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Exit Jim Tressel: The Death Of A Football Mortician

Jim Tressel's actions under pressure may seem strange, but according to Spencer Hall it's nothing new if you watched him coach football for the past ten years.

Jim Tressel will not be missed by the greater college football universe at large, and Ohioans should be smug enough about that. Correction: they will be smug about it whether you like it or not. You won't and can't stop them from pointing to Tressel's dominance of the Big Ten, because they have for the past decade run through the conference like a hot knife through so much yielding casserole. (Excuse us: "hot dish.") They will mention Craig Krenzel's possession of one BCS Title ring, and will either a.) claim pass interference on the decisive play in the game, or b.) admit pass interference, and then make the GenX "suck it" gesture.

They are Ohio State fans, and you cannot blame them for being themselves. Apologies for anything in the Tressel era on the field in terms of result are unnecessary. By extension this means you get no apologies for a decade of the most successful and yet unwatchable brand of football this side of its era. Tresselball was ugly football, and nail-biting only if you were chewing your fingers in order to feel something, anything like a human sensation in a long string of power runs, high school passing plays, and punts. Thousands, and thousands, and thousands of punts.

The punt is the football equivalent of choosing to be a mortician. You'll have to work with dead people, but you probably will end up a millionaire at the end because if you wait long enough for the other guy to screw up and die, you'll be the one who gets a piece of his checkbook on his way off this mortal coil. It is the most conservative path to success, and Tressel was more than happy to work with the dead flesh of the football trade: antediluvian offensive schemes taking exactly zero risks, stout defense coached by competent assistants, and yes, punting and every other method of playing it close to the vest known to man.

The fertile hunting ground of the Big Ten made for a particularly prosperous football mortuary business for Tressel. Outspending his rivals in facilities and recruiting by margins that approached respectable excess, Tressel's Ohio State teams won conference games in mechanistic, bloodless fashion. If the lead got to double digits, you knew you were entering the forsaken land of Tressel's endgame, a waterless desert of clock-bleeding, squatting on the ball for whole quarters, and slowly draining the last bit of life from every game until he had a presentable corpse on his hands.

(How this approach coupled with Tressel's dominance over the Wolverines did not physically injure frustrated Michigan fans is a mystery to me and science.)

Think about it: what is Tressel's signature game? The 2002 BCS Title Game is the obvious answer. His big play in that game: the QB draw with Craig Krenzel. I would repeat that to yourself and re-examine your definition of moron-genius: JIM TRESSEL WON A NATIONAL TITLE GAME WITH THE QB DRAW AS HIS BIG PLAY ON OFFENSE. Throw in the dodgiest pass interference call ever, a brilliant and random fumble recovery by Maurice Clarett, and a heroic performance by the Buckeye defense, and you have one of the stranger national title games of this century and Tressel's greatest claim to national prominence, prior to becoming our national example for why you should always, always delete incriminating emails.

A side note: I still believe to my day Miami as a team decided to play that game drunk. Not just tipsy, either: I believe they got stinking, three million sheets to the wind drunk. The only other hypothesis: Tressel looked the other way while a booster paid henchmen to poison Miami's pregame meal. This seems so much more likely right now than it did six months ago.

For the football aesthete, Tressel post-2002 is only really interesting in his failures. It started with the 2006 BCS Championship Game, a 41-14 debacle that had even Florida fans aghast at the carnage. It continued in the 2007 BCS Championship Game against LSU, a game where Tressel's team was outsmarted and outplayed by a Les Miles team. (This sentence is its own indictment, but Tressel's not alone in being on the Mad Hatter's wall of poorly taxidermed trophies. Far from it.) The Buckeyes made it an offical trend in a heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Texas in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 2008-09 season.

