Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Other than USC's Pete Carroll, no FBS head coach has dominated a league during this decade like Jim Tressel in the Big Ten. The Ohio State head coach, who enters his ninth year in Columbus, owns a 52-12 record in Big Ten play and has led the Buckeyes to at least a share of five league titles, including the last four. Tressel boasts a 7-1 record against archrival Michigan and in November became the only Ohio State coach to win five consecutive games against the Wolverines.
But is it enough? Tressel continues to take heat for Ohio State's recent big-game performances, including two losses in the BCS national title game, three consecutive BCS bowl losses and a blowout loss at USC in September. His offensive flexibility has been questioned, and some wonder whether Tressel can get all he can from gifted sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor. A new chapter has started this spring at Ohio State, as Pryor goes through his first spring ball as the definitive starter and the team tries to replace a sizable and decorated senior class. Tressel took some time last week to discuss the Buckeyes' outlook for the spring and 2009.
As far as the youth and the feel of this team, is there another team it reminds you of, or is it really unique?
Jim Tressel: The thing about this world we live in, there's really no two teams are even remotely alike. Because you're so concerned about so many things. It's not like basketball, where, 'OK, if my two-guard comes along, I'll be fine.' Will my long snapper be all right? Will we be able to protect the field goals better? There are so many things. This is a younger team. It's going to need to grow. Do they understand how difficult this world is? We'll find out. But I like their intentions.
Is there an area or a position group that has surprised you so far?
JT: A young guy who made a position change, Jake Stoneburner, who moved from wideout to tight end, to me has been a pleasant transition. A lot of time you have to be really patient with a guy that changes positions. That's been a real plus. Otherwise, youth-wise, the young kicker-punter Ben Buchanan, who's trying to do both, did a good job in the kick scrimmage, probably better than he's done both since he's been here. That made me feel a little bit better about having some depth at those two positions. Outside of that, I've felt good about the way Terrelle's coming along, but also Joe [Bauserman]. Joe's really making steps and making headway, which is huge, of course.
You said last year it was Todd Boeckman's team. Is this Terrelle's team now? Do you need to say that to him? Does he know that?
JT: I don't think you ever assume anything. We certainly have discussions all the time, not just with Terrelle, but with anyone who we think has shown the kind of production that then can lead to being a potential leader. 'Hey, you've been given opportunities to get in the game, you've produced when you've been in the game. Now people are looking to you for that leadership.' So you absolutely talk about that, but not just with your quarterback.
Is he a player that tests a coach's reluctance to be creative? Is he a guy who you have to expand the package for, or try new things?
JT: You get tempted to say, 'Hey, I wonder if we can do this or that.' But you rein it back in and say, 'Let's look at the whole group. What are the things the whole group will be best at?' Now of course, what can special guys add? What is it that [Dane] Sanzenbacher does best? What is it that [DeVier] Posey does best? What does Terrelle do best? But we haven't gotten crazy.
Did you spend more time in the offseason looking at things that maybe you hadn't looked at when Todd was here or other quarterbacks were here, just because of what Terrelle can do?
JT: We probably did that in the course of last season, bowl preparation. But when you're recruiting, you're not looking at anything. When you get back, what you first do is study yourself and not just your quarterback position. Then you start going out there, and we sent coaches out to visit other coaches during spring practice and those kinds of things, absolutely with the thought in mind, 'OK, No. 2's the quarterback. Will this be good for him?' You do that no matter who's the quarterback. We did it when Todd was the quarterback.
With some of the losses at linebacker and cornerback, do you lean on the defensive line a little more this year?
JT: Yes and no. From a maturity, leadership standpoint, dependability, confidence, yes. But they can't change what they're supposed to do and say, 'Well, I'm going to go make a play,' because we're young at linebacker or young in the secondary. We're not young in the secondary. We have three starters back. But we don't have Malcolm [Jenkins] and Donald [Washington], pretty darn good cornerbacks. So yes, they have to carry the honor of the silver-bullet defense, but only within the confines of their job. Yes, those guys behind them need to be able to look to them and see them doing their job just right, which should give the people behind more of a feel like, 'He's got his gap. I've got to have my gap. He's putting the pressure on the passer. I better be in my zone.'
Was there any different feeling coming out of the bowl game this year? There are no moral victories here, but the way you guys played, coming so close, as opposed to the last couple of years, was there any different feeling?
JT: I can't speak for others, but personally, I was very disappointed that we came nowhere near our potential three years ago [against Florida]. As I looked at the ballgame two years ago, for the majority of the game we did a lot of good things. Had about a seven-minute span there in the second quarter when you're playing someone like LSU at their place, you can't have seven minutes like that. They're too good. What I loved about their team: Veteran, resilient, had to fight for everything they got. It didn't feel like I felt three years ago. And then last year [against Texas], I thought it was a good, tough football game. Both teams played their rear ends off. Do you wish you had those 16 seconds back? Of course. But our guys played like crazy. Did I look at it as a moral victory? No. But I've never evaluated wins or losses that way. You take them for what they are, every little bit of them for what they are. There's been a lot of wins I've walked away from saying, 'Man, we weren't very good. We've got to get better at this and this and this.' That was a great college football game.
From talking to your seniors, those guys are very motivated to win a bowl game before they leave. That was a big reason why Kurt Col
eman came back. Is that exciting to hear as a coach?
JT: Well, they've got to earn one first. We haven't been plugged into a bowl game. We've got a lot of work to do. But yeah, I think that's a big deal. When you go to college, there are those things you dream about doing: Running out into that stadium and winning some games, maybe winning a championship ring and being All-Big Ten. If you listed what's on your bucket list before you leave college, I would think [winning a bowl game] is one of them. So it's exciting to hear that.
You guys have taken some criticism for the bowl performances, but how hard is it to win the Big Ten year after year?
JT: The reality of how difficult that is, to me, is the key. Going into last year, we had an opportunity to do something that had never been done in the history of the Big Ten, and that was win three straight outright Big Ten titles. It had never been done, ever, in 112 years. Which tells you that must be hard. It just goes to show you we had a pretty fair football team, but we didn't do it. And now, who knows when the next chance will be for anyone to ever have that chance. It won't be before . It is a battle, and that's your task, to help your guys understand, what's the task at hand? Whether it be, they all want to go to the NFL. OK, you better understand what it takes. You want to be Big Ten champs? OK, well you better understand. You want to be a good father? OK, well here's what it takes to be a good father. You want to have that degree? You want to have an employer say, 'I want to hire him,' here's what it takes.
And is guarding against that even more important with a young team?
JT: Sure. How would they know? For all they know, you're supposed to be Big Ten champs. When we got here, one of the things we put as a goal in 2001 was we hadn't been outright Big Ten champs since '84. People want to talk about national champs. Whoa, timeout. We need to be the outright Big Ten champs first. Look how hard that is. When you think of Ohio State, you would think somewhere in 17 years they did it. Well, it hadn't happened. So that's a big deal to us. The funny thing was, we became national champions before we became outright Big Ten champions. So that really tells you how difficult that is.