Perfect Fit

Times Staff Writer

Miami interviewed Jim Tressel in 1995 for the coaching job that eventually was awarded to Butch Davis.

“It just wasn’t the right fit for me at the moment,” Tressel said this week.

No one can say how things might have gone had Tressel ended up in Coral Gables, but chances are Ohio State and Miami would not be meeting Friday for the national title in the Fiesta Bowl.

Miami turned to Davis, who rescued the Hurricanes from NCAA probation and set the school on course toward a modern-day dynasty before jumping to the Cleveland Browns two years ago.


Tressel bided his time at Division I-AA Youngstown State until Ohio State beckoned in 2001, a football school desperate for a straight-arrow disciplinarian who also could beat Michigan.

And so, here we are, years later, hyping a title game between undefeated Miami and Ohio State.

Tressel found his perfect fit.

Tressel at Miami might have worked out, but Tressel seems much more suited to Columbus than South Beach.

As Jim Murray once wrote about John Wooden, Tressel is so square he’s divisible by four.

Tressel, 20-5 in his two seasons, turned out to be the right coach at the right time for the Buckeyes, a family-values man with a cloud-of-dust philosophy and a keen, firsthand understanding of Ohio State-Michigan week.

John Cooper won three Big Ten titles and forwarded droves of players to the NFL in his 13 years in Columbus, yet he was undone by too many police blotter reports and penal code violation “2-10-1” -- his record against Michigan.

“The reason Coach Tressel is here I think is because of what happened to coach Cooper,” Ohio State tight end Ben Hartsock said. “There were some discipline issues that were becoming a factor and they had to address that, so he was the solution to those problems.”


Tressel too was an Ohio man, unlike Cooper, who spoke with his Tennessee twang.

In sort of the way Tom Osborne looked like Nebraska, Tressel is the face of Ohio; his team a reflection of his traditional values.

Tressel at Miami?

It might have worked -- a good coach is a good coach -- but there would have been something off kilter about a guy from Berea, Ohio, roaming sidelines in the port town where glass-haired Jimmy Johnson launched his yacht.

Tressel is better off in Bedrock, USA, what with his sweater vests, “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, his largely boring public utterances and homespun mannerisms.

While high-flying Miami has averaged 40 points this year, Ohio State has churned out 19-14, 13-7, 10-6 and 14-9 victories.

When it’s fourth and short at Ohio State, the Buckeyes punt.

“His style is throwback, a little bit conservative,” quarterback Craig Krenzel said. “That’s the way he was at Youngstown State and that’s the way he’ll always be.”

The perfect fit.

Tressel grew up in an Ohio household, the son of an Ohio coach. Lee, Jim’s father, was a longtime small-college coach at Baldwin-Wallace, leading that school to the NCAA Division II national title in 1978.


Tressel played quarterback for his father, who died in 1981, then set out on his own coaching course, making workmanlike stops in Akron, Miami of Ohio and Syracuse.

He spent three years on Earle Bruce’s staff at Ohio State before landing the job at Youngstown State in 1986. There, he led the Penguins to four Division I-AA titles in the next 15 years.

He picked fruit from assorted football trees and molded those influences into his own philosophy.

“You have to be who you are,” Tressel said. “I think Woody Hayes did some great things, as did Paul Brown, Earle Bruce, John Cooper and all of the above. But I’ve got to do what I do.”

A lot of what Tressel learned about coaching was by osmosis.

“I’m not sure I was old enough to understand football philosophy when I was around my dad,” he said. “I played for him and understood it from a player’s perspective.”

Tressel said he is not a clone of his dad, but some things you can’t shake from your genes.


“I think this,” he said. “He was very meticulous in every area. And that’s what not making mistakes is, doing well in every area.”

When he got to Ohio State, Tressel immediately embraced the school’s tradition. Buckeye fans went wild when, in Tressel’s first public appearance, he counted down the days until the Michigan game.

He wore short-sleeve shirts and ties that didn’t reach his belt buckle -- just as Woody Hayes did. He made his team understand what it meant to be a Buckeye, demanding that players wear jackets and ties to all home and away games, and making them learn the words to “Carmen Ohio,” the school’s alma mater.

“I happen to think tradition is important, and appreciating what came before you is important,” Tressel said. “Maybe it was accelerated a little bit in all of our eyes after 9/11. Maybe we thought we were sailing along and the world was just our little playground. Maybe 9/11 contributed to an easier grasp to the importance of tradition and prices that have been paid for where we are.”

In two years, Tressel has beaten Michigan twice -- it took Cooper 13 years to win as many from the Wolverines.

And while the football isn’t exactly 21st century -- Krenzel: “Try not to turn the ball over, be smart, make plays when the opportunity presents itself, not try to force anything, take advantage of field position” -- no one rates you on style points when you end up 13-0.


“You hear ‘mistake-free’ and say, ‘Boy, that doesn’t sound very dominating,’ ” said Hartsock, the tight end. “But that’s been our equation for success this year.”

Sure, given this souped-up age of video games, players would like to see Tressel loosen his collar and the offense.

“I guess it’s hard to complain when you’re winning,” Hartsock said.

“Maybe if there wasn’t as much success there’d be more turmoil on this team. But the way things worked out it’s really hard to complain.”

If you want to score points, you become the coach at Miami, right?

It didn’t work out that way in 1995, though, and two schools are better off because of it.

Friday night, one of those teams is going to win a national title.