The long-time Ohio State coach and current university president at Youngstown State on his “five guys” playing in Super Bowl 50
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Jim Tressel still rocks a sweater vest. Different University, different job, same V-neck.
On Tuesday evening, The MMQB Super Bowl 50 Road Trip visited Tressel at his spacious office on the campus of Youngstown State University in northeastern Ohio, where the long-time Ohio State football coach now serves as YSU’s president.
It didn’t take long for Tressel to gush about his current program’s latest accomplishment: the university’s first Rhodes Scholar. “I got as excited about our Rhodes Scholar as I did when Troy Smith won the Heisman!”
So how does Tressel fit into our Super Bowl road trip? Five players he brought to the Buckeyes—Carolina’s Ted Ginn, Andrew Norwell, Corey “Philly” Brown and Kurt Coleman, and Denver’s Bradley Roby—will play prominent roles in Super Bowl 50. “Who else can say they have five guys playing in the game?” he asks. “Look it up. I want to know if any grandpa-looking coaches have five players in the Super Bowl.”
Tressel spent the next hour talking about his former players, his life at YSU and his year with the Colts, featuring an injured Peyton Manning…
On being a University president…
I have really enjoyed broadening the scope. It used to be I had 100 guys and 12 coaches and it’s like Groundhog’s Day. It’s April 1 and you’ve got spring ball, or it’s January and you’re out recruiting. But now, every day is like everything is new. It is so much broader. Everyday is a learning experience, rather than just an expectation; Okay, you won a championship. Oh, by the way, you have to win it again next year. Oh, okay yeah right, I forgot about that.
In the world I used to be in, there was pretty much agreement on what we were doing. The offense knew the defense was important and the defense knew the special teams were important. There was never any discussion about relative importance because everyone knew everyone was important. On a college campus, we know higher education is going through tough times and we know budgets are tough and we know we might need to cut back a little here, but not me, my college is the most important. Each department has their own argument, whether it’s the liberal arts college or the engineering school, or the arts. They don’t want to hear that the other one is important. That was a little bit of a surprise to me because I’d never been in a world that wasn’t in it together. The fun of it is in trying to bring it together. Bringing a group of 100 players together is not simple, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than bringing 12,000 together and seven colleges and all the different agendas. I’ve also never had tenure to deal with. My guys, I could put them on the bench and they lost their tenure. They could lose it fast.
If I needed this job, it might not be as much fun, like if I was trying to build a career, because you would always be on eggshells. So it makes it a little easier. If I get fired, I’ll go to Florida or I’ll go do something different. This is just a good mid-sized college. Eighty percent of our students are working their way through school. We just had our first Rhodes Scholar, how about that? That’s like having a Heisman Trophy winner times 10! How many people have had a Rhodes Scholar and a Heisman Trophy winner?
On the emergence of safety Kurt Coleman in Carolina…
Kurt is a neat kid. When he was with me, Kurt tackled another player in practice and that player, Tyson Gentry, became paralyzed. Unfortunately, he is in a wheelchair, but yet the two of them are the best friends in the world. It’s just the kind of kid Tyson is but also the kind of kid that Kurt is. As a player, he’s a little bit undersized. He doesn’t have that range that maybe you want in your free safety. Not a Teddy Ginn speed guy, but just a good athlete. We first saw him in high school and he was a great baseball player. He’s just a tough kid, a great leader, and everyone loved him.
He needed to have the right fit with a team. He was with the Eagles for a bit, the Vikings, then the Chiefs. He was doing okay, but he got the fit with the Panthers, he’s got the great front seven and he’s kind of playing center field back there. He’s had seven interceptions this year. Kurt is just going to do whatever is asked, doesn’t worry about being the star. If you find the right fit for him, he’s just going to be there.
About mid-season this year, Kurt had a big play on SportsCenter. I happened to text him to say I saw his play. He texted back and he said, ‘Coach I want to tell you that this is the first time since our days at Ohio State that I feel like we have a team that can really do something special.’ He knew that far back that everyone was pulling in the same direction. I’m not surprised that he’s headed to the Super Bowl. He’s not Cam Newton and he’s not Luke Kuechly, but without him, the Panthers probably aren’t where they are. He’s a solid role player and you can’t do without that role. To have a great team, you can’t do it without every single person.
On watching Ted Ginn’s chase down Patrick Peterson in the NFC title game…
Peterson may be one of the five fastest guys in the league. I told someone on the phone when they called me after the game, that Ted was like the roadrunner. Remember that cartoon? Teddy has just unusual speed. He was a national caliber track athlete. There was a time when he was trying to decide between being an Olympic hurdler or playing football. First year at Ohio State, he had a great freshman year in football. And then we did the track thing and hurdles are really demanding on your body. It’s a little different than running 100 meters. He had run in a lot of national track meets after his senior year of high school, so he hadn’t really given his body much rest. After going through a long freshman football year, after that first winter training in the hurdles, I think he felt like maybe not, maybe he was going to make football his thing. His little reverse touchdown, where he ran like 60 yards to get 20, reminded me of so many times, whether it was in practice or a game, he would just run to where they were not going to tackle him. He didn’t care where it was, he’d just say, I’ll run around you, because you’re not going to tackle me.
