[Editor’s Note: From now until Big Ten Media Days, we’ll be reaching into The-Ozone’s 23 years worth of archives and each day we will be posting a story from yesteryear. Big moments, small moments, big games, bigger games, and the random recruiting updates about guys you haven’t thought about in a decade or two.]
December 27, 2001 | This story comes from John Porentas in the days leading up to the 2002 Outback Bowl, which was also a rematch of the 2001 Outback Bowl. Holtz had the privilege of coaching against John Cooper in his final game the year before, and then the privilege of coaching against Jim Tressel in Tressel’s first bowl game. In this piece, Holtz does his usual gushing over an opponent, but you get the sense that when it came to talking about Tressel, he meant every word. — TG
To listen to Lou Holtz tell it, you would think that Jim Tressel was the big-name, high-profile coach, while he himself was a relative unknown in coaching circles.
“I know a lot about Jim,” said Holtz.
“It goes back to his dad. His dad was a head football coach for 23 years at Baldwin-Wallace. When I went to Kent State we played Baldwin-Wallace. I became aware of Jim Tressel when he coached for Earle Bruce at Ohio State. Having been on the staff at OSU with Earle, you know who’s at Ohio State.
“Then when he went to Youngstown, 36 miles from my home town of East Liverpool, Ohio, I followed his success there. I went there for a fundraiser and he and I got a chance to spend some time together. His dad used to come visit us at N.C. State and at Arkansas and took on the veer, which Jim ran. Jim has always been a tremendous coach and done a tremendous job.
“When jobs would open up and people asked me what I thought, I would recommend Jim from time to time. I didn’t know if he would ever leave Youngstown after he turned down several jobs. Jim Tressel is a class act. I knew a lot of people at Youngstown who knew him well and always spoke glowingly of Jim Tressel. I’m a fan of his. He’s done a marvelous job with the intangibles.”
Everybody knows about Lou, how he’ll butter you up just before putting you over the coals to roast on game day. But Holtz was insistent that there is a difference in the OSU team he sees on film this year.
“There’s something different about them, but I can’t pinpoint what it is. It’s intangibles as much as anything,” he reiterated.
“I think at the end of the year Ohio State was probably at least the second-best team in the Big Ten. They lost to Illinois in a close game. The game was much closer than the score would indicate. They’re similar in some respects (to last year) but dissimilar in others. They just are more consistent.”
Lou got specific on what he sees in the Buckeyes.
“I think their tenacity, their toughness, their patience, their intelligence. They play very physical and very patient. They don’t make an awful lot of mistakes and utilize their talent well. They have a great tailback and a big, strong offensive line. Defensively, they’ve got a great safety in Doss, and Cooper is a great linebacker,” said Holtz.
“They play as a team. They remind me a lot of ourselves, except they’re bigger and stronger and more physical than most teams that we play against. That’s he big concern that I have. We’re not very big. Can they just take the ball and mash it? First drive last year they did that with pretty good success. They don’t make mistakes and they’re very sound in what they do. They’re a lot like Arkansas in that respect. They’re not flashy but they’re very successful and very solid in what they do and very disciplined.”
While singing the praises of Jim Tressel, Holtz was careful not to cast a shadow on the reputation of Tressel’s predecessor, John Cooper.
“One of the difficult things is to say some positive things about them this year over last year without casting aspersions on John Cooper,” said Holtz.
“I want it made abundantly clear that I have a lot of respect for John Cooper. He did a tremendous job for many, many years. A new coach comes in and there are going to be things that are going to be different. It just happens. They’re more physical. I can’t tell you why.”
Though he was careful to take care of Cooper, Holtz took every opportunity to sing Tressel’s praises.
“I think John Cooper did a tremendous job, but I think Jim Tressel is laying the foundation for some championships at Ohio State. He’ll have some great teams there. They know what they want to do and they have an identity,” he said.
Not only did Holtz sing Tressel’s praises, but he also had a virtual laundry list of why OSU might have a psychological edge over his team in the rematch in Tampa.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of the intangibles are in Ohio State’s favor. The revenge factor; they’ve been down here since the 21st; not knowing who their quarterback will be, it could be Bellisari, it could be anybody. What are they going to do at the cornerback? We don’t know,” he recited.
Though Holtz claims OSU has the psychological edge, he did say that his own team has some motivation going for it as well.
“Ohio State is magic. Ohio State, Michigan, Southern Cal, Alabama, Notre Dame, those are magical names. I know how much the people in Ohio want to beat us and that will carried over to the players, but we want to win too. We want to win this one very badly. Everybody says we were lucky last year, they weren’t focused and stuff. Beating Ohio State two years in a row would be an accomplishment for our team. To win two bowls in a row would be a great accomplishment and a chance to end up in the top 10 or 11 in the country,” said Holtz.
That seems to be the message that Holtz is going to try and sell his team, that beating a prestige program like OSU will clearly put his team into the upper echelon of college football.
He also adds quickly that despite that motivation, he expects this to be a very competitive football game, very much because of those intangibles he alluded to earlier.
“This is going to be a heck of a ball game. I mean that. I think that we’re going to be playing an excellent Ohio State team. Ohio State got better as the year went along, because they learned Coach Tressel’s system and learned they had faith in it. Then after the win over Michigan, they all believe in it now. To beat Michigan up in Ann Arbor is no easy task, then to have a month and a half preparation under Coach Tressel, we’re going to get Ohio State at their very best. I believe that. We’re going to try and be at our best. I think about how much better they got. They struggled early in the year. They would never have lost to UCLA late in the year. They just got better and better and better,” he said.
Real admiration, or classic Holtz mind games? We’ll see.