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This Is The Way The World Ends: Jim Tressel and Ohio Sports

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Not with a bang, but with a whimper. Seven months ago, in the afterglow of Ohio State's sixth consecutive conference championship and before the tattoo scandal began in earnest, I doubt anyone could have predicted Jim Tressel would coach his last football game for Ohio State at the Sugar Bowl, and that it would all fall apart so quickly, so ingloriously, and so pathetically. Hollow or not, Jim Tressel the man means quite a bit to Ohio. I didn't see the end coming, and I didn't see what he means until recently.

I graduated from Ohio State in the spring of 2008. In the interest of full disclosure, I had season tickets for the 2005-2007 seasons; I saw four wins against Michigan; I went to the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and the 2008 National Championship Game. I also never went in for all the rah-rah nonsense. I rooted for the team, but Ohio State was not my football team until I went to school there, in spite of the fact that I grew up in Cleveland, which was split in the '90s between Ohio State and Notre Dame, with a sprinkling of Michigan alumni and fans tossed in to make things interesting. I even rooted for Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl, which Ohio State somehow managed to win despite John Cooper's trolling the sidelines for that game. The Browns left town when I was ten and I couldn't stand Cooper's Buckeyes, so the football team of my childhood was St. Ignatius High School. Ohio State is my university first, and so is my team as a distant second. I root for the football team and the basketball team, I wear a Block-O hat every now and again, but it doesn't ruin my day when they lose. Sorry to talk so much about me, but the point is that I'm not so invested in the football team that I'll miss the forest for the trees, or alternatively, the trees for the forest. In any case, I think I have as clear a perspective on this as I can, and it's hard for me not see something ugly in all of this.

I'll start with good news, and that is that Tressel resigned. A civil war would have ensued among the fans had the university chosen to fire him. Based on what I see from my friends and read in the papers, a large segment of vocal Ohio State backers tends not to blame Tressel; that is usually projected onto the young men who sold the merchandise in the first place. Of course it was his handling of the situation that brought him down, but that's not really what's at issue here in people's minds. There have been calls by certain people in the Ohio State community to stop recruiting 'those kinds of players.' I find them distasteful and transparent. Really? What 'kinds of players' would those be, exactly? I think this gets to the heart of the matter, and it's part of why some Buckeye fans continue to identify with Tressel.

The implication of the previous sentence is obvious, and at the risk of getting too political for my own good, it has something to do with the way people look. I floated the theory to a friend of mine, who said it reminded him of a bit on the Colin Cowherd show once upon a time, contrasting opinions of Bobby Knight and Michael Vick among the people you would expect felt represented by each of them. To older white males, Knight was the model coach and a throwback who wanted to instill the forgotten virtue of discipline into the young; to younger black males, the Vick debacle was the product of African-American culture. Each demographic felt compelled to defend their representative.

Now, this isn't intended to start a race war or to call people in my native state names, though I think race clearly informs these ideas. Here my overall point is that we need to consider the image of Jim Tressel. He's a (publicly) straight-laced, middle-aged white guy who wears a sweater vest. He's outwardly conservative, a convert to Catholicism, and a bit charming in a bland, unremarkable sort of way. Of course, he's a character (or, maybe even a caricature), as is everyone who has as public a profile as he, standing in for the all-American monotony that is the state of Ohio in the minds of many. Of course, the place is more complicated than that, and so is he quite obviously. The upshot, though, is that he represented something and some people. In a time when the state has been kicked down by the new economy (it is true that Ohio has not adjusted well to deindustrialization) and the new century, here was a local boy done good, who had made it without skipping town, the way so many people--including me--have. The state has been hemorrhaging population for over a decade, especially talented sons and daughters who might have wanted to help the place were it not for the suicidal economic policies of their civic fathers. Tressel's downfall is painful for people because a world they don't understand and probably resent brought down one of their own.