Carolina has been a neat place for him, because he had been there once and he had all that pressure in Miami to live up to being a first rounder. His dad and I have been best friends for 25 years and we would always talk that he needed to be in a place that would meet his personality and he needs to be appreciated. He doesn’t need adulation, he just needs to be appreciated and coached that way and I think he has found that place to feel good, and have that insane speed utilized. This is year nine for him, and you shouldn’t be that fast when you’re that old. Usually they are talking about a guy being washed up because he’s 30. But Ted is just a blur and he’s had a heck of a year.
On Ginn’s speed compared to other players Tressel has coached…
He is the fastest guy that could keep his speed for that length of time. Santonio Holmes might have had a little bit more 20-yard stop-and-go explosion than Teddy. When you run you can get to a certain speed, but when do you start decelerating? That’s what speed is. He doesn’t start decelerating very soon. That’s why his long hurdle events were so good because he could keep a top-end speed longer than most people. He could keep accelerating, he didn’t begin deceleration for a long time.
And he takes good care of himself. I don’t ever remember him being a guy that would burn the candle at both ends. He was always going to keep himself at his top physical form. If you think of Olympians, they really don’t hit their peak until they are about 30 years old. Now they don’t go crashing into people all the time like football players, but it’s kind of neat to see Teddy at a peak level. He’s a guy who wants to have fun, so he’s a great match for Cam. If a game ends and he wins, he’s happy. If he loses, he just goes about his day. The world is not going to end, because he is just having fun.
On Panthers wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown…
Another one of my guys, Philly Brown, I think was second in the state of Pennsylvania in the 100 meters. It’s a big state, his 100-meter speed might have been faster than Teddy. Maybe? To have a couple speed guys like they have, they’ve done a good job in Carolina of putting the right kind of people together. Those two kids were never together at Ohio State, Teddy was with Santonio and Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. We were always accused of never throwing the ball, so they have a lot of life left for the NFL. They don’t know that we were doing them a favor by handing the ball off to Beanie and those guys. But Philly is a special speed guy too, and he’s growing into it, it’s only his second year.
On Panthers guard Andrew Norwell…
The other guy we have in Carolina is Andrew Norwell. He committed to us when he was a junior and he was just a good old, quiet, tough guy and had a good career. He was a tackle his whole life and now he is a guard, so he has a little bit more athleticism than a typical guard for some of the things they do when their guards move around more than some. It’s been a good fit for him. They’ve done a good job, I don’t know who their personnel people are, but you can see they are a lot like the Patriots where they know what they want at every position. The Panthers have obviously had a plan and you have to have a quarterback, as is attested by the fact that Peyton is taking his fourth coach to the Super Bowl. If you don’t think quarterbacks aren’t more important than coaches, he is taking his fourth different coach, which is a little bit mind-boggling.
On Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby…
It was an interesting thing. Bradley Roby came to our youth summer camp and he wanted to be a receiver. He was okay but we didn’t offer him. We said, Why don’t you try defense? But he wasn’t interested because he wanted to be a receiver. At the time, Cameron Heyward was on our team and Cam’s mom and Bradley’s mom were best friends. Cam’s mom Charlotte was a little mad at me for not offering Bradley. Bradley commits to Vanderbilt and the fall goes by.
I’ll never forget it, I was on a recruiting trip in Fort Wayne, Indiana and it was a snowstorm I’m getting ready to leave the hotel, and I’ve got my briefcase and my bag, my topcoat and scarf when the phone rings. I think, ‘Great, I’ve got all my hands full, who is this call?’ It was Charlotte. And I was worried Cameron was going to go out early and we were all holding our breath, so I took the call. She said, ‘I don’t care what you’ve heard, Cam’s staying. That boy is going to finish his career with you. But that’s not why I called.’ I didn’t care why she called, I was so happy, Cam’s staying? That’s the best. She said, ‘You need to recruit Bradley. He wants to play defense now. He’s decommitting.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to call him up until I see it on the internet.’
And what do you know, Bradley decommits and he wants to play defense. Then all of the sudden, everybody in the world wanted him, Alabama is in there, LSU is in there, and I’m thinking, Oh boy, he’s from Georgia, how in the world are we going to get him? Enter Charlotte to the rescue. Charlotte says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got mom all set.’ And the rest is history.
He struggled a little bit with the coaching transition, but then he adjusted and got squared away. I remember all the people calling before the draft because he had a shaky year or two there where he had all that talent but people were wondering about his attitude. I said, No he’s just gone through a tough time, he’s had to adjust and he’s going to be fine. The Broncos ended up taking him in the first round, but a lot of teams weren’t sure.
