By Marla Ridenour
Ellen Tressel said Thursday that she and her husband, Jim, the former Ohio State football coach, would start house-hunting in the next couple of months as he assumes a new position at the University of Akron on May 1.
But after a whirlwind day that included a 10 a.m. news conference at UA and a fund-raiser for the Berea Education Foundation, Tressel returned to his home in Upper Arlington just before midnight to find the kitchen table covered with maps of the Akron area with circles on them.
“You know her, golf courses were circled,” Tressel said. “She’s excited.”
Tressel said after he left UA, Ellen met a realtor and rode around the area “to get a geographic lay of the land.”
When Tressel takes over as vice president of strategic engagement, participating in programs that are part of UA president Luis Proenza’s new plan, “Vision 20/20: The New Gold Standard of University Performance,” Tressel said he expects his wife to “latch on to whatever the important causes are and be great for the community.”
Tressel discussed his new job and his part in the illegal benefits scandal that resulted in NCAA sanctions for the OSU football program and his Memorial Day resignation during a 25-minute telephone conversation Friday.
Q: How did Thursday’s activities make you feel? How satisfying was it after being off for so long?
A: Probably the thing that really struck me was when we had a chance to start the day with a whole group of student leaders. I really didn’t anticipate that a couple days ago. I thought we were going to do our press conference thing and continue to carve out exactly the various areas that we can go to work. Having a chance to field questions for about a half an hour from the students … the thing I love about this generation of students, they’re so curious, they want to know why or how we can get better, what can we add to our resume to do better. It was almost like I was back sitting with some of my young people who talked passionately about the dreams they have. You could just see the twinkle in their eyes. That started it off wonderfully.
It was great to see so many people I hadn’t seen in a while. When you go in a room and it’s full of people who love where they are and they’re ecstatic about the direction of where they are and they’re anxious to be good and some of the people who have given their lives like Dean Barker and Kenny MacDonald, he was the SID there for 30 years. So many of the people who were excited about what’s going on there.
The thing that struck me from the moment I started talking to Luis a couple months ago, really when I was intrigued about the direction the university was taking, I went back for an alumni event three or four years ago. I really had not been on campus for more than passing through. I saw what was going on, so I started paying a little closer attention.
When I had a chance to begin dialogue with him these last few months, I thought about the populations I’ve had a chance to work with of young people, being very diverse, a broad range of preparedness and tremendous desire to grow, it seemed like a perfect fit. As he was going out and preparing his Vision 20/20, I think he just took it to the board in January, it seemed like he was talking through what their plan was and all the different things that they wanted to impact.
All of the different areas, most especially the evolving program for student success, they talk about a pathway for every student, whether it’s a group in the honors program that may be a little further along or a huge group of people that make up the bulk of the student population who really have the desire to make a difference or if it’s a group that needs a little more preparation, I loved the fact he had a plan. He called it the pathway for success. That was always where ours was. [OSU quarterback] Craig Krenzel, he was in molecular genetics, he probably didn’t need as much attention, he was further along in his pathway. There was someone else who no one in the home had a college experience and they were kind of a pioneer. It seemed to line up really well with all the beliefs I have about educating all people and everyone having a dream. Of course there’s the realities if we’re going to do a good job preparing these young people, we have to make sure we can grow as a region so when they are prepared, there are opportunities for them out there. The thought of partnering with the community and businesses, if you read about the Akron model, their desire for economic impact, they’re very involved in the development side of things. As you try to prepare your students, you want to make sure they have the best laboratories, in athletics the best facilities and those kinds of things. I’ve been very involved in going out and trying to help people realize the needs we have from a fundraising and development standpoint.
It seemed like there were so many things, but the discussion always circled back to the evolving desire to do all we can for the students to succeed. That’s what it’s always been about and what really grabbed my attention.
Q: Was there a point after you left Ohio State where you thought you’d never be able to work at a university again?
A: Not really, no. I guess I’d never considered that and I really didn’t know, I thought when I left Ohio State, ‘Now I have an opportunity to see what else is out in this world.’ My dad coached all those years. From birth I was involved in that world. Yet I was around the academic world and the educational world more than any other. I didn’t have a skill or a trade. I wasn’t a business-oriented person. I read a lot and I thought a lot. Typically you end up coming back to what your passion is and my passion is working with young people and watching them grow and helping them grow. The way you do it is you develop relationships and encourage them.
Whether it’s at St. Anthony Elementary School where I started as a phys ed teacher while I was going to college or student teaching at Midpark or teaching classes at Akron while I was a grad student, the fun part was working with kids and watching them succeed and hearing back from them and how they used those lessons from our class or our team concept their whole life. Those are the championships. That’s what I’ve always thrived on.
Q: Do you feel like you’re still under a black cloud or people are less trusting of you now?