Tressel, though, ultimately bears responsibility, and the thing that makes me pause more than anything else is his lack of a legitimate, full apology for what was done. He's mostly apologized for consequences rather than actions. It may be that he realized all along, given the gravity of the situation and the climate of the investigation, that this was the way that it had to end, so the only card he had left to play was that of the dutiful, stoic martyr. A more cynical interpretation would be that he's so invested in his own image that he couldn't admit to himself what he'd done, much less to the rest of the country. In the fullness of time, I'm not sure how we'll remember this episode or Tressel as a whole, memory being a thorny thing and all. It's both easy and myopic for Pat Forde to write today that Jim Tressel leaves the university with a tarnished legacy. It's worth pointing out that so did Woody Hayes, each of them unrepentant as the university forced one to resign and outright fired the other. So ended the careers of the two greatest football coaches in the history of a university.

It doesn't end there, though. Hayes eventually spoke at an Ohio State commencement, and tried to quote Emerson, telling graduates and the community to 'Pay It Forward,' a slogan which graces university community service campaigns and alumni capital campaigns to this day. He was given the honor of dotting the 'i' in Script Ohio, and in 2005 the university unveiled its tribute to his coaching career on the facing of Ohio Stadium's C Deck.

This is not to say that Tressel will be remembered in precisely the same fashion. It is helpful in its own way that Hayes has died. It is easier to forgive the dead because they ask for so much less. This is not entirely true, though, because the requests of the dead are called 'tradition,' which hangs over all of us, and to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, prevents the tyranny of those who simply happen to be alive. Jim Tressel, as a character, tried to stand in for that tradition in a specific place. It must be said, he ultimately failed. Having won so much, though, it is hard to see how the program could turn its back on these days completely and forever.

What I'm saying, of course, is that this is about a lot more than just football. This drama has not been a good thing for the reputation of the university in the short term, and it's certainly not good for the football program. It's analogous, though, to some other things that have happened recently, and to say it succinctly, this shows how seriously Ohioans take sports, and how problematic it's become. When Cleveland was spurned by the Browns in 1995, I was too young to understand. When the same happened with LeBron James, too few people asked an obvious question: when are we going to stop believing that the sum of our city is in our sports teams? There are more important people and things in my hometown than the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers combined. I love all of them, in spite of what they've done to me, but my passion for them is part of broader, more important loyalty to Cleveland. Likewise, Ohio State has so much more to be proud of than its football program. The foundation of the university should be the search for truth. And the truth is, anything that makes us--those from Ohio, those still there, and those who want to return--realize that we should pick each other up and that we should stand for more than simple success on playing fields ought to end as a good thing, no matter how painful in the present.

'In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks.'
--T.S. Eliot, 'Ash Wednesday' (1930)

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Updated 05-31-2011 at 06:14 AM by mkocs6

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  1. Polishguy00's Avatar
    I concur with a great deal of this.

    As another OSU alum, I would like to share a liitle more detail on these points. I was at OSU from 1998 to 2003 and graduated with a duel degree. The National Championship year and game provide a lot of fond memories for me. I am a hardcore fan that rationally tries to balance reality with being a fan. It is easier for me since my family has some Penn State and University of Pittsburgh influences. When people are overly critical of tOSU, I defend it. When the crazy fans defend tOSU with no good argument, I point out how stupid they are acting.

    I continue to be amused by people (media mainstream) that keep overstating what is going on with each subsequent story. Ohio State, like every other school in the land, found sanctions BUT then lied about them. Jim Tressel is the one who tried his own cover-up in the interests of himself and a couple of the big-name players involved. It is only natural to have story after story leak out (Ray Small was funny, the kid barely stayed in school and only did so with T's help). Even the student newspaper helped perpetuate the scandal instead of letting the national media handle the scrutinizing. Logic tell us that everything that happened since the sham of a report in December (I mean, five days for an internal investigation, that does not pass the sniff test). I have stated on the podcast by distaste for the NCAA and it's policies and silly rules (I mean, I am surprised that these kids can sell their books back). That does not change the obvious lies and ignorance for the system portrayed by Gene Smith, Gordon Gee and Tressel. The resignation was only the next logical step in these events.

