The 17-Year Turning Point

Seventeen years ago today, I was at an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game.  It was the middle of another bleak winter, but there was a little bit of a buzz because the Buckeyes had just named a new head football coach and the rumor was that he might be at the game, where members of Buckeye Nation could get a good look at him.

His name was Jim Tressel.  He’d had good success coaching at Youngstown State, and there was hope that he might be more successful at Ohio State than his predecessor, John Cooper.  Cooper seemed like a nice enough guy, but his record at Ohio State in the games that really counted — that is, the annual fight to the death against Michigan, and then bowl games — was abysmal.  The Cooper era left Ohio State fans feeling beat down and forlorn, like we were in a hole that we could never really dig our way out of.

Could Tressel turn things around, and actually win a few games against the hated Team Up North?  Even more fundamentally, could we be sure he actually understood how important that game was?  There was always a lingering suspicion that Coach Cooper was baffled that, every year, his performance was judged on the basis of that one game.  Of course, native Ohioans and members of Buckeye Nation understood why that was the case — understood it intuitively, in their bones and their blood and their sinew, understood it with a depth of feeling that some might find maniacal but that every true sports fan recognizes.

And then, at halftime of that basketball game 17 years ago, Coach Tressel walked out and made a short little speech that was one of the single most electrifying moments I’ve witnessed in person.  He said:  “I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”  It wasn’t quite a guarantee of a win, of course, but it was an Ohio State coach speaking confidently about okaying Michigan.  It was thrilling!  The crowd erupted, and the video of Tressel’s remarks that I’ve posted above really doesn’t capture the explosion of cheers.  Here was a man who clearly . . . understood.  He understood the importance of The Game, and the importance of pride.

And he was right.  Coach Tressel changed things, forever.  The Buckeyes went on a tear against Michigan, and other teams, and they haven’t looked back.  And while Coach Tressel’s career at Ohio State didn’t end the way he hoped, members of Buckeye Nation will never forget him.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years.  Coach Tressel, thank you for that speech!

At The End Of The Show Cause Order

Today marks the end of the NCAA penalty imposed on former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel.  For five years, any school that wanted to hire Tressel to coach football would have had to “show cause” as to why it should be permitted to do so, and receive approval, before he could once again return to prowl the sidelines of the gridiron and coach young men about football, and life.

Five years is a long time, and this five-year period seems like it’s been been much longer.  Ohio State football has moved on from the Tressel era and has enjoyed enormous success under current head coach Urban Meyer.  True Buckeye fans will never forget Coach Tressel, however.  He was the man who lifted the Ohio State program from a period of ever-present heartbreak and big-game failure and returned it to its rightful position as one of the preeminent programs in college football.

20140512jhlocaltressel06-4Coach Tressel remembers, too.  He’ll always be a Buckeye at heart, but he hasn’t sat idle, pining for a chance to coach.  He is a man with a lot to offer, and other people know it.  He’s now the very successful president of Youngstown State University.  Odd, isn’t it, that he has been effectively barred from coaching a sport, but he can run an entire university with 13,000 students — a university that has its own successful football team?  But that’s just one of the many curious elements of the “tatgate” story — involving player violations of NCAA rules, in trading merchandise for tattoos, that the New York Times story linked above describes as “quaint” compared to some of the serious, criminal wrongdoing that has come to light in college sports since that time.  The NCAA determined that Coach Tressel learned about the player misconduct, and he failed to report it — and that started the dominoes falling toward the five-year ban.

But even though the NCAA penalty has prevented Coach Tressel from formally coaching young men, that’s still what he does, informally but routinely.  Eleven Warriors, an Ohio State football website, has a terrific reflection on Tressel’s continued connection with his former players and assistant coaches and what steps he takes — instinctively, reflexively, as part of his core and character — to try to help them.  In the Webner family, we know what kind of person Coach Tressel really is from our own personal experience, when he befriended our family’s most diehard Ohio State fan, Aunt Bebe, became her pen pal, and then graciously showed up for her memorial service.  It’s the kind of small but deeply meaningful personal gesture that is all-too-uncommon in the modern world.

