Thomas Wolfe one said you can't go home again. Obviously, he never met Jim Tressel.
With a turn of his educational compass to the northeast, Tressel has returned to Akron where, once upon a time, he was an assistant football coach and a physical education instructor.
To say quite a few things have happened in Tressel’s career since 1975 would be an understatement. He’s experienced the highest of highs — Ohio State University winning an NCAA Division I national football title with the Buckeyes’ victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl — to the lowest of lows — the largest scandal in OSU’s football history, the now-infamous case of a coach covering for student-athletes who exchanged football memorabilia for tattoos, which would eventually lead to a firestorm of controversy and Tressel’s inevitable departure from Columbus.
In the weeks and months since the national headline broke, 59-year-old Tressel has spent much time in reflection. He was hired first as a replay consultant last fall by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, who would limp to a league worst 2-14 record and the first selection in this year’s player draft. Most Hoosiers figured that Coach Jim Caldwell would be fired (he was) and that all he was really doing was keeping the seat warm for Tressel, who can still coach professionally — though he can’t coach in the collegiate ranks for the next five years due to the show-cause penalty from the NCAA.
“Nobody in Indiana, Ohio or beyond thought Tressel was hired by the Colts just to watch a bunch of second rate quarterbacks on film throw a football, following the injury that sidelined future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Indeed, Tressel interviewed with team owner Jim Irsay for the head coaching job after it opened.”
Meanwhile, back home, University of Akron President Dr. Luis Proenza knew Tressel was meeting with Irsay; Tressel had given Proenza a head’s up, since he and Mike Sherman — UA’s senior vice president, provost and COO — had approached Tressel in November about a UA position (prior to the sanctions being handed down).
“We very much tried to convince him to consider the coaching job here,” says Proenza. “… He made it abundantly clear the direction he wanted his career to take — and it wasn’t toward athletics.”
The NCAA coaching ban on Tressel was announced Dec. 20 and two days later, UA hired Terry Bowden as its new football coach. All the while, UA leadership continued having conversations with Tressel regarding his interest in the university — conversations that became academically oriented as Tressel expressed his desire to apply his skills to student success beyond the football field. Proenza then created the vice president of strategic engagement position for Tressel.
“This,” says Tressel, “is a second chance.”
In this role, he’ll be responsible for helping implement the “Akron Experience” — connecting in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences for students so, once they graduate, they’re better prepared for the job market both regionally and globally. He begins his new duties this month.
“Without a doubt, our responsibility doesn’t end with preparing someone for gainful employment,” says Tressel. “[We also have a responsibility] to help the region find ways of providing that gainful employment. [Otherwise], we’re going to be preparing kids to move away. We want kids to have choices.
“Four of the greatest years of my life were spent at Akron as a graduate student and then as an assistant coach and instructor. No matter where my career took me after that, it always had to match up with that Akron experience. But the No. 1 reason I chose Akron is ... to see the vision and leadership of Dr. Proenza and the team he has assembled.”
Proenza regards Tressel just as highly: “This falls into the category of what’s referred to in employment circles as an opportunity hire,” says Proenza. “Jim has always seen himself not just in terms of coaching the game of football, but coaching the game of life. When combined with what we know of him as a person who’s revered particularly in Northeast Ohio … there simply wouldn’t be anybody else but him who could help us achieve this set of goals.”
So what if an NFL job — one that pays considerably more than what Tressel’s making at UA — comes along, say, next year or beyond? Heck, what if the Cleveland Browns reached out? You don’t think Tressel could do better than Pat Shurmur, Eric Mangini or Romeo Crennel?
Tressel grew up in Berea, where the Browns held their training facility for years. As a kid, he used to go to Berea High School and hold the ball for Browns place-kicker and Hall of Famer Lou Groza. In fact, the Tressel home was next to the stadium in Berea where his father, the late Lee Tressel, coached 23 years at Baldwin-Wallace and won a national title.
“His influence on me was tremendous,” says Tressel. “I got to watch him work every day. It was like the carpenter who follows his dad into the shop and learns to love carpentry … He was absolutely the most important influence on me.”
Little wonder there’s a segment of people waiting for Tressel to once again be patrolling a sideline, this time, in the NFL.