On the feeling of watching his former players in the Super Bowl…
It is probably closer to a proud parent feeling than it is when you are coaching someone at that level in the national championship game because they have left your nest and they are out there in a different venue and you feel like, it’s pretty cool to see that they’ve gone to the next level and done the next thing. It’s more like a parent. I remember when Santonio caught the winning touchdown in SB XLIII, it was like for that fleeting moment, one of your children is the Super Bowl MVP. Santonio is like a little Teddy Bear so he brought me this big, framed jersey with Super Bowl MVP and he wrote a nice note on the jersey and was pretending it was the Super Bowl jersey. I said to him, ‘Santonio, you were wearing white that day, this is a black jersey.’ It was the thought that counted. He said, ‘I know, but pretend it was the Super Bowl jersey.’ I’ve never been to a Super Bowl, but you have to imagine it’s a heck of a thrill to be part of that. We’ve got five pretty good guys in the game this year. Has any other coach had five guys in it? Look it up, I’ll be waiting for that email to know if any old grandpa-looking coaches have five players in the Super Bowl.
On his Super Bowl pick…
Every year I do it the same way. It’s very scientific. Whichever team I have more guys on is going to win. So that’s the Panthers, I was rooting hard for them. Of the last four left, the Cardinals were the only team that I didn’t have anybody on. So I was rooting hard against the Cardinals, even though I like them, can’t go without one of your guys being there.
On his time as a consultant for the Colts in 2011, Peyton’s last year in Indianapolis…
Peyton is just a gentleman, the nicest guy. He and Anthony Gonzalez, who played for me at Ohio State, were really close. In fact, I’ll bet Peyton was within the first five people who called me after I got fired. He’s just that kind of guy. And I didn’t know him well, it was Anthony’s guy. I would have loved to sit in the film room with him, that’s his real magic. I never got to do that because he wasn’t allowed to do that that year.
The summer before that year, I didn’t have anything to do so I drove around to training camps for the fun of it with a buddy of mine, Dave Adolf. Dave is an old NFL guy, a longtime assistant of Marty Schottenheimer. Dave and I went to Browns, Bengals, Steelers and Colts camp. On the way home each camp, I asked Dave, ‘How are they going to be?’ He’d always have an answer. The last day we drove to Indy, and everyone knew Peyton was hurt, but the talk was, he’ll miss a game. This was before anyone really knew Peyton was going to be out. During practice, I’m thinking to myself, Wow I don’t think these guys are any good. So we get in the car after camp and we’re driving back to Columbus and I said, ‘Coach, what do you think?’ And he said, ‘They won’t win a game if Peyton doesn’t come back.’
So I had forgotten all about that. About three weeks later, we find out Peyton isn’t coming back. It just so happens Jim Caldwell calls and he says, ‘Hey man, we’ve got a real problem. We’re going to have to figure out any which way we can to win a game, or two, or three. Would you help out?’ I said, ‘What the heck, why not?’ Then I kept having these flashbacks to Dave telling me that if they don’t have Peyton then they aren’t going to win a game. I thought, do I really want to tell my grandkids that I coached one year in the NFL and we went 0-16? But Jim Caldwell is the best human being, so I figured what the heck, why not?
All of the sudden we are 0-13 and every week I am thinking back to Dave, and I’m thinking we’re not going to win a game, and I’ve certainly been of no help. To Jim Caldwell’s credit, we’re 0-13, we’re playing Tennessee away. They need to win to get in to the playoffs, we’re 0-13. We’ve got Curtis Painter as our quarterback (I’m better than Painter), and we beat them. I’m thinking Jim Caldwell should be coach of the year. I’ll never forget in the locker room, Coach Caldwell gave me the game ball, because the Colts had a tradition that when you join the organization, you get a game ball for your first victory. I’m thinking, It’s Week 14! I’ve got this game ball from December. The last week of the season we played Jacksonville. All week I’m thinking, If we win, we don’t get Andrew Luck, and if we lose, we’ll get Luck. I wonder if anyone else was thinking that, player-wise or coach-wise. But we lost and we got Luck and had another chance to have a good run.
On if he’d ever consider a return to coaching…
I wouldn’t. I miss it, the intimacy of the staff and the kids, but I did it for 37 years and I have really gotten into what I am doing now and it’s a lot of fun. The one thing I always thought was: More people deserve to be the coach of wherever you are, so be careful about overstaying. There comes that point in time where you need to step aside so other people get to do such an exciting thing. When these headhunter firms call, I say, You know what? It is someone else’s time. I’ve been blessed, I don’t need any more rings or articles, so someone else gets to do that. Some people can’t live without it, but that’s not the way I ever looked at it. It’s fun doing what I’m doing here, I got as excited about our Rhodes Scholar as I did when Troy Smith won the Heisman. I was calling everybody I knew! You’re blessed when you can transition from one thing to another, especially when it’s not your idea.
Jenny Vrentas also participated in the Q&A session. Thanks to MMQB reader Mike Holliday, of Melbourne Beach, Fla., for suggesting that we visit Tressel.
Life on the Road
Compiled by Gary Gramling
Youngstown was followed by a late-night drive to Cincinnati to go back to school for a story coming up on Friday.
Breakfast for lunch at Cracker Barrel before our day was done. Though we did make one more stop before, shall we say, shuffling off to Indianapolis.