Rules are rules, and Jim Tressel made a mistake.  We’re human; we all do.  But no imposition of an NCAA show cause order could ever change what kind of person Coach Tressel is, deep inside.  This is a good man, and what he’s done and continues to do just confirms it, over and over again.  Our very best wishes go with him.

Brown Thoughts After Another Brown Year

Today the Cleveland Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It’s a dog bites man story, a result that follows the chalk.  The Browns ended the year 3-13, which is their worst record in a while, and I didn’t watch a game after about week six.  I doubt that I’m alone.

So now we’ll go through what has become an almost annual Browns rite.  Where other teams focus on the playoffs, the Browns undoubtedly will be cleaning house, canning their head coach and probably their GM, too.  I’m sorry Mike Pettine was a bust, but I have to laugh when I remember owner Jimmy Haslam saying how the Browns were “thrilled” to have Pettine when they hired him only two years ago.

1557-mNo doubt the Browns were “thrilled” to hire anyone, because no rational person who wants a future in the NFL would want to be head coach of the Browns.  It’s a death wish writ large, because the Browns have had almost as many head coaches as they have had starting quarterbacks.  Does anybody remember Pat Shurmur?

So the Browns probably will once again hire a nobody, and they’ll get a new GM who will want to remake the team in his own image, and they’ll squander another high draft pick.  We’ll have a wholesale turnover of players, and the new guy will promise that we’ll be “exciting” or “tough” or play nails defense.  It never happens.  The franchise is cursed — cursed with stupidity.  A revolving door of coaches and front-office personnel, an owner who doesn’t know what he is doing and won’t hire somebody who does, and a list of failed first-round draft picks that were complete busts are a recipe for failure for any franchise.  The Browns have made that recipe into an art form.

This year there will be a bunch of really good Ohio State players in the draft.  Joey Bosa.  Ezekiel Elliott.  Normally I’d want them to play for my team — but now when my team is the Browns, because that inevitably means they will be injured or put into a scheme that fails to take advantage of their talents or otherwise converted into marginal players.

What should the Browns do?  I say clean house, top to bottom, and hire Jim Tressel to run the organization.  Why not?  We know he’s competent, he can recognize talent, he’s won at every level he’s tried, and his offensive scheme is pretty close to what the NFL does, anyway.  He knows the Browns tradition of success — unfortunately, only older guys know that anymore — and he resurrected the Buckeye program after the Cooper era.  Browns fans would give him a nice long honeymoon, which means he might actually last longer than the last few Browns coaches, who’ve been there for no more than a cup of coffee.  Maybe he’s not the answer — but does anybody trust this Browns organization to actually find somebody who is?

I say hire Jim Tressel.

Edited to add:  The Browns have, in fact, fired head coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer.  According to ESPN, they are interviewing former Buffalo coach Doug Marrone and Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase.  Romeo Crennel, anyone?

Good Karma

IMG_4604Sports fans know intuitively that concepts like karma are vitally important to the outcomes of key games.  Whether you are at the game or watching at home, life gives you little clues about whether things are going to go smoothly and whether the ball is going to bounce favorably . . . or not.  Most fans are superstitious because of this inner awareness — if they wear the same shirt and follow the same routine, they are less likely to invite occurrences that indicate that the balance is tilted against them.

On my trip to Dallas, the little signs were everywhere, and I was keenly sensitive to them.

IMG_4587The trip got off on a wrong foot when my flight to Atlanta was delayed and it looked like I would inevitably miss my connection to Oklahoma City, but I somehow made it anyway.  I drove from Oklahoma City to Dallas without mechanical problems, bad traffic, or speeding tickets.  Thanks to the Friendly Flynns, we had a great place to stay and a great Game Day southern breakfast.  We found a perfect parking spot at AT&T Stadium, enjoyed a laugh-filled lunch with buddies from Cleveland, and did some tailgating with an old friend at a location where there were some hilarious signs and antics by excited ticket holders.  And somehow, in the crush of humanity, we randomly ran into colleagues at one of many temporary souvenir shops set up in a tent along one of the roads around the stadium.

