One Year after His Resignation, Tressel’s Prophecy Rings True
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jim Tressel used to tell his players that Ohio State was bigger than any one person.
It was bigger than any one football player — no matter how big a star — and bigger even than a beloved head coach.
Photo by Dan Harker
Tressel had learned that as a young man. He was serving as a graduate assistant at Akron when Ohio State announced the firing of legendary head coach Woody Hayes. Many thought the program would never be the same after Hayes was dismissed following the 1978 season.
He had brought the school unprecedented success, even for a place that once employed the great Paul Brown as its football coach.
Hayes won more than 200 games at Ohio State, and led the Buckeyes to five national championships and 13 Big Ten titles in 28 seasons. He was a god in Columbus, even having lost three-straight to Michigan to close out his Hall of Fame coaching career.
There were many tears shed for Hayes, just as there were for Tressel when he was forced to resign from his position as head football coach in Columbus exactly one year ago today.
Hit with a Whirlwind…
That date — May 30, 2011 — was as dark a day as there has been in Ohio State’s storied history. No one wanted to see coach Tressel leave Columbus — except maybe the fans in Ann Arbor — but the way he went out was especially devastating for his players.
“It was a whirlwind, I’m not going to lie,” center Corey Linsley said.
“It was kind of crazy. All of us were in shock because Coach Tress is such a great guy and we were all very sad, very hard. We weren’t hurt by his decision but hurt because of the whole situation. He’s a great coach. His record speaks for itself.”
It certainly did.
For 10 years, Tressel was larger than life in the state of Ohio. A Cleveland boy raised by a legendary college football coach with a passion for Ohio State, Tressel was uniquely qualified to lead the Buckeyes back into national prominence.
He brought the school its first National Championship since Woody won his fifth in 1970; but it was Ohio State’s first outright title since 1968. Tressel was only 16 years old at the time, and his dad, Lee Tressel, had just won his first Ohio Athletic Conference championship at Baldwin-Wallace that same year.
Jim Tressel would go on to win four Division I-AA national championships at Youngstown State before taking the job his dad always dreamed of back in 2001. He had immediate success in Columbus, leading the Buckeyes to a BCS Title in just his second season.
Even Icons Can Fall…
He would go on to win seven Big Ten championships in 10 seasons, and more importantly, he posted an incredible 9-1 record against the school’s archrivals from the north. The Buckeyes won five BCS bowl games during his decade of dominance in the Big Ten, and Tressel became a true icon.
Few figures, if any, have ever been accepted, cherished, beloved and respected like Tressel. That includes Woody. He certainly has his place in the history books as Ohio State’s first true iconic coach, but Tressel was different. He didn’t physically intimidate players, or throw tantrums on the sidelines during football games.
He was stoic. He was composed. He seemed to have ultimate control over the events unfolding in front of him between the white lines. Tressel certainly had his flaws, but his dedication to academics, faith, family and the military made him untouchable.
Or so we all thought.
If anyone had ever become bigger than the program, it was Tressel. For many fans in Ohio, and around the country, he was Ohio State football. He embodied everything the program was supposed to stand for, and when he came crashing down from his pedestal, so did the program.
“It was all up in the air,” Linsley said, recalling his feelings last summer after Tressel was let go.
“I think that was the first time in a long time we had been in that position – we haven’t had a coaching change in the past decade, and before that it was a decade before that. So guys weren’t really used to being in that situation.”
A Year of Turbulence…
The program fell into a year of disarray after 36-year-old linebackers coach Luke Fickell was promoted to interim head coach. A first-time head coach with little experience as a coordinator, Fickell was charged with holding things together while the program continued to take on water in the wake of Tressel’s departure.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Things were looking dark, said tight end Jake Stoneburner.
“This time last year, yeah (I was worried), especially when Coach Tress resigned,” Stoneburner said last week.
“It was hard for a lot of guys around here. You guys all know Coach Tress. He was a great guy, and everyone liked him. To get fired or resign, however you want to put it, it was tough.”
The future of the program was in doubt. ESPN, and other national media publications, were calling the scandal a "long-lasting stain" that would hover over Ohio State for years to come.
The players were scared, or at least worried — especially after a 6-6 regular season which brought an end to Ohio State’s 7-year dominance over Michigan.
“For myself, I was worried,” Linsley said.
“I didn’t know who my coach was going to be, how I was going to respond to that, if he was going to like me or not going to like me. I was worried about myself, but Ohio State, there was nothing really to worry about.”
Bigger than One Man…
Linsley and his teammates remembered what coach Tressel had told them a million times.
“I don’t think I was ever worried about Ohio State,” he said.
“This is Ohio State. It’s going to work itself out one way or another. We’re going to get the best coach available.”
That’s exactly what they did.
It just so happens, the best coach available was a two-time BCS National Champion from Ohio with ties to Columbus and former OSU head coach Earle Bruce.
The Buckeyes have yet to play a game under Urban Meyer, but his hiring in November brought all of the uncertainty and hopelessness that had surrounded the program to a screeching halt. It was as if Meyer was there to fulfill Tressel’s prophecy about Ohio State being larger than any one man, even himself.
“It’s pretty crazy how it’s almost like it didn’t happen,” Stoneburner said.
“I feel like Ohio State, we haven’t played a season yet with Coach Meyer, but I feel like everybody is excited about the season again. Media around the country are wondering, what is Ohio State going to do with a new coach? How good are they going to be?
“For losing one of the great coaches at Ohio State ever a year ago, to be where we’re at now, we’re pretty fortunate.”
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