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Jim Tressel embraces second career

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Jim Tressel Finding Success at Akron

It's been nearly three years since Jim Tressel roamed the sidelines in Columbus. What has the former Ohio State coach been up to since then? Adam Rittenberg made a trip to Akron, Ohio to find out.

AKRON, Ohio -- Inside the cover of Jim Tressel's class binder, on the heading of the first page, are three words in bold type: Coaching Is Teaching.

The terms are synonymous to Tressel. A successful coach must be a successful teacher. The link between the two is the starting point for the "General Principles of Coaching" course Tressel is teaching this semester at the University of Akron alongside Jim Dennison, the former Akron coach who gave Tressel his first job in the business back in 1975.

Tressel is no longer coaching, at least not directly, after a 36-year career. Nearly three full seasons have passed since he last led the Ohio State Buckeyes onto the field. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which Tressel dominated during a decade as Buckeyes coach, resumes Saturday at Michigan Stadium, but Tressel won't be there.

His coaching career, which featured national championships at two levels of college football, ended on a sour note on Memorial Day of 2011, when he resigned at Ohio State amid an NCAA investigation. His career is at least on pause and perhaps over for good. But Tressel, Akron's vice president for student success, is still teaching and impacting young people, perhaps now more than ever.

"Coaching is teaching," he said. "My division of student success is just the effort for us to be successful with 26, 27 thousand students, as opposed to student success for 100 [players]. Recruiting is recruiting; it's just a larger group of prospects. Advising is advising. Financial aid, not much different than where are we going to spend our scholarships when we had X number in football.

Jim Tressel is about young people. Is that football? I think he misses the competitiveness of it, I'm sure, but I also think he enjoys what he's doing at Akron. It's a very big job. Sometimes you ask yourself, how many people can I impact?

--Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

"Everything in my past life, dealing with the public, dealing with schools, dealing with students, dealing with colleagues, really has been a tremendous preparation."

Tressel's influence can be seen throughout the Big Ten, where three of his former assistants -- Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Illinois' Tim Beckman and Purdue's Darrell Hazell -- are head coaches, and many of his former aides are scattered throughout the league. Some members of his coaching tree think he'll return; all think he still has plenty to offer.

Others point to his new role as a better fit for the 60-year-old, a platform where he can do the work that, at its core, drives him the most.

"Jim Tressel is about young people," Dantonio said. "Is that football? I think he misses the competitiveness of it, I'm sure, but I also think he enjoys what he's doing at Akron. It's a very big job. Sometimes you ask yourself, how many people can I impact?

"You can impact a lot of people in what he's doing. He's in a good place."


The plan called for a full year off, to be spent mostly reading. It lasted three months before Tressel joined the Indianapolis Colts as a game-day consultant on replays. When the Colts dismissed their coaching staff after the 2011 season, Tressel needed a new door to open.

Akron president Dr. Luis M. Proenza needed a football coach. He had to replace Rob Ianello after two one-win seasons and approached Tressel, a northeast Ohio native, who had received his master's degree in education from Akron in 1977.

"The message I got loud and clear when I was talking to him was he didn't want to go back to coaching," Proenza said. "He wanted to go back to his roots and focus on students."

If Proenza had been the only one calling about an administrative position, Tressel might have passed. But several headhunters had approached him about jobs in higher education.

Tressel simply wanted to teach after he finished coaching. He had some non-coaching experience at Youngstown State, where he served as athletic director (in addition to football coach) from 1994 to 2001, but "really didn't anticipate an administrative future."

He joined Akron in February 2012 as vice president for strategic engagement, and eventually became VP of student success. It's not a cushy job to get a famous name on campus. Tressel oversees areas like admissions and recruitment, academic support, retention, financial aid and the career center.

He made major changes to the way Akron attracts, admits, educates and advises students. As of last week, Akron had received about 3,000 more freshman applications than it had the previous year, an increase of 52 percent. Tressel moved the career center from a far-flung location to the middle of the student union. He set up the Roo Crew, which connects alumni and others around the university community with current students to assist with job placement. More than 700 alumni are part of the group.

"He immediately saw our entire framework for recruitment and admissions and counseling and tutoring and advising with fresh eyes," Proenza said. "He has restructured the admissions process, the scholarship process. He has had a tremendous impact."

