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College Football

For better or worse, Tressel fits the mold of a university president

Photo: Matthew Emmon/US Presswire

In 10 seasons at Ohio State, Jim Tressel won 106 games, six Big Ten titles and a national title.

Youngstown State just hired Jim Tressel as president, and some would argue that Tressel is the wrong man for the job. Me, I think he's perfect. He excels at saying one thing while he does another, pretending he cares only about education, and insulating himself with acolytes who believe, despite ample evidence, in his purity. That describes a lot of university presidents in 2014.

Now Tressel can talk about "helping young people" (one of his favorite phrases), and he can unite a community (something he does frighteningly well), and maybe nobody will notice how absurd this is. I mean, the man is so ethically sketchy that he would have to beg the NCAA for permission to coach a team, but running a university is just fine.

ZAC ELLIS: Jim Tressel named the new president at Youngstown State

Who else would even try this? Most disgraced coaches would either go into TV (like Bruce Pearl) or try to find another coaching job (like ... well, also like Pearl). But Tressel is different from most coaches. He wants to be seen as a mentor with bigger priorities than winning football games. This would be admirable if his actions backed it up.

Now Tressel can watch Youngstown State games in the DeBartolo Stadium Club, named for the DeBartolo family, who have been big Youngstown State boosters for a long time. Eddie Debartolo Jr. (convicted of bribing former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards) later started a sports agency which landed prominent Ohio State players Troy Smith and Beanie Wells, but of course Tressel knows everything was done above-board, because he monitors these things, except when he doesn't.

When Tressel coached Youngstown State, trustee Mickey Monus provided nearly $10,000 and the use of automobiles to star Ray Isaac. It seems like the head coach should know when a university trustee is paying his starting quarterback.

Tressel says he didn't know, and nobody has ever proven he did. But we do know this: Monus testified that Tressel asked him to get Isaac a job. The NCAA inquired about illegal payments in 1994. Tressel convinced everybody nothing had gone wrong, and Youngstown State avoided NCAA penalties for another six years.

That is when Tressel -- who doubled as athletic director -- released this statement:

"As a member of the NCAA, it's incumbent upon YSU to understand and comply with all NCAA rules. Unfortunately, as happened in this case, all parties did not. We now need for this to serve as a lesson well-learned for all past, present and future student-athletes and representatives of YSU athletic interests."

Tressel should have finished his statement with "LOL!" As any college football fan knows, in his final year at Ohio State, several of Tressel's players broke NCAA rules by receiving extra benefits. Tressel knew about it, and in a bold display of leadership and ethics, decided to win some football games.

He told nobody about the violations, which was not surprising to many of his fellow coaches. Tressel has a habit of turning off the lights and then claiming he was left in the dark.

GEORGE DOHRMANN: The fall of Jim Tressel

Of course, this time the lights went back on, the NCAA hit Ohio State, and Tressel was forced to resign.

Could you see this coming? Well, in 2003, The New York Times published a story alleging serious academic fraud in Tressel's program. Almost two weeks later, Tressel was asked about this at the Big Ten football media day in Chicago. He could have said the story was wrong. He could have acknowledged mistakes. He did neither.

He said: "I have to be honest. I didn't read it."

Clever, no? As a reporter, how can you press a man for answers about a story he says he didn't read? Tressel pulled his usual media act from there, slow-playing his answers and serving one platitude after another. He was the coach of the defending national champs. Ohio loved him. If he didn't seem worried about The New York Times questioning the integrity of his program, Buckeyes fans wouldn't worry, either. And they didn't.

Tressel is many things, but at the top of the list is this: He is patient. This is how he won so many of his games at Ohio State -- he never panicked, and he was comfortable waiting until the fourth quarter to pull out a victory. It is also how he managed to wade through so many controversies without drowning.

He never lashed out at Maurice Clarett, who repeatedly talked about rules that were broken during Ohio State's 2002 national-title run. Tressel did not want to make those stories any bigger than they already were, or prod the media into digging deeper. Anyway, Tressel could burnish his own reputation, and neutralize Clarett, by slowly pulling him back over to his side. That is what he did, brilliantly.

Tressel is not beset by the flaws we normally associate with corrupt coaches: Hyper-competitiveness, paranoia, temper, insecurity. He seems to believe in his virtuousness almost completely. If you had a great kid, you would do well to send him to play for Tressel. The coach would treat him well, teach him how to be responsible, and celebrate his academic and athletic success.

And if the kid next to him got caught cheating, you might even believe Tressel was the best man to deal with it -- however he saw fit, regardless of what the rulebook says. After all, he is Jim Tressel, mentor to young people. Trust him.

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