And then, when I finally sat my wind-chilled bones in my seat high in the upper deck of the House that Jerry Built, the first image I saw on the enormous Jumbotron above the field was a sweater vest-clad Jim Tressel, a great coach and even better man who was present at the game because he was being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.  With the comforting presence of Coach Tressel hovering over the field, how could the Ohio State Buckeyes possibly lose?  And, of course, they didn’t.

It’s nice to go into an important game with good karma, and it’s even better when that good karma produces the desired result.  The fates were with us.

Scratching The SEC Itch

If there’s one thing that drives Ohio State fans to distraction, it’s the Buckeyes’ notorious lack of success against the SEC.  Whether it’s the shellacking Bear Bryant put on Woody Hayes back in the ’70s, or the crushing losses to Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS National Championship games during the Jim Tressel era, loyal members of Buckeye Nation have endured terrible performances against SEC teams in big games.  And when Ohio State finally seemed to lance the boil by beating Arkansas in a bowl game a few years ago, that victory was snatched away as a result of the “Tattoogate” scandal.

So, what’s an OSU fan supposed to think about the fact that when Ohio State made the first-ever four-team major college playoff this year, it was paired against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the consensus choice for best team in the land and an SEC team to boot, in its first game?

Call me crazy, but I welcome this challenge.  Ohio State might get its butt kicked, but it will never have a better chance to definitively end the SEC Curse and stop all the laughing and name-calling than it does in this game, this year.  Alabama is the SEC personified, and they will be the prohibitive favorite, too.  If Ohio State can somehow prevail — despite the presumptive advantages to the Tide stemming from “Southern speed,” the murderous schedule they’ve played in the world-beating SEC West, and the legions of five-star studs that Nick Saban lures to Tuscaloosa every year, maybe the SEC fans will finally shut up and recognize that Midwestern teams know their way around a pigskin, too.

I’m old school about how sports are supposed to work.  Alabama is the most successful college football program right now; Ohio State aspires to that position.  The best way for Ohio State to achieve its goal is to beat the best in a big game — and they’ve got that opportunity.  Now is the time.  If the Buckeyes lay an egg and Alabama crushes them like it did Notre Dame, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves, and the SEC buffs have every right to crow and call the Buckeyes an overrated program from a candy-ass conference.  If Ohio State somehow wins the game, however, we’ll lance that SEC boil, once and for all.

I really, really want to lance that boil.

Trappy Valley

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley to play the Penn State Nittany Lions.  Penn State has struggled this year, but this is a game that concerns me.  It’s one of those classic “trap games” that can reach up and bite you when your opponent gets pumped up because they can salvage their season with a win..

Since the Virginia Tech loss, Ohio State has racked up a lot of yards and put a lot of points on the board.  Many members of Buckeye Nation think Ohio State’s offense is an unstoppable juggernaut and terrific redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett is the second coming of Peyton Manning.  Let’s take a deep breath, people!  Ohio State’s recent performance is all well and good — but it has occurred against defenses that really aren’t comparable to Penn State.  As is always the case, Penn State has a lot of tough, hard-nosed athletes on the defensive side of the ball.  Statistically, the Nittany Lions are the best defense in the Big Ten, and they are especially good against the run.

With a huge home crowd behind them and roaring on every play, it’s not hard to imagine Penn State’s defense stopping the high-octane Buckeyes and keeping the score down.  Sure, Penn State’s offense has not been impressive, but Ohio State’s defense has given up a lot of big plays.  If the Nittany Lions can break through for a long score or two, and their defense keeps Ohio State out of the end zone, this game could turn into a close slugfest — and the longer the game is close, the more the crowd will become a factor.

As Ohio State knows all too well from the very successful Jim Tressel years, you don’t need to lead the nation in offense to win a lot of college football games.  Careful game management, a solid defense that doesn’t give up long touchdowns and keeps opponents off the scoreboard, and good fundamentals in the kicking and punting game can go a very long way to make up for a weak offense.  Tonight Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes might see some Tresselball from the opposing team, and Tresselball isn’t that easy to beat.