Tressel's past life pays off in his new role, especially with recruitment.

He knows every high school in Ohio. When he walks into the guidance counselor's office, he gets extra personal attention.

-- University of Akron president Dr. Luis M. Proenza

"He knows every high school in Ohio," Proenza said. "When he walks into the guidance counselor's office, he gets extra personal attention."

Tressel's days are filled with meetings and emails. Rather than 18-hour shifts with the coaching staff, he interacts with many different groups both inside and outside the university.

There's no offseason, either.

"You certainly don't get bored," said Tressel, who will earn a base salary of $210,000 at Akron this year. "I was teasing Dr. Proenza, I promised him I'm going to work for no less than two years and I'm going to work every day, 24 hours a day. Out of those 600 and some days, I've been on the job most of them."


If Tressel honors his two-year commitment to Akron, and there's no reason to think he won't, a return to coaching likely wouldn't come until the 2015 season.

The consensus among the coaches who know him best is that his return would be good for the sport, and whichever school hires him. Marcus Freeman, who played linebacker for Tressel at Ohio State and now coaches linebackers for Hazell at Purdue, admitted it's "odd" not seeing Tressel in his familiar role.

But there's hardly a consensus on whether Tressel will coach again.

"He will be back," Hazell said this summer, before catching himself. "I shouldn't say that. He's never said that. He's never mentioned that to me and I've never asked him, but my gut feeling is that he's too good at what he does."

Tressel received a five-year show-cause penalty for his role in Ohio State's NCAA violations, but it likely wouldn't keep schools from pursuing a coach with a career record of 229-79-2.

"College football misses Jim Tressel," said Beckman, who worked for Tressel at Ohio State from 2005 to 2006. "My dad [former coach Dave Beckman] used to say, 'You can't keep the great ones out.' I hope Coach Tressel has an opportunity to get back, if that's what he wants to do."

What Tressel wants to do long term is a mystery. He's famously tough to read and keeps things close to the (sweater) vest.

Even the coaches in Tressel's family aren't sure what his future holds.

"Every once in a while, we'll say, 'Do you think he wants back in?'" said Tressel's nephew Mike, a Michigan State assistant. "And usually the answer is, 'Man, he's so good at it, you'd think. But he's happy.' We bring it up. I'd be lying if we didn't. But he doesn't give us any clue."

Tressel spends his fall Saturdays watching football. He attends all of Akron's home games. When the Zips are away, he usually drops in on his former players or coaching colleagues.

Last month, he watched Hazell's Purdue team take on Dantonio's Michigan State squad. Earlier this month, he drove to Hamilton, Ontario, to watch former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith compete in the Canadian Football League playoffs. He attended the Youngstown State-North Dakota State game on Nov. 16, during which he was inducted into Youngstown State's Hall of Fame. Next month, he hopes to catch Terrelle Pryor and the Oakland Raiders when they visit the New York Jets.

Tressel misses parts of coaching -- the bonds formed with the staff, evaluating his team's progress on Saturdays -- but his current job keeps him interested.

He has been consulted on several college coaching searches when he knows the candidates being considered. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke talked to Tressel several times before hiring Hazell, a Tressel assistant from 2004 to '10. Burke also brought Tressel to Purdue's coaches' retreat in June, where he led a half-day development session.

It would take something pretty earth-shaking to get me out of the mode I'm in.

--Jim Tressel

"He didn't ask for any kind of compensation," Burke said. "The only thing he really wanted to do was meet our president [former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels] because his new role is in student affairs."

What would it take for Tressel to return to the sideline?

"It would take me coming to the conclusion that that's the best way I can serve at the moment," he said. "I tell young coaches all the time when they're thinking about their aspirations and their goals that what's most important is who you're working with and not necessarily where it is. I know that's easy to say because I've been at all levels and I had the visibility of being on the largest stages.

"It would take something pretty earth-shaking to get me out of the mode I'm in."

Tressel doesn't feel compelled to end his coaching career on a more positive note. He has no regrets or complaints. If he's bitter toward Ohio State, he hides it well.

