Memorial Day, 2011 (Monday, May 30th), will always go down as one of the saddest in my many years of participating in, writing about and following sports. Like every other fan of Ohio State football I knew the program was in the midst of a firestorm, and that Jim Tressel's flame resistant clothing had some holes in it. Sports Illustrated had just released a scathing (though not entirely true) article, ESPN was on a witch hunt, and the whole world seemed to be calling for Tressel's head. Still, I admit that I expected him to survive. However, as I drove my mother, wife and daughter to a family reunion in Cynthiana, Kentucky, WLW news out of Cincinnati reported that Coach Tressel had stepped down following a meeting with E. Gordon Gee and Gene Smith. I was shocked, then angry, and finally, numb. Once again, the national media had succeeded in convicting a good man without a fair trial.
It is not my intention to defend JT in this article, nor do I want to dredge up the past, since Tattoo Gate was painful enough the first time. Rather, it is my desire to offer a brief tribute to a man who not only tasted great success at Ohio State, but impressed me with how he handled both accomplishment and failure. It seems fitting to post such a tribute on Memorial Day, not only because it is the one year anniversary of Tressel's resignation, but also because I can recall no coach in recent history who was more patriotic or cared more about our nation's troops.
However, it was the next year, 2002, when Tressel stamped his name permenantly in Buckeye lore, leading Ohio State to an undefeated season that culminated in a dramatic 31-24 double overtime victory over a Miami Hurricane team described as "unbeatable." I will never forget that night, and the toughness of a team that simply would not quit even though the whole world thought they were overmatched. The character and resolve of the 2002 National Champs reflected a coach who remained calm and unflappable on the sideline. Without doubt, that season showed us the best of Tress. His conservative approach, stressing defense and special teams, proved a potent cocktail that surprised fans and media alike. I have never seen a team win so many close contests, and I have rarely been prouder than when Coach Tressel raised the crystal trophy. He looked so young and happy that night in the desert. Eight years later, when things unraveled, he looked like he had aged 15-20 years.
I guess if 2002 offered the best of Tress, ironically, it also gave us a hint of the worst. His handling of the soap opera known as Maurice Clarret showed a chink in the armor of the great coach that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Whether you defend JT or not (and I tend to be in the camp that supports him), you have to admit that he seemed to have a soft spot for troubled stars. One might say that Clarrett revealed the chink, and Pryor brought the fatal bullet. But enough of the negative...this is meant to be a tribute!
Now that a year has gone by since Tress bid us adieu, I think we can truly begin to appreciate his legacy. The numbers are staggering: 106-22 overall record (sorry NCAA, I count wins as they happened on the field); seven Big Ten championships; three national championship appearances; 6-4 bowl record; and, an amazing 9-1 record in "The Game." Eight of his last nine teams finished in the Top Ten of the AP poll. Say what you will about the man, those numbers represent an incredible decade of success that stacks up with any ten-year period in OSU history.
So, how will I remember Jim Tressel? As a gentleman, a proud American, a great coach, and, above all, a true Buckeye. Yes, I spent many a Saturday afternoon frustrated at his conservative button-down play-calling. Yes, I was disappointed that he withheld information that might have saved his job and kept Ohio State from getting a black eye. And, yes, I wish he would have loosened his tie on occasion and not responded to the media with so many cliches. But at the end of the day, Jim Tressel will always be one of my favorite coaches. He brought so many wonderful moments that made me proud to wear the scarlet and gray. He brought back tough, physical Big Ten football the way it is supposed to be played in Columbus. And, he led my beloved Buckeyes to a 14-0 season that ranks as my favorite in 40 years of being a fan. Thank you, Coach Tressel. History will remember you as a great coach, and a better man!
Other Tressel articles around the BBN:
Jim Tressel and the US Armed Forces (Buckeye House Call)
Remembering Tress: The Coach I Knew (The Buckeye Battle Cry)
Remembering Tress: Roy Hall (The Buckeye Battle Cry)
Jim Tressel and TBDBITL (Our Honor Defend)