When Jim Tressel was forced to resign as Ohio State’s football coach on Memorial Day, the uproar from his former players had less to do with games and victories and more to do with the impact he’d made on their lives.
They spoke of values and what he’d taught them about the importance of education and community service and caring about others. The thought of Tressel no longer being able to help boys become men left them outraged.
When his new position at the University of Akron was announced Thursday, Tressel called the somewhat nebulous title of vice president of strategic engagement a second chance, an opportunity for him to bounce back from embarrassment and scandal. But it is really a chance for him to do what he does best once again.
Thursday at UA’s Honors College, Tressel, 59, spoke in somewhat wistful terms about leaving football. A five-year show-cause penalty slapped on him by the NCAA makes him virtually unemployable in college athletics.
“Out on a field with an oblong thing that bounces funny, that’s probably out of it there,” he said. “But I’ll be coaching every day. Coaching is serving, just like teaching is serving and administrating is serving. I’m an educator … so that coaching will never leave me.
“I didn’t get a chance to stand on the sideline this past fall, it wasn’t as if the world ended. The part I missed most wasn’t game day, it was working with the staff and the young people.”
He wouldn’t say he was distraught or depressed, but Tressel admitted that leaving OSU was emotional.
“You see young people out there who you’ve known since they were sophomores in high school,” he said. “Sometimes you have to get over things and you have to get excited about other things.
“I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity I had to be around the game of football and the young people who play it and cheer for it and everything else. But I’m also excited and grateful to have a chance to grow in a different way.”
There were few such nostalgic comments during a 40-minute press conference. Afterward, his wife, Ellen, said Tressel has recovered from the dark days surrounding his OSU ouster.
“I think he’s really happy,” Ellen Tressel said. “He’s perfect for this because he is a relationship-driven individual who really does care a lot about the students.
“Even when we were in Columbus, it was really more than about football. It was about the human being, the total student, the academic success, the philanthropic side, the community service. He’ll have an opportunity here to develop all of those areas and he’s great at it.”
Tressel did sound like he’d been shaken by what had happened at Ohio State and the career-killing penalty for his lying to the NCAA about his players receiving illegal benefits.
“Anytime adversity comes, you go to what you feel is your rock and my faith happens to be my rock, and family and friends,” he said. “You have to reflect on what’s important to you.
“God knows we’re not all perfect. He knows we all would like to do the best we possibly can, but I think he also recognizes intentions are very important and my intentions have always been to help young people and help communities and help institutions. That time of reflection in some ways was healthy. I wouldn’t say I wished for it. But it was healthy.”
Reportedly a candidate to coach the Indianapolis Colts, a team he served as a consultant and replay observer last season, Tressel sounded like his dalliance with the NFL was barely more than a toe in the water.
“I don’t really have any interest in coaching in the NFL,” he said. “My interest was to broaden myself outside of athletics.”
To broaden himself since June, he set a goal of reading 100 books, but because of the position with the Colts he said he’s only on No. 30. Perhaps the one that moved him most was Bounce: The Art of Turning Tough Times into Triumph, by Keith McFarland.
“It really speaks to you about what you can do to make sure you’re always on an upward trend,” he said.
Not working 18 hours a day, seven days a week for the first time in 37 years, he thought about answering his 10,000 e-mails, but found the enormity of the task too daunting. He did try to respond to every letter. He joked that Ellen wondered, “How many times can you cut the grass?”
Both seemed happy that he found another job in Ohio. They recently sold their Upper Arlington home, and Ellen Tressel said they hope to find a place here in the next couple of months. She said two of their children remain in Ohio, with one in New York City and another in Minnesota. Her parents split time between Youngstown and Florida. Tressel’s brother Dave still lives in Berea. Those ties were among the “150 reasons” Tressel said the UA position was so attractive.
As he was whisked out of the conference room, a security guard at his side, he seemed ready to return to being Jim Tressel. He recognized familiar faces. The adulation flooded over him again. He seemed energized and ready for the next phase of his life.
“The commitment I’ve made to any place I’ve gone is I was going to work every day like I was going to be there forever,” he said. “So my commitment to the University of Akron, I’m going to work like this is the last place I’ll ever work.
“I’m kind of old fashioned. I believe God has a plan for all of us. We have to listen closely, though.”
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. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.