The on-field accomplishments are well-known and read exactly what you’d expect a future Hall of Famer’s résumé to look like.
A winning percentage of nearly .750 in a 25-year coaching career. Five national titles — four at Div. I-AA Youngstown State, one at Ohio State. Six official Big Ten titles. Dozens upon dozens of players who went on to some modicum of success in the NFL.
The off-field issues that enveloped Columbus over the past year, though, have come to define Jim Tressel‘s quarter century as a head coach.
The final NCAA sanctions on the OSU football program announced Tuesday included a five-year show-cause for the former Buckeyes coach, a punishment that would seemingly preclude him from landing another job at the collegiate level for the foreseeable future but may not have the teeth it was originally thought to possess. Regardless of how sharp the teeth on the show-cause may or may not be, it won’t change what an institution or an organization would be hiring: a man who lied to the NCAA — on at least four different occasions according to the final report on the Tat Five — and, perhaps more importantly, lied to and/or hid information pertaining to likely NCAA violations from his employer, leading directly to sanctions that will involve a one-year bowl ban and lost scholarships over the next three years.
Does that make him unhirable at the collegiate level? Not necessarily; right behind dollar signs come W’s in the eyes of an athletic program, and Tressel has proven to be one of the best coaches at the highest level of football when it comes to that all-important letter. Offer the promise of a winning football program, and coordinating a cover-up underneath your previous employer’s nose and lying to the governing body of collegiate athletics could be scrubbed enough to become palatable for a school desperate for football relevance.
That said, the 59-year-old Tressel knows, as one person close to the former coach put it Tuesday night, “he’s toxic at the collegiate level right now.” For the time being, Tressel is comfortable in his current job as a consultant with the Indianapolis Colts. Coaching, though, is in his blood. Will always be there, more than likely. And he wants back in it, at almost any level.
“I hope so,” Tressel said back in late August when asked if he’d like to coach again. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”
The collegiate toxicity Tressel speaks of privately will likely not go away for the foreseeable future, so the former coach has let it be known to those in and around NFL circles that he’s open to a position at the professional level. While a college coach at heart, and as he had turned down head-coaching overtures at the next level multiple times during his time with the Buckeyes, those around Tressel acknowledge that the NFL might be the most viable option in the here and now, if for nothing more than it allows the scandal to get smaller and smaller in the rear-view.
Regardless of what Tressel does in the future or where he does it, what exactly his legacy will ultimately be remains an open question.
Time and distance does an amazing job softening the rough edges of history. Over 30 years after his career ended in disgrace with one televised bowl punch, Woody Hayes is as beloved a figure in the state of Ohio as there’s ever been or will likely ever be.
The same will likely be said for the senatorial splendor of The Vest… down the road. After some time and distance have been placed between his inexplicable decision to make a conscious effort to launch a cover-up and whatever the final chapters of his life may hold.
Speaking for myself, I just want to know the “why” of the entire sordid mess. Why would Tressel take a situation that might’ve resulted in a handful of players sitting for a couple of games and cover it up? Why would he sabotage all that he had built in Columbus for something that, in and of itself, was relatively minor? Why would a man who had very publicly taken up permanent residence on the moral high ground climb down into the gutter over a few thousand dollars worth of impermissible benefits?
And maybe that’s just it. Maybe Tressel’s legacy is that we all knew a whole helluva lot more about him on the field than we did off of it.
As Tressel has made crystal clear, even great men make inexplicable decisions and inexcusable mistakes. Placing coaches atop a pedestal? There’s a lesson for all of us in that part of his legacy.