A Weirdly Desperate Ad Campaign

IMG_5926Yesterday I was minding my own business, driving north on Route 315, when I saw this billboard. It stopped my in my tracks, and reminded me — as if I or any Browns Backer needed reminding — of just how lost and pathetic the Cleveland Browns franchise seems to be right now.

What are the Browns trying to accomplish with this ad campaign? It’s February, months away from the start of NFL training camps. No one in Columbus knows Mike Pettine, so why would we trust any assurance he provided? It would be another thing if the Browns had decided to hire Jim Tressel and were running ads featuring him, and it might even be different if the Browns hadn’t changed head coaches as often as Miley Cyrus changes into another raunchy outfit. But neither of those things is true, and a picture of a random guy with a shaved head and beard looking like a hard ass isn’t going to change that.

I also don’t remember anyone questioning the Browns’ toughness. Instead, it was all about talent — which the Browns sorely lack. Get some good players in free agency, have a high-quality draft, and tell me I won’t ever again have to watch Brandon Weedon on a football field wearing a Browns uniform, and maybe I’ll pay attention.

I’m guessing that the Browns are worried that their frustrated and embarrassed fans won’t renew their season tickets, and they are trying to build a little positive momentum. They’re as a needy and desperate as a high school geek searching desperately for someone, anyone, who will go to the prom with him.

From The Mouths Of Babes

Some enterprising — and young — Cleveland Browns fans have made a video arguing that a familiar name should be selected as the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns. It’s pretty clever. Thanks, kids!

I actually think Jim Tressel would likely be a capable and successful NFL head coach. He knows how to win, he builds capable staffs, and he has an eye for talent and the ability to figure out how to maximize the impact of that talent. At Ohio State, he quickly turned around a demoralized program. He understands how important the Browns are to Cleveland sports fans, just as he understood how important beating Michigan was to Ohio State fans. I think the notion that Tressel is too conservative to win at the NFL level is silly — in reality, the NFL is far more conservative, in terms of scheme and approach, than is the college game.

Of course, the chances that the Browns would select Tressel are remote, and not because the Browns would shy away from a coach who received NCAA sanctions. Even if the Browns had the intelligence to really consider Tressel, I think Tressel has too much intelligence and self-respect to get involved with a front office that seems to be more interested in its own power games and turf battles than producing a winning football team.

It’s Michigan Week! (III)

No Ohio State will fan ever take The Game against Michigan for granted — at least, no Ohio State fan who lived through the ’90s.  For Ohio State fans, the ’90s were the long, dark night of the soul.

Ohio State was coached by a cordial, good-humored gentleman named John Cooper.  Coop wasn’t an Ohio native, but he could recruit great athletes and get them ready for early season games.  His record at Ohio State was 111-43-4.  He beat Notre Dame twice, and won a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl.  But when it came to The Game, Coop turned into a fingernail-chewing, watery-eyed wreck.  His teams were 2-10-1 against That Team Up North, and it got so bad that the Ohio State President described the tie as one of the greatest victories in Ohio State history.

During the Cooper era, Ohio State played Michigan as the favorite and as the underdog.  It played the Wolverines at home and away.  It played Michigan when the Buckeyes were highly ranked and when they were struggling.  And all of that made no difference, because the result — inevitably — was another soul-crushing loss.  Whether it was a record-setting performance by a previously unknown running back or a slip and fall by a defensive back or some other disaster, Michigan always found a way to win.  Eventually, the Buckeye Nation had had enough, and Coop was gone and Jim Tressel was in.

Whenever Ohio State goes to The Game as a favorite, I think of John Cooper and his struggles with the Wolverines.  It’s left me permanently scarred, and I will never forget.  John Cooper taught me to never take The Game for granted.

Jim Tressel Is A Good Man

I wasn’t going to write about this, because I viewed it as a wonderful personal gesture made out of friendship and decency, not something done for any kind of publicity. However, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal has written about it, so I thought I’d add my two cents’ worth.

