Jim Tressel won’t start his new job at the University of Akron until May 1, but he showed up this week for what he cheerfully called “fact-finding.”
On Thursday, he wanted to get the lay of the land, literally, and toured campus at the side of four enthusiastic student orientation leaders under postcard-blue skies.
“I couldn’t have envisioned this,” he said at one point as he struggled to orient himself to the new campus, which has undergone more than $600 million in improvements over the past decade. “This is unbelievable.”
The former Ohio State football coach already had some familiarity with campus: He earned a master’s degree from UA in 1977 and was an assistant football coach and physical education instructor from 1975 to 1978.
Those were the olden days, Tressel recollected to his tour guides, when dinosaurs seemingly roamed the earth.
UA’s new vice president of strategic engagements shared many stories with his guides.
How he and the other coaches treated prospective players and their parents to a deluxe spread of glazed doughnuts, orange juice and milk.
How he lived at the Buchtel Field House because he couldn’t afford more.
How his father ordered him to go to UA for his graduate degree when he already had an offer from Penn State’s Joe Paterno and really, really wanted to go there.
“He said I’d have more opportunities here, and I did,” Tressel told the students.
He led his tour guides on an impromptu walk off campus to the old field house on Wheeler Street — once home base to the university’s football team. After 35 years, not surprisingly, he couldn’t quite remember which streets to turn on.
But Tressel did remember that they didn’t have much equipment to train with, dumbfounding students used to rock-climbing walls and lazy rivers.
Times were tough in those days, he told them.
“The only excuse you had for missing class was a death in the family,” he said. “Your own.”
At the Student Center, he remembered teaching bowling (he was awful) and at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, swimming (again, awful).
“I was going to be a high school math teacher, but one thing led to another,” he said. “All of a sudden life took a different turn.”
It could happen to them, too, he suggested.
He peppered the students with questions — the hours for the rec center, where they sat at soccer games, if parking is still a problem.
Matt Garvin of Cuyahoga Falls, sophomore Rana Barghouty, originally of Lebanon, and freshmen Markel Croston of Columbus and Mallory Kennedy of Kent had the answers.
Other students seemed to recognize the ex-coach in their midst and smiled broadly at him.
But only one student had the temerity to walk up to Tressel and introduce himself.
Andrew Kurt, a freshman finance major from Toledo, shook his hand, not once but twice. The two shared stories about the guidance counselor at Kurt’s high school.
Tressel was wearing his trademark vest — this one with a UA insignia — and tie with, you guessed it, a UA insignia. During a tour of the UA bookstore, he said he just stocked up on other UA gear — one sweatshirt and two hoodies — and said his wife has ordered gear from there as well.
Tressel spread his “wow-has-this-changed” message at President Luis Proenza’s regular meeting for vice presidents Thursday.
“I told him, you have to go away to appreciate this,” Tressel said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.