    There will be a period of time where Tressel will largely go unacknowledged as the team trudges through a couple seasons of sanctions and during the search of a big name coach to save the team from losing it's elite status. Eventually, though, time will allow us to forget this scandal as many others come to pass and time gives away to thoughts of the 10-2 average Tressel season and the underdog Championship win. After all, in the NCAA, if your team isn't getting arrested or being investigated, then your team has not reached the big time.

    I have met Jim Tressel. Until a few years ago, his family still owned a house in the town I grew up in. Eventually, the memories will be fond because he does truly care for his players. He does not have the reputation of somebody like Nick Saban. Saban's style of about the understanding that both sides are using each other may be better in some cases, but Tressel's down home bed and breakfast calm makes almost everyone who meets him like him. Tressel is generally a good man who like any big-time coach has some skeletons in the closet (RE: Youngstown St. sanctions) and then tried a cover-up that he failed at. His lies and subsequent statements that did not pass the sniff test reminded me of a guy who tried to cheat on his wife but did not have enough of the street smarts (guile, a-hole-ness, etc.) to pull it off without getting caught.

    In the end, it's not all bad. He is just another coach whose career is probably over with millions in the bank and nice house to spend the rest of his life in. He won't be the last and he won't be the last in Ohio State history, either. Besides, maybe Urban Meyer will come home in two years.
  2. wxwax's Avatar
    I love the idea that people can comfortably be two conflicting things at once. That they can be two things that are diametrically opposed and yet their heads don't explode

    I read a quote about Jim Tressel fixing lotteries at football camps when he was an assistant coach at OSU. He made sure the highly recruited kids won. The quote was that Tressel could hold a Bible meeting in the morning and fix the lottery in the afternoon.

    I agree with you that Tressel is either unwilling or unable to see the discrepancy between his espoused values and his behavior.

    To me, that makes him a very dangerous person. It smacks of delusional self-importance. That everything he does is the right thing, even when it isn't, because he's somehow better.

    As for his legacy, maybe you're right. Time does take the edge off of things. But whereas Woody Hayes was a single incident, Tressel is a pattern of behavior. And whereas the school suffered no consequences after the Gator Bowl, it may suffer for several years because of Tattoo- and Car-gate. I wonder how much that will dim the fond memories of Tressel's remarkable coaching record?
  3. msclemons's Avatar
    So this is the master's thesis mkocs has been working on!

    If not, is it too late to trade this for the thesis? Nice essay mkocs. More than nice, fantastic.
  4. mkocs6's Avatar
    Thanks, guys.
  5. Pruitt's Avatar
    Very nicely written.

    As I am a couple of decades older than you, I will tell you that hypocrites like Tressell are more common than you'd like to think.

    There are many people who can hold a bible in one hand while breaking commandments with the other. What never ceases to amaze me is that some people are so stubborn that they refuse to admit that they were wrong - that they placed their trust in the wrong person.

    A very wise cousin of mine told me that we can not control what other people do. But we can control how we react to what they do.

    It seems to me that a lot of fans of OSU refuse to believe that they placed their faith in a very flawed person. They will lash out and blame the players, because that will verify their beliefs that the Coach was a good man. It's those damn players who got him into trouble.

    To me, that makes him a very dangerous person. It smacks of delusional self-importance. That everything he does is the right thing, even when it isn't, because he's somehow better.
    What it smacks of is psychopathic behaviour. Tressell is so caught up in the life of Tressell that if he says something is right, it IS right.
  6. wxwax's Avatar
    I agree, Pruitt.
  7. mkocs6's Avatar
    Wow, now that Pryor's left Ohio State, I may need to write another column.

    As a point of clarification, I wasn't really trying to make Tressel out to be a bad guy in this piece. A flawed man who made a poor choice, certainly, and did nothing to help himself throughout the entire process. There is something positively Nixonian about it, now that I think about it. But Nixon reinvented himself after his presidency, too, and I'm interested to see what Tressel becomes if he can move past this.