Over time, the unfair reputation of Tressel as an uninventive local bully emerged, a coach whose teams could dominate the Big Ten with the sheer weight of talent but who struggled when put on equal footing with the Florida, Texas, and USCs of the world. The low point for this meme may have come in 2009 with the 18-15 loss to USC in Columbus, a game where Ohio State held a 15-10 lead over a rebuilding Trojans squad in the third quarter and then frittered away the fourth quarter and lost to a team starting a freshman quarterback on the road in one of college football's most forbidding environment. I was in Columbus that night, and people who were high on cocaine were depressed watching this game. That is the new and authoritative definition of sadness itself.*

That same team went ahead and cut a bloody swath through the rest of their schedule, going 10-1 down the stretch, winning the Big Ten, and then breaking the ugly BCS streak with a brilliantly constructed and executed game against Oregon. The same man who made a game plan so inept it bordered on a moral failure against USC rebounded to win a game that on paper and by trend they should have lost badly. This is the same man in the same year, and that brings us to the squalid and very real present of Jim Tressel, someone who was capable of both brilliance and hoof-handed stupidity all in the same breath. 

People might wonder how Jim Tressel, a man whose Senatorial image was self-conceived and reinforced by the community as a whole, could be both people. The first answer would be that people are stupid, and that Jim Tressel is all those inane words you hear around this case: fraud, liar, huckster, charlatan. People fell for it, and now you have only yourselves to blame. This is, for lack of a better word, total bullshit.

Ohio State was all too aware what Tressel was from the start: a steady performer, a ruthless worker, and above all an orthodox cheater and horrendous gambler.** Note that even in his equally inept gameplan to address the illegal benefits case, Tressel leaned on a rule: he assumed that in a case involving the words federal investigation, he had cover under confidentiality. It's a three-percent kind of lie, an invocation of a rule combined with a willingness to look the other way when it came to the marginal benefits of being a football player. That car paid for itself; that tattoo was surely exchanged for hard-earned and well-managed cash. The rest is practiced and willful negligence of a minor degree, the equivalent of getting the same parking ticket every day for a decade.

This approach was a kind of orthodoxy. It was also a gamble, and a horrible one made by someone who panicked whenever he was forced out of his comfort zone on and off the football field. My single most formative memory of Tressel in victory was him calling the Krenzel QB Draw over and over again in key situations in the game, but in loss it is one call: the 4th and 1 on Ohio State's own 26 yard line in the second quarter of the 2006 BCS Championship Game.

Down 24-14 in the second quarter, Tressel opted to go for it deep in his own end. It was as un-Tresselesque an act as there was, and the act of someone clearly unaccustomed to gambling doing so out of desperation. Only down ten points, Tressel went for it in what can only be described as a blind, frothing panic. The demoralizing stuff of Chris Wells on fourth down contributed to the death spiral, and Florida went into the half up by twenty points. Ohio State would not score again in the game, and lost by 27 points in what was arguably his worst loss as a head coach on the field.

That Tressel would panic when the system around him -- the nickel-pimping benefits scheme surrounding athletes, the world where a guy would say "I own him now" after giving the paltry sum of $500 to Troy Smith, the anorexic's buffet of benefits that passes for illicit compensation in the NCAA -- is not surprising. He was ugly and brilliant when the system worked. When a small fire broke out in the factory, though, he panicked and reached for the gas can to put it out.

*Not me. But people I was around. Love, my attorney.

**And this is an important delineation. Tressel is not a grand villain, he was what everyone wanted all along: a slightly corrupt high school principal, a three-percent cheater, a friendly, local, and tolerable kind of corruption. Tressel did a lot of things off the field he'll never be given enough credit for, including embracing gay athletes in concept, something that would flip wigs almost anywhere else in college football. He's a complex character and deserves that treatment. Jim Tressel is the guy who owned Michigan for the better part of a decade, who dismantled Oregon's touchdown orgy in 2009, and who legitimately helped a lot of people in the Columbus area. He's also the man who lied to the NCAA, lost to USC and Florida, and who willfully ignored the nutrient-rich bath of benefits athletes marinated in while playing for Ohio State in Columbus. Same dude in all instances, and certainly not alone in any of it.