A: I don’t know. I don’t give that a whole bunch of thought, just like I never gave any thought if they thought I was under some wonderful gold cloud like I was some wonderful person because we won some games. Coach [Earle)] Bruce used to remind us that ‘Nothing’s as good as it seems and nothing’s as bad.’ I’ve never given much thought to the clouds people might assign to me. I’ve always given a lot of thought to ‘OK, here’s what we’ve worked on doing, here’s what we’ve done and here’s what we’ve got to do better and here’s where we can improve and here’s a lesson we’ve learned.’ I guess I’ve never concerned myself too much about which cloud because clouds come in and out fast.
Q: Do you have any specific regrets about the scandal? I would assume there are some things you wish you’d done differently.
A: You always have that feeling as you go through and results occur. The biggest, I don’t know if the word is regret or disappointment or whatever, it’s never comfortable, you’re always constantly stung with the disappointment that something ended up not being a positive thing and I was a part of it. That’s disappoints the people, we had a group of kids and coaches who were together and now we’re not together. We had disappointment and negative publicity, sanctions … of course you regret, you wish it weren’t so. But it was.What’s most important is you move on and you try to learn from your lessons. You don’t erase what wasn’t so wonderful. You don’t erase all the things that were wonderful. You just move on and try to be the best you can be as you go forward.
Q: You could think if you hadn’t signed the NCAA affidavit or if you had forwarded the email, things might have been different. That could eat you up inside. Does it?
A: Well, if I allow myself to go back and say ‘What if, what if, what if’ all the time I guess it would and could. But I’ve really always tried to work hard and not spend a lot of my time thinking about something I can’t do anything about at this moment. I can’t say that I spent a whole bunch of time thinking about that because I can’t do anything about it.
Q: You’ve been accused of covering this up because you wanted to win the national title. Can you say anything about what your motives were?
A: All the motives I’ve ever had in decisions I’ve made were with the kids in mind and doing what I thought was the right thing. Winning the national championship is so far out there and we work so hard day to day trying to get better in every way we can, that certainly wasn’t a motive.
Q: Have you talked to Terrelle Pryor recently?
A: Yeah, I’ve kept in good contact with him since he’s been in Oakland [with the Raiders in the NFL]. I haven’t talked with him in the last week, probably.
Q: I was curious if you still had a relationship.
A: Oh, heavens, yes, absolutely. I talked to a lot of guys you’d never heard of, I talk to guys like Terrelle Pryor or Maurice Clarett. All of my kids are my kids for life.
Q: Dan Herron and DeVier Posey have a great opportunity ahead of them in the NFL despite what happened.
A: Absolutely. I talked to all of them when they were down at the Senior Bowl and they were excited.
Q: Was it a couple months before you started to get back to your old self? Can you put a timetable on it? You had so much to think about and cope with.
A: I don’t know if you’re ever back to your old self until you’re full speed ahead on something. To me that’s what is so exciting about this opportunity. I’ll get to study this and the folks there can study what things I can get involved with first, second and third once I hit the ground running when I officially start.
Yesterday seemed a little bit like the old days. My first thing was with kids at 8 o’clock in the morning, my last event ended at 9:30 last night. I had a fundraiser for the Berea Education Foundation. It was one of those long, long days, thousands of people, an opportunity to share. That was a little bit more like what my former life was about. I thought at the end of it, ‘Oh, my gosh, this former life was hard. It was long.’
I don’t know if you’re back to your normal style of life until you’re really just consumed with what you do. That’s dangerous in some ways because all of a sudden you get so consumed in what you’re doing you forget about doing some of the other things that maybe you ought to do to take care of yourself. I’m looking forward to being consumed with doing all we can to make sure the students move towards success. Getting involved with that and everything that goes along with it, all the things we did when we were here, our No. 1 goal was student success. But also we wanted to help the community, we wanted to help fundraising, we wanted to help create partnerships for the university. But you keep that No. 1 focus, which is coming up with the best ways you can for your students to succeed.
Q: Do you have a start date?
A: It’s officially May 1, but I’m sure I’ll be working every day to crystallize what we need to do and to learn more and to become more engaged with the people I’ll be working with. It will take it time because there seems to be so many other things perhaps I could help with. We’ve got to make sure we take the time so when we really do roll up our sleeves we’re doing what’s most important first.
Q: On Thursday, there was a rumor that you might help raise money for a new basketball arena. Any truth to that?
A: I haven’t had that discussion with anyone. You know how it is when change occurs, everyone starts guessing, ‘I wonder what’s behind this or what they’re planning?’ The genesis and the problem that’s first and foremost is what can we do to help our students succeed? Everything else that goes along with it, once you become part of a team, you help in every way, that’s just what you do.
Q: Akron and the campus have changed so much. What are your impressions of the city and the campus?
A: What about the art museum? What’s happened there since I was there in the late ‘70s, it’s mind-boggling to me. One of the things that excites me the most, I want to come be around people like Luis who have a vision like that and who have succeeded like that. What they’ve done for the region and for the city is indescribable.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour.¶