“[During my 10 seasons at Ohio State], there was a certain population out there that thought every time an NFL job opened up, I was going to go to it. But the NFL has never really been a passion of mine,” says Tressel. “I’m not too worried about the predictions people have for me. For 15 years at Youngstown State, every job that came open, supposedly I was going to it. Fifteen years later, that finally occurred. My track record has been that I’ve stayed at places a long time.”
And if Proenza isn’t concerned, then maybe we shouldn’t be either.
“He made it very clear that in every job he’s had, he has taken it with the assumption that it was going to be long-term,” says Proenza. “Obviously, all sorts of things can happen. But my own personal sense is that he has made a commitment and he’ll see it through … with this perhaps being his final job — and an opportunity to build significant value that will add to his legacy, which is already substantial.”
And from the looks of it, the Tressels are all in; they’re building a home in Medina County and plan to move in this fall.
“This is a new beginning,” says Ellen, his wife of 14 years. “Jim will be coaching kids in general. He’s a life-skills coach. And that’s what he’s done all along.”
A Youngstown native, Ellen met Tressel while he was coaching at YSU. Though she didn’t get to see much of him in the past, in his new role here at UA, she’s hopeful he’ll be around at least a little more — since he won’t be coaching or off recruiting.
So he’ll be helping out around the house more then?
“He’ll probably not do that,” says Ellen, who’s apparently been married to Tressel long enough to know that having him “around” doesn’t necessarily equate to manual labor. “He’s always busy going somewhere, whether it’s a speaking engagement or a public appearance. But I will take his help at home any way I can get it! You learn to be self-sufficient when you’re married to someone who’s in coaching.”
Ellen does, however, predict that he’ll still mow the lawn in July — the month he historically had off. “When July came,” she says, “he’d just put on a pair of headphones and chew on a cigar. Mowing for him is mindless enjoyment.”
Until then, Tressel plans to buy Ellen a riding mower.
Tressel earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1975 and his master’s in 1977 from UA. He also holds a doctorate in Humane Letters from B-W and YSU, has published several books on winning in the game of life and achieving success, and has extensive fundraising and philanthropic participation — the latter of which can pay dividends for Akron’s future security.
“When we were speaking with him, we discovered his vision for student-athletes was exactly our vision for our students,” says Sherman. “In thinking about the Akron Experience, he was able to articulate very clearly how he worked with his own athletes to do just that ... meshing in- and out-of-the-classroom experiences with civic-engagement activities and citizenship-enhancement activities.”
And when they spoke about developing pathways for student success — meeting students where they are in regard to their educational readiness — it mirrored what Tressel had done with his student-athletes for a quarter-century at Youngstown and Ohio State.
“A coach is really a teacher,” Sherman says. “Not only of the sport, but a teacher of life.”
Though Tressel will have no role in helping Bowden recruit or decide whether the Zips should pass on third down and five or run off tackle, if he’s thought of as a coach for the foreseeable future, both Tressel and Proenza plan to use that to UA’s advantage. And why not?
“I won’t have intimate involvement in recruiting,” says Tressel. “But if my presence can help, we need every little bit of help in every direction we can.
“We want to be the best we can be for our students, the faculty, the community and the region. We’ve got close to 30,000 students in various majors and various levels of development. … The fun of being … part of the staff is to help devise a program that can be good for everybody.”
In further clarifying the “Akron Experience,” Sherman explained that a committee formed from the professional colleges on campus has devised a framework in which students can benefit from co-ops and internships. So instead of a student talking to an advisor about what courses to take and in what sequence, the conversation will center on creating a broader experience — a pathway of optimally connecting the student to various opportunities over time.
By the end of his first year, Tressel should be well-entrenched in his new role of guiding and connecting students to the region — and the world at large. And if he’s not, Tressel will take his own advice.
“I think throughout your life, there are times you reflect. I’ve always seen myself evolving into higher education in a different way. I think in positions like head coach at Ohio State or even as CEO of a company, if you go much past a certain length of time, there may be a law of diminishing returns,” says Tressel. “I had an agreement with my athletic director at Ohio State, Gene Smith, that every year, you’ve got to tell me if I’m the best guy for this job. Because if I’m not, this job deserves the best — and maybe I can become the best at something else.”
Not that he — or anyone else — is worried about his ability to succeed in his new title. In fact, one of Tressel’s many colleagues felt the UA position is a perfect fit for him.
“He said, ‘You’re just an educator in a coach’s body,’ ” says Tressel. “… Hopefully, I’ll be an educator in a vice president’s body.”