This Is The Way The World Ends: Jim Tressel and Ohio Sports
by, 05-30-2011 at 08:54 PM (9008 Views)
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)