Jim Tressel was not a great football coach, but a good football coach with great resources. Your dad could roll out of bed on game day and get seven wins a year coaching the Buckeyes. The resources of the crown jewel of Ohio State’s athletic program are that rich and that vast, and Tressel did as much with those resources as anyone. During his ten years in Columbus, Tressel won a national title, seven Big Ten titles, and beat Michigan every year, save one. That alone will keep the memories of the sweater vest parading the sidelines in a positive hue for generations to come, despite his ominous resignation yesterday. But don’t expect to see The Senator take up another term elsewhere; he won’t be coming back. Ever.
The Ohio State football program was already in trouble, and not just from a compliance standpoint. The shine from those silver helmets has dimmed significantly since Tressel’s troops won the national title in 2002. Ohio State single-handedly elevated the Southeastern Conference to elite status after back-to-back BCS blowouts in 2005 and 2006, including a horribly-managed game against Florida where Tressel called for a fake punt from his own 20 in the first half. The coach needed his so-called “Tat Five” to avoid a similar fate against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl last January. Despite beating up on Michigan and the Big Ten for the last six years, the Buckeyes’ national reputation has somehow slipped, and their struggles against southern schools has been a big reason for that. “Ohio State” has lost some of its pop, both in the media and on the recruiting trail.
But the weapon that Jim Tressel did have in the living rooms of recruits across America was his reputation. Facing the families of 18-year-old kids who were fielding offers to play in better weather against better competition with a style of play that wouldn’t put its fans to sleep, the second-generation coach pitched himself as a mentor and shaper of young minds. I can develop your son not just as a football player, but as a person. That’s a tough sell even without the NCAA and SI breathing down the back of one’s sweater vest. With them, it’s an impossible one.
Tressel’s reputation suffered on other levels well before this. If his rep as a cerebral game-day coach could have been ceremonially buried in that Superdome turf five months ago, it should have been. Tressel’s offensive play-calling–a duty he has maintained since coming to Columbus in 2001–went from being “shrewd” and “conservative” to outright bland in a way that made the U.S. Postal Service seem edgy and innovative.
And dude didn’t really know what to do with talent when he actually found it. To say that the auteur of Tresselball has mercilessly wasted the talents of Terrelle Pryor would be an understatement. Even during his fourth year in Columbus, Pryor still looked undeveloped, unprepared, and uncertain. Only once did Tressel’s prized recruit from Pennsylvania throw more than 30 passes last fall, and Pryor surely had to wonder why he didn’t commit to one of the other 87 schools that put the ball in the air more than Ohio State did. Anyone that had watched Ohio State last fall had to laugh when analysts would ask about the quarterback’s chances of declaring for the draft last winter, realizing that getting kicked around the NFL could certainly wait another year.
Despite his flaws as a game-caller and recruiter, Tressel got a lot of credit for being “senatorial” in the heat of the college football season. His calm, collected demeanor which had won him so much praise on the sideline seemed to elicit as much scorn in this past offseason in the face of well-documented allegations against his program. Tressel positioned himself behind his AD, a new SID, and even the president of his school, seeming sure he could wait out the media, the NCAA, and an incoming class of recruits who had to wonder what happened to the football coach I feel in love with.
Those last two months of soft shoe define the Tressel Era in Columbus as well as his nine wins against Michigan or his national title, and they should. They highlight the same quiet arrogance that Tressel exuded during the ten years where he was allegedly turning football players into people. Now exposed as Just Another Coach, a fraud and a liar, Tressel has nothing left to sell. And just as scarlet and gray sweater vests across Ohio head for the clearance racks, Tressel heads for the border of Buckeye Nation as the program he once embodied waits for the NCAA’s hammer to fall. Leaving in scandal while those closest to him await their own fates? That’s totally something a senator would do.