Jim Tressel, nearly a year after resigning his job as head football coach at the Ohio State University and about a week away from officially beginning his new role at UA as the vice president of strategic engagement, appeared Tuesday as the keynote speaker at Manchester High School’s annual Varsity Academic Awards Banquet.
In the fall of 1978, a young reporter had just finished interviewing University of Akron football coach Jim Dennison following a game. They watched as the Zips assistant coaches milled about the locker room at the Rubber Bowl.
“Coach, I know all these guys want to be head coaches someday,” the reporter asked, “but are there any of them you think have a chance to be special?”
Dennison surveyed his staff. Finally, he stopped and pointed to a young man bent over talking to a player in the opposite corner of the room.
“That one way back over there,” he said. “That’s Jim Tressel. Mark my words, he will do great things on a grand scale this game.”
Dennison’s words went in one ear and out the other of the reporter, who knew of Tressel’s father, legendary Baldwin-Wallace College football coach Lee Tressel, but couldn’t have picked his son out of a lineup.
Years later, when Dennison was coach at Walsh University, he proved to be a keen judge of talent. The younger Tressel had guided Youngstown State to four Division I-AA national championships and then Ohio State to three Division I national title games, including a crown following the 2002 season.
It was the Buckeyes’ first since 1968. What Dennison didn’t predict 33½ years ago was Tressel’s greatness on a grand scale, when it came to dealing with young people off the field.
That greatness was evident Tuesday night when Tressel, nearly a year after resigning his job as head football coach at the Ohio State University and about a week away from officially beginning his new role at UA as the vice president of strategic engagement, appeared as the keynote speaker at Manchester High School’s annual Varsity Academic Awards Banquet.
Tressel’s first public speaking engagement since being hired by UA was before more than 200 in the school gym.
Those who judge Tressel solely by his well-publicized downfall at Ohio State caused by his involvement in a memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal, are missing the gist of the story. (Tressel’s troubles now seem like a misdemeanor next to the Penn State childhood sex abuse nightmare and former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino riding a blond mistress around on the back of his motorcycle.)
At Manchester, Tressel talked about thankfulness and humility, but never directly mentioned football. He told the students how blessed he felt he is in his life and that they should feel the same way, too
“You need to have an attitude of gratitude,” he said, “and if you do, then you can handle any problems that may come your way.”
Students at the speech seemed impressed with Tressel’s remarks.
“He’s doing this without notes,” one said in amazement. Tressel delivered his speech keeping eye contact with the audience throughout the evening, never looking at his notes
Page 2 of 3 - He mentioned living in Green – “at the corner of (East) Caston (Road) and Mars (Drive)” in Solar Estates. He said he “almost stopped at Guiseppe’s for a pizza” just down the road from where he lived as he headed to other side of Nimisila Reservoir to get to Manchester.
At past honors dinners, Manchester alumni have usually served as the featured speakers. Parents would listen politely to their speeches and only one or two parents would sneak up to the receiving line to take photos of their sons or daughters shaking hands with the alum after receiving their awards.
With Tressel on hand, there was a lot more electricity. A constant stream of parents snapped photos of their children with him.
Instead of just nodding and giving the 99 honorees cursory congratulations, Tressel waited to hear their bios (read by announcer Justin Elder). He then picked out something from that to mention to each student as he or she came by.
Tressel didn’t know any of the students, but he seemed genuinely interested in who they were and their career plans.
As the name of one student was read, Tressel got a puzzled look on his face. When the student came through the line, it was clear Tressel was asking him if he was related to a former well-known high school football coach in the area who was working when Tressel coached at UA and Youngstown State. When the boy said the man was his grandfather, Tressel nodded and smiled. The boy walked away impressed that someone so important knew Grandpa.
Despite the length of the program, it was clear Tressel was enjoying this meet-and-greet as he begins to re-invent himself. The people at Manchester were enjoying it even more. Tressel was the most prominent person – sports or otherwise – to visit the school in nearly 40 years, since Panthers prep All-American boys basketball player Mike Phillips spoke. Nearly every major college coach in the country recruited Phillips during his senior season of 1973-74.
Longtime Manchester principal and football coach Jim France has known Tressel since the latter’s first go-around at Akron. France invited Tressel to be the speaker some time ago, and when the former Buckeyes coach called back recently to say he could make it, the school rolled out the red carpet.
During the speech, Tressel told the students that each of them had their own potential for greatness.
“We have a tremendous need of young leaders,” Tressel said. “We need excellent leaders and unselfish leaders who put the wants and needs of others first.”
Tressel also advised students to keep things in perspective.
“The world will trick you into thinking your relative importance is greater than what it is.”
For a guy whose relative importance goes back more than three decades, that’s pretty good advice to live by.
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