On Saturday, we had a celebration service for Aunt Bebe. To our surprise and delight, former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was there. He had established a correspondents’ relationship with Aunt Bebe, as Ridenour describes, and he also visited Aunt Bebe in her final days. He wanted to pay his respects and share some thoughts about her.

What’s more, Coach Tressel was there even though he was squeezing his visit between an important morning meeting for the University of Akron, where he currently works, and an equally significant impending family obligation. Many people — even those who aren’t famous — would have begged off without a second thought. Not Coach Tressel!

It was a kind and classy gesture by a kind and classy man. We in Aunt Bebe’s family appreciated it, not only because it help to celebrate a loved one’s life but also because it showed there are still good people in the world. It helps to be reminded of that from time to time.

Jim Tressel is one of those good people. Thank you, Coach Tressel, for your thoughtfulness and kind gesture!

Bebe Webner

Bebe Webner died last night at the age of 86.  Our hearts and thoughts go out to my cousin Tony and his family, Uncle Mack and his family, and the other members of the Webner clan whose lives were touched by this good person.

Aunt Bebe has been a fixture in our lives for as long as I can remember.  She and Uncle Tony were frequent visitors to our house when we were kids, first when we lived in Akron and then when we moved to Columbus.  She was a sun worshipper who always had beautiful tan, a deft bridge player, and a huge sports fan whose biggest passion was Ohio State football.  Our family gatherings were frequently punctuated by her laughter and her memorable voice, with just a touch of gravel at its lower registers.

Aunt Bebe was one of those people who taught you a lot just by how they lived their lives.  She worked for years for an Akron doctor, babysat his children, and became a beloved part of his family.  She was widowed for 27 years and lived frugally, yet remained relentlessly positive about her life and the world at large.  Her birthday and anniversary cards always had words of support and were signed with her trademark closing, “hugs, Aunt Bebe.”  She was an everyday example of self-sufficiency who mowed her own lawn and kept her house in spotless condition until she moved to a smaller, more manageable apartment only a few years ago.

Even Aunt Bebe’s celebrity status as “Buckeye Bebe,” a huge fan and pen pal with former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, had an important lesson to impart if you were paying attention.  Aunt Bebe didn’t write to Coach Tressel to try to get an autograph or some item of memorabilia that she could sell on eBay.  Instead, she wrote because she cared and wanted to provide words of encouragement to a person she admired.  She figured that Coach Tressel could use some uplifting words every now and then — just like the rest of us.

Aunt Bebe’s final days had their own valuable lesson, too.  She knew the end was near and was fully prepared and at peace with her life.  She welcomed the chance to move beyond.

God bless you, Aunt Bebe!

 

Honoring Coach Tressel

During the break between the first and second quarters of Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, the University recognized the 2002 National Championship team and its head coach, Jim Tressel.  Tressel was hoisted onto the shoulders of his former players as the crowd at Ohio Stadium roared.

After the game, I was surprised to read some very harsh comments about this simple gesture.  Fans of Michigan, Wisconsin, and other schools — many of whom think Ohio State’s domination of the Big Ten conference is the product of a dirty program that skirts the NCAA rules and cheats — depicted the ceremony as Ohio State thumbing its nose at the NCAA and displaying its contempt for the rules and sanctions that ultimately resulted in Jim Tressel’s resignation.  I think that is a small, mean-spirited reaction to a desire to honor a storied Ohio State team on the 10th anniversary of its greatest achievement.

No one at Ohio State will forget how the Jim Tressel era ended — and I’m confident Coach Tressel won’t, either.  That reality shouldn’t mean that we can’t remember the good moments of the Tressel era, too.  There were many, and the 2002 National Championship is one of them.  I’m glad the members of that team, and Coach Tressel as well, were saluted for their accomplishment.

Coach Tressel Finds A New Home

Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel has accepted a new job.  He will be moving to Akron and taking a position at the University of Akron — not as a football coach, but as the Vice President for Strategic Engagement.

