Monday, June 6, 2011

FORMER OSU COACH JIM TRESSEL MADE IT EASY ON THOSE AROUND HIM

Jim Tressel (middle)
The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell
I vividly recall the first time I met former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel. It was during a photo shoot at Ohio Stadium prior to the 2005 season, my first as an Ohio State beat writer.

While the players were spread about on the grassy field, getting photos taken and being interviewed by members of the media, I noticed that Tressel was casually talking to a woman who was standing beside him by the bleachers — where the team had posed for a group picture a little earlier.

I figured that if I wanted to tackle this beat hard I must introduce myself to the boss man, and get a little one-on-one time before the horde of reporters notice he is free and surrounds him like Seal Team 6.

When I made my way over to where he was standing, he quickly made eye contact with me. Naturally, the first thing I did was held out my hand for him to shake. When our hands locked, I uttered, "Nice to meet you, coach, my name's Lee Hudnell from the ... " Before I could end my intro, Tressel said, "Don't you see I'm in an important interview here?"

I thought to myself, "Way to go, Lee ... first day on the beat and the coach already thinks I'm some hack. Terrific job, Mr. