Saturday, December 23, 2006
He's 24-8 against Top 25 ranked teams and 4-1 in bowl games.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- The makeshift sign, with crooked letters and bright colors like a third-grader's class project, was held aloft in the twilight chill of No. 1 Ohio State's 42-39 victory over archrival and second-ranked Michigan last month.
"In Tressel We Trust," it said.
So successful is the Buckeyes' sweater-vested, close-to-the-vest coach, that he has become a football deity in a state where people get nervous when approaching the backup tight end and make pilgrimages to the grave of Woody Hayes.
After winning four I-AA titles in 15 years at Youngstown State, Tressel has put together a remarkable record of 62-13 in six years at Ohio State with a national championship in 2002. He has another in his sights when the Buckeyes meet Florida in the BCS national championship game on Jan. 8.
It's not just the people who greet each other with the O-H-I-O cheer who think Tressel might be the best coach -- big game, any game -- in America.
"He has the model program right now," said his Florida peer, Urban Meyer. "Jim did it at Youngstown State and now he's doing it at Ohio State, so there's a lot of consistency there. That's what not just me but all coaches admire: when there's consistency in a program."
The numbers don't lie.
Tressel's Buckeyes are 24-8 against Associated Press Top 25 teams, 8-2 against teams ranked in the top 10, 4-1 in bowl games and -- the crowning achievement for fans who live for that one Saturday in November -- 5-1 against those big, bad Wolverines.
"Look what Jim's done here. My God almighty, it's unbelievable," said former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who hired Tressel as an assistant in 1983.
"Jim is a great coach. Everything has worked out great."
Tressel doesn't declare himself a genius, like some college coaches, or throw all the credit to the mother lode of talent he brings in each year.
"The first thing that we attribute any of our success to is we've got pretty good players," he said, as if reading from cue cards. "Our coaches do an excellent job. And the ball has bounced right at times."
A perfect politician
Tressel is as flashy as your grandfather's old slippers and just about as hip. Reporters joke that he wears a necktie with his pajamas. He speaks in his own circular-logic language, and can sidestep a touchy topic like a veteran Congressman. Many believe he is perfectly suited for a career in politics: clean-cut, avoids controversy, says little, content to work behind the scenes.
His players respect him because he allows them some freedom.
"There's nothing you can do other than set rules and guidelines because players are going to have fun. You can't put a stronghold on them all the time," said Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith. "I think Tress does an exceptional job at knowing when to pull on the reins and when to let the guys go."
Tressel frequently acknowledges that he's clueless about modern technology, pop culture and many of the other matters that interest the 18-to-22-year-old males who fill his locker room. Yet he not only gets them to come to Ohio State, he brings out their best with a cutting-edge attacking style on the field and a coaching style that conjures of images of "Father Knows Best." He likely gleaned that ethic from his late father, who coached him at Baldwin-Wallace College from 1968-71.
Facing third No. 2 team
The game with Florida will be the third No. 2 team that the top-ranked Buckeyes have played this season -- the first time any college team has faced such a task. Ohio State won 24-7 at defending national champion Texas on Sept. 9, then held off Michigan in a classic struggle on Nov. 18.
Nobody can pin down exactly why Tressel seems to have a magic touch in big games.
"Winning the big game is not a science. If it was a science, you'd do A, B and C and that means you'd get D, and we'd all be doing it. It's an art," said Tressel's brother Dick, also Ohio State's running backs coach. "He's enough of a people person as well as a football person to be able to massage both of the parts. He really has the ability to see what in this situation, with this mix of people and with this opponent, gives us the best chance."
John Cooper, fired after the 2000 season, amassed terrific players but always seemed to lose at least one big game a year. Cooper's record against Michigan was just 2-10-1 and his teams were only 3-8 in bowl games.
Tressel always seem to find a way to win. The Buckeyes are 18-3 during November. When Ohio State won the 2002 national championship, an odds-defying seven wins in its 14-0 season were by a touchdown or less.
What is it just luck? Or part of Tressel's grand plan?
Many believe Tressel's teams take on his detached personality. He showed no more emotion in the days leading up to the games against No. 2 Texas a year ago and this season than he does when the opponent has a compass direction in its name.
All about business
"Coach Tressel if you see his demeanor, he's all about business," defensive tackle David Patterson said. Referring to the impending showdown with Florida, he added, "We look at this as another business trip. We know what we have to do."
Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez laughs when he is asked about Tressel and big games -- as if to say, isn't it obvious?
"What makes Michael Jordan great? He was great in big games. Well, he was great in small games too," Gonzalez said. "What makes a coach great in big games? Well, coach Tressel's great in small games too. He's just a great coach."