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Winning Ugly Ohio State is doing just enough to get to the Fiesta Bowl. Now for the toughest part: Michigan

Nov. 25, 2002
Nov. 25, 2002

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Nov. 25, 2002

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College Basketball Preview 2002-03

Winning Ugly Ohio State is doing just enough to get to the Fiesta Bowl. Now for the toughest part: Michigan

How do you explain an undefeated team that has barely survived
four of its last five games? If you are one of the beaming,
boisterous Ohio State Buckeyes who last Saturday escaped with a
23--16 overtime victory at Illinois despite being outgained 358
yards to 321, you resort to cliches. "Loving these guys to
death, that's what it's about," gushed Ohio State's 6'8" tackle
Ivan Douglas, whose line opened the hole on tailback Maurice
Hall's eight-yard scoring scamper in OT. "We stick together,"
said senior defensive tackle David Thompson, who had a sack on
the Illini's ensuing, ultimately unsuccessful drive. "The
simple fact that we don't let up until the whistle blows is
going to drive us against Michigan next Saturday."

This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2002 issue Original Layout

Two years ago the notion that such intangibles as unity and
perseverance might carry Ohio State over the archrival Wolverines
and into the national championship game would have sounded
absurd. For the 2000 Buckeyes, the typical postgame scene had all
the optimism and goodwill of an Oz episode. Wide receiver Reggie
Germany carried a 0.00 grade point average. Center LeCharles
Bentley was being sued by linemate Tyson Walter for having
punched Walter in the face during a February 2000 workout. A
teammate accused senior flanker Ken-Yon Rambo of being late to
team meetings--and Rambo was a captain. When the Buckeyes failed
to beat Michigan for the 11th time in 13 years under coach John
Cooper, no one was surprised.

"We lost our compass," says athletic director Andy Geiger, who
fired Cooper the day after South Carolina drop-kicked Ohio State
in that season's Outback Bowl. "The environment became one not of
team effort but of fractionalized individualism. We needed a big
change."

On Jan. 18, 2001, Geiger hired Jim Tressel, a native of Berea,
Ohio. Those who weren't doubting the new coach's qualifications
merely felt sorry for him. True, Tressel had been a respected
Ohio State offensive assistant from 1983 to '85 before winning
four Division I-AA championships at Youngstown State, 150 miles
northeast of Columbus. But could this earnest man be expected to
lift the Buckeyes out of the doldrums to their first outright
national title since 1968? Soon after Tressel took temporary
shelter in a Columbus Holiday Inn, a nearby church posted this
message on its front lawn: PRAY FOR OSU FOOTBALL POGRAM AND JIM
TRESSEL.

In a pocket of the country where 50,000 show up for spring games,
Tressel has revived the Buckeyes' program. He began in the winter
of 2001 by spreading his local-boy charm around the region's
suburbs and fading steel towns until he had assembled a stellar
recruiting class, including an oral commitment for 2002 from
tailback Maurice Clarett, this year's most dynamic freshman. He
then began selling returning players on the virtues of
wear-'em-down run schemes, tackling fundamentals and early-to-bed
Fridays. By the following January, Tressel's freshmen had a 2.92
GPA, his team was a respectable 7-5, and, most important, the
Buckeyes had beaten the Wolverines for the first time since 1998.
"It's important for our young people to understand the rigors of
those who went before us," said Tressel, 49, last week in his
office, gesturing deferentially at a portrait of Woody Hayes that
stares down at him from opposite his desk.

If there is one thing that endeared Tressel to Columbus, it was
his Ohio roots. Although Cooper had a 111-43-4 record, fans
couldn't help but think of him as an outsider--a Tennessee native
who lived in a fancy house and chose to make a TV commercial
featuring his family in a hot tub. Tressel, by contrast, was Ohio
to the bone. In the Cleveland suburb of Berea, home of the
Baldwin-Wallace team that his father, Lee, coached to the 1978
Division III title, young Jim had shagged footballs for onetime
Buckeye Lou Groza when the Toe returned to the neighborhood for
visits. When Tressel noted in his first public appearance on
campus that the Michigan game was 310 days away, the reference
did not seem contrived.

