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!