His office on the top floor of historic Buchtel Hall holds few reminders of his time in Columbus, other than a red binder containing "The Winners Manual," the book Tressel wrote that outlines his principles for success. He still refers to Ohio State as "we."

"Anyone that grew up in Ohio and followed Ohio State and then had the privilege to be at Ohio State," Tressel said, "you're always part of 'We.'"

Tressel thinks fondly of Ohio State, but he has turned the page to Akron. Blue sweater vests have replaced scarlet ones. Organizational charts have replaced recruiting boards.

He's in a new world, and he's all in.

"Jim's a lot more comfortable in a shirt and tie than most coaches," Akron coach Terry Bowden said. "I don't think there are many coaches in the country that are as comfortable in the administrative side of colleges as Jim Tressel. So I wouldn't be surprised if that's where he finishes his career."


Victor Pinheiro, chair of Akron's sport science and wellness education department, knew Tressel's decades of coaching experience could benefit undergraduate and graduate students in the "General Principles of Coaching" course. But when Tressel started dropping names of academics who Pinheiro knew and worked with -- men like Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning scholar -- Pinheiro's "jaw just dropped."

"I never knew he was so well-read," Pinheiro said. "I knew he was a very effective coach. When he started quoting that, it gave me a different appreciation for what an academic guy he is."

Pinheiro had to expand the class when students found out Tressel was teaching it.

"The type of exposure he brings to our institution, money cannot buy," Pinheiro said. "People think he's only X's and O's and a coach. Remember, a coach is a teacher, and a good coach is a good teacher. It's synonymous. People forget that part."

Approximately 75 students fill the lecture room at Leigh Hall. It's an eclectic mix, from freshmen to graduate students to middle-aged men and women auditing the class. Tressel and Dennison arrive early and chat with that night's guest speaker, Larry Kehres, the former Mount Union coach who won 11 Division III national championships.

Several students take the class from remote locations, and before starting class, Tressel checks in with them on an overhead monitor, identifying them by the town or county where they're located.

"Hello, Lorain, can you hear us? Medina? Is Wayne here?"

The two-and-a-half-hour session begins with the "game plan" for the night and ends with a game-plan review. There's a section for guest speakers, which have included Akron coaches like Bowden and men's basketball coach Keith Dambrot.

Dennison and Tressel each tackle topics, which range from staff philosophy/organization to team-building to using the offseason to preparing for a rival. They also use real-world examples: After Akron nearly beat Michigan in September, Tressel began the following class by asking what students would tell their team in the wake of such a tough loss. When Bowden came in to speak, the students got the answer directly from the source.

"I wish when I was going to school, we had a course like this," Dennison said. "We had coaching courses on the individual sports, but to have a course on principles of coaching, overall philosophies, attitudes, just things that we discuss in here every week, these kids need to hear it."

On this night, Tressel starts by introducing Kehres, noting his 332-24-3 record at Mount Union.

"Remember when we talked about impact players earlier in the course?" Tressel says. "He has been an impact player at Mount Union."

Kehres addresses the need for coaches to love "the idea of planning," not just the game days. Mount Union once won a championship and couldn't find the trophy, realizing it had forgotten to take it home.

He also promotes positive reinforcement of players. Coaches should make at least four positive statements for each critical one. "Why would a coach not deliver positive reinforcement when it's a great motivator to get the skills we want?" he says.

Before Dennison's portion, Tressel reviews the group final exam, which he will grade. Groups of six students will design coaching plans, based around a sport.

After some painstakingly specific instructions for the project, Tressel turns to Dennison.

"Coach D, what's our topic? Motivation," Tressel says. "Let's get motivated."

Dennison echoes Kehres' theme of positive reinforcement. 

He outlines four keys to motivation: belief, communication, common goals and a family concept. He recalls a time when he had to tell a player that his father had died, noting that coaches often have to fill the parental role for their players.

"The player must be the system; the coach is not the system," Dennison says. "I firmly believe if you take care of your student-athletes, they will take care of your career."

Tressel begins his portion by mentioning Kehres and the standards he set at Mount Union.

"You never want to be the coach where the people come back to the reunions and say, 'You know what, the coaches didn't have high enough expectations for us. We could have been good, but they didn't demand it,'" Tressel says.