I’m happy for Mr. Tressel (although I will always think of him as Coach Tressel) and I have no doubt that he will do a good job for one of Ohio’s largest universities.  The NCAA “tattoogate” scandal that led to his resignation as Ohio State’s coach involved some unfortunate lapses in judgment on his part, but it shouldn’t mask his accomplishments with the Buckeyes.  Tressel not only took a moribund football program and quickly turned it into a powerhouse, he also made tremendous progress in the academic performance of his student-athletes.

I still respect Tressel’s efforts and achievements, even if I regret his missteps at the end of his tenure at Ohio State.  I suspect I’m not alone in that regard, and that many Ohioans will be interested in meeting with Tressel and hearing his ideas for the future of the University of Akron.  He’s an intelligent, hard working individual who dedicates himself to his job, and I’m sure he will bring those attributes to his new position.

I know one person who is thrilled to have Tressel in Akron:  Buckeye Bebe, who always has been one of his biggest supporters.  Aunt Bebe will be very happy to share the air of the Rubber City with the man who led the Buckeyes for so many years.  Who knows?  Perhaps they can meet and talk about football — or even strategic engagement.

The Buckeyes Try To Forget 2011

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, most people are eager to see the dawn of a new year.  I’d wager that no one was happier to see 2011 in the rear view mirror than the participants in the Ohio State University football program.

2011 was a year of embarrassments unparalleled in the history of OSU football.  From the abrupt “retirement” of Jim Tressel in the face of an NCAA investigation, to the forfeiting of games, to the suspension of players for rules violations, to poor play, galling losses, and a crappy on-the-field record, and finally to the announcement of serious sanctions that include a one-year bowl ban, the Buckeyes and Buckeye Nation had to absorb a series of body blows throughout the year.

Tomorrow the Buckeyes will play the final game of the 2011 season when they take on the Florida Gators in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.  Normally I’d think about this game as an opportunity to get some payback for the whipping the Gators gave the Buckeyes in the national championship game a few years ago, or as an intriguing story line now that Urban Meyer is Ohio State’s head coach.  Not so this year.  I’ll watch the game, and I’ll hope that Braxton Miller can lead the Buckeyes to victory — but win or lose I’ll be happy to see the 2011 season end, never to be thought of again.  I’m guessing that I’m not the only one in Buckeye Nation who feels that way.

Finding Horrible New Ways To Lose

After years of great success, it’s like Ohio State is learning how to lose.  And doing it in so many different and awful ways.  Against Miami and Michigan State, it was offensive ineptitude.  Tonight, Ohio State built a three-touchdown lead and seemed to have the game in hand when a turnover, an injury, and the inevitably fatal appearance of Laughing Joe Bauserman caused the Buckeyes to give up the lead and lose to a Nebraska team that got crushed last week and was on the ropes tonight.

Tonight’s game showed what has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on — for all of the criticism of Jim Tressel’s conservative play-calling, he was a great in-game coach.  I’m confident that, with Tressel at the helm, Ohio State would not have lost tonight’s game.  Even after Nebraska scored after Braxton Miller’s turnover, the Buckeyes still had a two-touchdown lead, and Tressel would have run, run, run the ball — and Ohio State was moving it on the ground — milked the clock, and worn Nebraska’s defense down.  He would have kept the defense off the field, and he never would have put the game in Bauserman’s hands.

Instead, the coaches inexplicably went away from the run, and we got to watch the infuriating spectacle of Bauserman hurling the ball 40 feet over receiver’s heads out of bounds.  Here’s a tip for the Ohio State coaches — forget Bauserman!  He brings nothing to the table.  If Braxton Miller’s injury keeps him out of the lineup, play Kenny Guiton, or Taylor Graham.  They cannot possibly be worse than Bauserman, and you would be doing a service for the blood pressure of Buckeye fans the world over.

As for the defense, it’s time to show some guts and some pride.  Even when the offense returns to its state of torpid, Bausermanesque ineptitude, you can still play like the Ohio State Buckeyes, instead of the gang that can’t tackle.  We need the defense to step up, with the season now truly teetering on the brink of the abyss.