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Despite the scrutiny, Jim Tressel could be the president Youngstown State needs

Jim Tressel Jim Tressel signed his contract to become Youngstown State University's president on Monday. (Martin Rickman/SI)

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Youngstown State University had 38 candidates for its open presidency. Only one of them has a pasta dish (Tressel Tortellini) named in his honor at Cassese’s MVR, a local restaurant on North Walnut Street. While the school’s choice to name former football coach Jim Tressel its ninth president may seem perplexing from an academic and national standpoint, it makes sense for the people of Youngstown. That’s who needs this to work the most.

Youngstown State is operating under an $11 million budget deficit and has seen its enrollment drop more than 15 percent over the past four years, according to Inside Higher Ed. Its most recent president, Randy Dunn, announced he was leaving for Southern Illinois just seven months after accepting the job last July. And the school needs to hire a new provost.

While Tressel promised to work hard in his remarks after officially signing his contract on Monday night, the university -- and the area at large -- needs more than that. They need him to win, as he so often did for both Youngstown State and Ohio State on the gridiron.

“Youngstown is full of people that have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” said Mike Peterson, a former Penguins linebacker who graduated in 1988 and now works as the director of global investigations for a major corporation in Ohio. “It’s folks that have had to face adversity and who are underdogs. They have consistently found a way not just to survive, but to win. That is Tressel’s mentality. That’s his DNA.

“He is a get-in-the-weeds and get-it-done type of guy. That’s that Youngstown mentality.”

Tressel’s history of winning didn’t come without cost. He was affiliated with booster Mickey Monus, the former chairman of the Youngstown State board of trustees who founded the Phar-Mor, Inc. discount drugstore chain. Monus allegedly provided ex-Penguins star quarterback Ray Isaac with money and the use of cars. The school and NCAA both investigated Monus, who was convicted of fraud, tax evasion, stolen property and obstruction of justice by a federal jury in 1995. His first trial resulted in a hung jury. His second ended with a guilty verdict and a sentence of 19 and a half years, of which he served 10. The NCAA found no wrongdoing. The university did not disclose its internal findings, but announced self-imposed sanctions.

At Ohio State, whispers of improper benefits followed Tressel. The notorious memorabilia for cash and tattoos scandal led to self-imposed sanctions and a one-year investigation into the program by the NCAA. In December 2011, the Buckeyes were hit with a bowl ban and scholarship reductions and placed on three years of probation. Tressel was punished with a five-year show-cause for “lying to the NCAA and failing to report violations.”

Still, Youngstown has a habit of protecting its own, and Tressel is one of Youngstown’s own. After Tressel’s contract was signed on Monday, current Youngstown State board of trustees chairman Sudershan K. Garg said, “Welcome home, you have been on vacation for too long.”

Those in the academic world may scoff at Tressel’s nontraditional background and lack of a Ph.D. Outside of his stint at the University of Akron, most recently as vice president of student success, his experience includes some teaching and his role as the executive director of athletics at Youngstown State from 1994-2000. Others within the sports realm will question the elevation of a former coach to university president, particularly one who is associated with violating NCAA bylaw 10.1 for “Unethical Misconduct.” While valid, however, none of that necessarily matters to Youngstown. It doesn’t mean he won’t get results. Tressel is immensely popular in the Mahoning Valley, and the university is banking on that in hopes of galvanizing the region.

“It’s possible he won’t be the greatest president of the university,” said Dr. Gary Stanek, a Youngstown State professor of mathematics. “But in the case of being a good fit for Youngstown, he might be the best choice for Youngstown State.”

Stanek, who has been with the university since 1982 and is retiring this summer, said all four unions on campus, including the faculty union, backed Tressel’s candidacy. U.S. congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio’s 13th District signed a letter on Tressel’s behalf. When the hire was announced on Friday, Ryan also released a statement: “This is a great day for The Mahoning Valley and northeast Ohio.”

If Tressel can show some of the same qualities that made him a successful coach, including managing personnel, demonstrating leadership, dealing with the media and delegating responsibilities, this is a risk that could pay off. His three-year contract was signed at a base salary of $300,000, a figure significantly lower than the amount Dunn was making. If Tressel were to terminate the agreement, he would have to pay a buyout between $150,000 and $200,000, depending on when the termination would take place.

Tressel called Youngstown State’s retention rate, graduation rate and placement rate “the scoreboard” during his press conference on Monday. He repeatedly mentioned those needing to go up. He listed student success, discovering knowledge and impacting the region as his three primary goals. Tressel also acknowledged his strengths and weaknesses for the position -- albeit buried under platitudes -- throughout his remarks.

“I know you guys think I’m awfully philosophical, but believe me when I was a coach I didn’t do any of the mechanics,” Tressel said. “I was the visionary. We were better off when I didn’t have to get involved in the mechanics.”

Tressel is a strong public speaker and could work wonders wooing private donors. He could be a successful advocate for additional public funding. Akron must have considered that, too, as Tressel was among the three finalists for its presidency before the job was ultimately given to Scott Scarborough, who came from Toledo.

If Tressel is able to stay out of his own way, put the right people around him and approach the job with the same tenacity with which he attacked coaching, Jim Tressel, university president could actually work.

The national scrutiny makes sense. Tressel has a history, and that history is well–documented. The move also sets a precedent that is a bit unsettling. SB Nation’s Matt Brown, who co-manages the Ohio State site Land-Grant Holy Land, asked: “At this point, would anyone be surprised to see Barry Alvarez, University of Wisconsin president? Or University of Nebraska president Tom Osborne?”

Despite the questions, though, it’s the sort of risk Youngstown can uniquely afford to take right now. It’s also the sort of risk Youngstown felt it could not afford to pass up.

“People want polish,” Peterson said. “They want something that looks pretty and shiny. Tressel is a results guy. That is what he focuses on, the results. He doesn’t really care if it’s ugly or it’s pretty or what. It fits this town.”

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