Tressel closes by reminding students that a class will be held the following week, the night before Thanksgiving, even though the university is closed. He receives the inevitable question -- Is that extra credit? -- and a debate ensues about whether or not students should show up.

"We'll be here, even if we're talking to each other," Tressel says, nodding toward Dennison. "I want to give you your money's worth. We have very high expectations of ourselves."

Matt Rembielak, a freshman at Akron who plays on the school's baseball team, which his dad coaches, didn't know Tressel would be teaching until Tressel's name appeared on his class schedule. Tressel's sense of humor and rapport with students -- he knows each by name but repeatedly butchers Rembielak's -- has stood out, along with his detailed approach.

"A lot of people's expectations were he was going to be so serious, talking about something that he's very good at," Rembielak said, "but from Day 1, he made everyone feel very comfortable. He's funnier than you think."

Tressel's interaction with students also impressed Craig Haworth, a youth sports coach from Hudson, Ohio, taking the class. Haworth, an Ohio State graduate who wore a Buckeyes cap to last week's class, had read Tressel's books and admired the coach from afar.

"For the most part, he's who I thought he was," Haworth said. "He's a phenomenal public speaker. It's unbelievable the network he has. Half the [students], when they introduced themselves, he knew their dad or their uncle."

Rembielak and Haworth both wondered before the semester how Tressel would address his time at Ohio State, including his controversial departure. Turns out, Tressel often refers to his Ohio State days and brings up players like Pryor, who many blame for Tressel's downfall.

"He's talked about Pryor a lot in this class," Haworth said. "He's like, 'I just talked to him on the phone yesterday, he asked for some advice.'

"He's just a relationship guy, even if that person hurt his career."


While coaching Ohio State, Tressel drew a crowd everywhere he went. He still does, albeit on a smaller scale.

Walking through Akron's student union before class for "pregame meal" at Subway -- a 6-inch turkey and ham on honey wheat -- Tressel exchanges pleasantries with students. He asks one student wearing an Akron shirt if she's ready for finals. He shakes hands with a member of the catering staff.

On his way to class, a worker at the union market asks if Tressel will fill out a survey to get 50 percent off of his purchases.

"Anything for you guys," he replies.

"I got Jim Tressel to do it!" the worker tells his colleague, as another student takes a picture with the former coach.

"He stops and talks with students, 'What's your name? Where are you from? Oh, yeah, we met. Isn't your mother so-and-so? Your dad played for me,' and so forth," Proenza said. "That has been a tremendous asset to the university, and it's brought him a lot of personal satisfaction."

In many ways, Tressel has come full circle. He's at the school where it all began, living close to his childhood home in Berea, Ohio, and teaching with Dennison, the coach who gave him his start.

Tressel had the chance to join Joe Paterno at Penn State after college, but his father, Lee, the longtime Baldwin-Wallace coach and athletic director, steered him to Dennison.

"That's the biggest compliment I think that's ever been paid to me," Dennison said. "He's the only graduate assistant I ever gave a position to, and you know what it was? Quarterback. No one gives their graduate assistants quarterback. He was special.

"We had some good times."

Tressel thinks his father would be pleased with how he has responded to the "next set of realities" in his life. He doesn't spend much time reflecting on how long he has been away from football, nor does he think much about the next step. As an assistant coach, he thought about becoming a head coach, but he's now at a different stage.

Others see bigger things for Tressel in university administration. Proenza is stepping down as president in June, and the search for his successor is under way. If Tressel threw his hat in the ring, he would have support.

"There have been people talking to him about possibly applying for the job," Dennison said. "I'm not too sure he wouldn't like to do that. He's very intelligent. I don't know if he'll get back into coaching or not, which would be a shame, but he's got talent to work with young people."

He's working with more young people now than ever, whether he's recruiting at high schools or teaching the class or meeting with individual students. He misses the weekly evaluations that football provides, but his competitive drive still burns in a new realm.

"We're mediocre in the world in education," he said. "We're not at the top of the heap. I don't like being mediocre. I want every kid to get that job they're looking for. It drives you every day to figure out how we can get 26, 27 thousand kids to succeed.

"That's as tough of a game as there is."