His players, hardened by infighting and bad press, were skeptical
at first of the 5'9" Mr. Rogers dress-alike who kept a recording
of the Ohio State band in his car's tape deck. Some rolled their
eyes when Tressel handed out copies of something dubbed the
Winner's Manual, a thick notebook that includes numerous
motivational quotes he had compiled, but many were open to
change. "I was willing to do anything for a coach who obviously
cared so much," says senior linebacker Matt Wilhelm. That
included gathering in the end zone to belt out the Buckeyes' alma
mater, Carmen Ohio, after every home game, one of Tressel's
efforts to unify the fractious team. In their first choral
performance some players looked sheepish, but now senior safety
Mike Doss, a co-captain, calls it one of his favorite parts of
playing at Ohio Stadium.

Building spirit is one thing; attracting talent is another. More
dire than Ohio State's attitude in 2000 was its declining profile
among the region's blue-chip schoolboys. Tressel's first and most
important recruiting trip took him back to the town where he had
built his reputation. Within four days of being hired, he'd
returned to Youngstown and gotten an oral commitment from Maurice
Clarett, who would go on to rush for 2,194 yards as a senior at
Warren G. Harding High in Warren, Ohio, and who had been
attending Tressel's summer football camp since grade school. When
Clarett rushed for 175 yards in his debut against Texas Tech and
then told reporters that he had done it for "all the people at
home in Youngstown," he might as well have been speaking of his
motivation for accepting Tressel's offer over those of
Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Penn State's Joe Paterno.

Since he scored the nation's top recruit, Tressel's biggest
challenge has been to score without him. In the nine games
Clarett has played, he has rushed for 1,071 yards and scored 15
touchdowns. It's tempting to wonder how much he would have helped
the Buckeyes in close calls against Cincinnati, Penn State,
Purdue and Illinois had he not been sidelined by minor knee
surgery and then by a left shoulder stinger. But Tressel has
challenged other Buckeyes, and they've responded. Against Purdue
on Nov. 9 sophomore flanker Chris Gamble, whose outrageous
athleticism has prompted Tressel to also start him at cornerback
for the last four games, made his fourth interception of the
season to preserve a 10-6 lead with 45 seconds left. Underrated
junior quarterback Craig Krenzel threw the gutsy 37-yard go-ahead
touchdown against the Boilermakers, and on Saturday he escaped
several key potential sacks. "Our methods aren't pretty," says
junior offensive tackle Shane Olivea. "But we will keep finding
ways to win."

Olivea and his teammates might be part of the minority of
observers who aren't expecting the (Big Blue) sky to fall. Since
the Purdue win, which left only the Buckeyes and Miami unbeaten,
it has become fashionable among the talk-show set to discuss how
badly Iowa (8-0 in the Big Ten, 11-1 overall) would beat Ohio
State if the teams were scheduled to meet. Even those closest to
Tressel know they should restrain their excitement. When
colleagues in Youngstown were honoring him at a banquet soon
after he got the Buckeyes job, former Youngstown State athletic
director Joe Malmisur pulled Tressel aside. "I kidded him that
Ohio State coaches never retire," says Malmisur. "Victories
aren't enough in that town. Everyone wins, but nobody ever fills
the cup."

There will be no cup awarded if the Buckeyes win their 99th
meeting with Michigan this weekend--just a validating Fiesta
Bowl bid for a team that has endured growing scrutiny after
each of its school-record 12 wins. Ohio State's old-fashioned
leader, in the meantime, refuses to consider just how rosy his
team's future might be. "'Count each day as a separate life,'"
Tressel said last week, quoting from the Roman philosopher
Seneca, his favorite passage in the Winner's Manual. "My mind
is consumed by tomorrow's practice."

For more college football coverage go to
cnnsi.com/football/college.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS [LEADING OFF] Flail Mary Illinois cornerback Michael Hall and Ohio State wideout Michael Jenkins grope the air while the ball attaches itself to Jenkins's jersey for a 50-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter of the Buckeyes' 23--16 win (page 36).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER ESCAPE ARTIST Krenzel's ability to elude Illinois defenders saved the game--and maybe the season--for the Buckeyes.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER STRESS TRESS The Buckeyes' coach knows his team-record 12 wins will mean nothing if he can't beat the Wolverines.
Tressel is Ohio to the bone. As a kid in Berea he shagged balls
for Lou Groza when the Toe returned to the neighborhood for
visits.