tressel said. "Honestly, both were fun. Both were very challenging and in some ways both of them were impossible. You can't win enough, and as a president, you just can't please everybody.

"The impossible is kind of fun. It keeps you fired up and trying to make a difference. But I will tell you this. Ellen and I thought we'd never find something busier than being a head coach at Ohio State. But we did.

"Having been a president of a university, I would have been so much nicer to my presidents if I had known."

If the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club gave out rewards cards, Tressel would have enough points for a Cadillac.

Former Ohio State coach and current Youngstown State president Jim Tressel has the undivided attention of the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club in an undated photo from a previous visit to Canton.
When Ohio State fired John Cooper after the 2001 Outback Bowl, the job went to Jim Tressel, who was head coach at Youngstown State, as seen here in the 2000 season. Tressel won four Division I-AA national championships there.

When he first spoke to the club as a 34-year-old Youngstown State coach, members thought, who's this kid? He has been back every year except one when there was a death in the family.

Now world famous and 70, he told old-guy jokes to a room heavy with people his age and older.

"I won't worry about telling the same stories I did last year," he said. "You guys won't remember what I said last year."

It was hard to tell who had a better time, Tressel or the audience.

He poked fun at the length of Mike Gallina's introduction. He shot a funny line at T.J. Downing, one of his former players who was in the crowd.

A crowd member asked a question that drew some oohs.

"Don't mind him," another fellow yelled. "He's from Michigan."

Tressel isn't from Ohio State, per se, but he still oozes Buckeyes. He was 9-1 against Michigan. That will always be worth a whole lot of love.

Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel spells out O-H-I-O after the Buckeyes defeated Miami to win the 2002 national title.

His father was head coach at Massillon for part of the 1950s.

"We lived right down the street from Augie Morningstar," he said of another former Massillon coach.

Luncheon Club president Jim Starrett, just off Tressel's left shoulder at the head table, married Morningstar's daughter.

During the question-answer session, a man stood and said, "Even though you're riding into the sunset, will you come back next year?"

Tressel: "Is that an invitation?"

The house applauded in response.

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP

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