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!

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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.