Jim Tressel has lost his best pen pal.
The former Ohio State football coach, now vice president for student success at the University of Akron, stopped by InfoCision Stadium Saturday to pay his condolences to the family of “Buckeye Bebe” Webner, 86, who passed away Sept. 8.
Family responsibilities kept Tressel from attending the celebration of Webner’s life on the stadium’s club level. But he visited Webner at her Akron home 10 days before she died.
I told Webner’s story in the Beacon Journal on Dec. 2, 2006. A Buckeye fan for then-60 years, she had corresponded with Tressel since he became Ohio State’s coach in 2001. OSU was ranked No. 1 going into the Nov. 18 game against Michigan and Webner feared the Wolverines would use the Statue of Liberty play to pull the upset, a trick they’d burned the Buckeyes with in the past.
So she wrote Tressel a note to warn him.
Tressel not only read the note, but called the gimmick himself. It resulted in a 26-yard run by Antonio Pittman in the Buckeyes’ game-winning drive. The 42-39 triumph sent OSU to the BCS title game.
Tressel told Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated the play had come from an older lady named Bebe from Akron who wrote to him about every three months. That landed Webner – last name unknown – in the Nov. 27 issue of SI. Murphy later wrote a book on the 2006 college football season called “Saturday Rules,” and included Webner (and me, using a few nuggets I’d written about her) in Chapter 14. I’d been tipped off to her identity by an email from her brother-in-law, attorney Mack Webner, who told me how to get in touch. (Bebe made sure everyone received a copy of “Saturday Rules.” Mine was a former resident of the Cleveland Public Library.)
The Statute of Liberty play was just the beginning of Tressel’s friendship with Bebe.
At that time, Webner had never met Tressel, although she’d saved the four or five notes he’d written her. The Webner-Tressel connection actually began when she sent Tressel’s mother Eloise a pair of Buckeye earrings after he became OSU coach, figuring she’d only have Youngstown State ones. (The two were about to get together when Eloise Tressel died in August, 2001 before her son’s first game.)
After spending at least three hours interviewing Webner at her Akron condominium, which had OSU memorabilia in every room and a “Buckeye Bebe” flag draped over the balcony, I decided to try to get her and Tressel together.
Finally the perfect opportunity came to me. Tressel appeared every spring at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club. I picked up Webner and took her to Canton for his speech in 2007. She had turned 80 in February and had been feted at a big family bash.
We arrived at the luncheon early so I could station Bebe in the perfect spot at the corner media table so she could see the coach she considered her second son. I picked the seats beside the walkway he always took to the exit.
When he was through, I stopped Tressel and introduced him to Bebe. He complemented her on the Buckeye sweater she was wearing. (It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d bought a new one.) They chatted for a couple minutes.
On the way home, she was on cloud nine. “This was better than my birthday party,” she said.
After that, Webner called me every time she received a note from Tressel. After he left Ohio State following the tattoo scandal, she phoned to tell me he’d changed his stationery. It now had logos of all the colleges he’d ever been employed by. She also called me when I wrote something about Tressel she disagreed with.
She never missed a chance to hear him speak. She was there in April, 2012, when Tressel appeared at a sports dinner at the Shaw Jewish Community Center of Akron. The event included a raffle, with the winner drawn by Tressel. He pulled out Webner’s name.
I ran into Tressel a few days afterward at UA, and he relayed how embarrassed Webner had been by winning, figuring those in attendance might think the procedure had been rigged. (That was reflected by what she did with the money. On Saturday, one of her relatives revealed she put the envelope in the meat drawer in her refrigerator under an old slab of bacon.)
Webner and Tressel got together again in September, 2012, when Mack Webner arranged a dinner at the Diamond Grille to thank Tressel for his support of Bebe. He printed copies of my 2006 story about Bebe for placemats. Invited by Mack Webner and his wife Corrine were Tressel and his wife Ellen, University of Akron president Luis Proenza and his wife Theresa, Bebe and me. (Afterward, Proenza snapped photos to capture the moment; one became my Christmas card.)
In late August, when Webner’s health took a turn for the worse, Tressel managed to see her one last time. She didn’t feel like it, but was convinced to get dressed for a surprise male visitor. At that point, she’d been having trouble sleeping. She didn’t sleep that night, either, but it was from the excitement of seeing her “second son” again before she passed.
It was a week before she went to hospice.
I’m not sure if Tressel saved any of Bebe’s notes. Perhaps the Statute of Liberty one is tucked away. Considering his fondness for her, I’d be surprised if it’s not slipped between the pages of "Saturday Rules."