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In Defense of Jim Tressel

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Tattoos, Gold Pants, and Tincture of Time

Ohio State Spring Football Preview with Coach Jim Tressel Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

What if I told you that Jim Tressel is one of the best coaches most of us will ever see? It’s true, and I will believe it for as long as I live. That’s not to say he was the greatest on gameday. Far from it. Anyone who ever watched the infuriating grind of Tresselball whilst chewing their fingernails to nubs can see that. Nor was he the greatest recruiter. He certainly landed stars, but he never reached the stratosphere of recruiting consistently. Good classes—and a Heisman winner—but ultimately he built a peculiar and predictable set-piece array of talent to drive his decidedly plodding style.

Jim Tressel is among the best coaches because he is—despite his failure—one of the very, very few who deeply believes that football is a vehicle to providing opportunity. I can hear your scoffs now, but suspend your self-righteous indignation and consider the argument.

Tressel’s approach to coaching sprang from a deep desire to be a benefactor to the young men he viewed as his beloved charges. We saw it very clearly in his interviews, where he typically referred to his team—and OSU students—as “our tremendous young people.” We saw it in his faith, often misplaced, in players with discipline problems. We saw how that dedication ultimately led to his disgrace in the form of a cover-up and all the ignominy and backbiting that comes with it.

Of course there are many across the Big Ten and CFB landscape who hate Jim Tressel. That is, largely, a product of bitterness over football losses and a heaping helping of self-righteous moral piety. The legion of critics call him a liar and a cheat, or swear on someone’s third-hand report that he was party to a mountain of nefarious misdeeds. Facts rarely get in the way of a good narrative in college sports. This is a reality that many of the premiere programs in the B1G (and the nation) know all too well.

Moral relativism is fraught with peril, but we’d be remiss not to at least consider the greater realities of college sports. In the time since Jim Tressel committed the ghastly crime of lying to the NCAA about what he knew and when he knew it, we’ve crossed a rubicon in our view of college football as a construct—or several, really. Ed O’Bannon and his pals, through their hard-won victory, started an avalance of realization that college football is a grossly unfair system when it comes to player compensation. (The venn diagram of the crowd that bleats “they’re getting a free education!” with sputtering outrage and the people who shout “those immigrants should’ve come here legally if they didn’t want this to happen!” has got to be damn near concentric, but I digress.)

Moreover, we now widely see the NCAA for the deeply corrupt, largely arbitrary, and wantonly capricious organization that it is. Add to that, there’s the grim reality of who Tressel’s peers in the college coaching world really were. Art Briles and Baylor. Rick Pitino. Joe Mixon’s enablers at Oklahoma. Everything within 25 miles of Oxford, Mississippi. UNC. The Univer$ity of Evan $hapiro Miami. The list goes on, and it will grow ad infinitum as more layers of a fairly rotten onion are peeled back year after year (to the grand outcome of...well, nothing if the NCAA’s past is instructive).

When I look back at Jim Tressel’s downfall, I see a man who was undeniably flawed. He was blinded by loyalty to his players, and certainly gave at least passing thought to how suspensions would affect the season ahead. But when I reflect on Jim Tressel, and on where his career is now, I’m left with the conclusion that he cared so much about protecting the well-being of “his young people” that he lied about the tattoos, the impermissible benefits, and his knowledge thereof because he thought was choosing the lesser evil. That is a place I suspect we’ve all been in our lives.

While none of that excuses the ethical failure, part of me has to laugh. Part of you should laugh, too, each time you watch your team take the field and see young “amateur” players with no income covered in more ink than the exercise yard at Sing Sing. There but for the grace of God and one odd witness goes about half the starters in college football.

Glibness aside, the second act of Jim Tressel as a university president is perhaps the clearest indication of who he is and what he values. For all his flaws, Jim Tressel is a man who undoubtedly believes in the need to provide opportunities to those who lack it. You can scoff at that, or you can remain in the increasingly silly camp of people who still view him as some Lex Luthor of the B1G. So much of the hatred for him seems to flow from that great human instinct to desire those who champion the ideals of positivity and integrity to take a fall—as though those concepts are somehow invalidated by the flaws of the mortals who believe in them.

For my money, he is and will remain one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen because he so earnestly and blatantly cared about the young men who played for him.. Contrast that with some of the other coaches you know about. As for money writ large and its seemingly endless flow in and through college football, Tressel has eschewed it of late. Instead, he remains in the garden spot of Youngstown, Ohio, making about 10% of his 2010 salary. No one takes a 90% pay cut for a role they don’t believe in.

In retrospect, Jim Tressel’s ignominious flameout was as much a function of the lies he told about players receiving tattoos as it was about the fact his failures came to light before we knew what real dirt looked like. He was crucified for being a dog because the wolves around him were so skilled at donning sheep’s clothing. Make of that explanation what you want, but I’ll not be listening until Hugh Freeze, Art Briles, Rick Pitino, several Miami coaches, and everyone at UNC are seeking new work under the yoke of a show-cause penalty.

When his life comes to a close (hopefully many years from now) I hope Jim Tressel remembered less for his handful of sins against what is perhaps the most banally exploitative organization since La Cosa Nostra, and more for the thousands of lives he touched as a coach, educator, philanthropist, and leader. Rare is the man with power and money who cares about things other than power and money. Jimbo Fisher’s ahead-of-the-hounds leap to Texas A&M is a lovely example.

Jim Tressel was wrong, and he paid for it. More dearly than most. But even as his world was crumbling, he tried to protect his players. Tragic heroes are, by definition, undone by their tragic flaws. So it was with the man in the scarlet sweater vest.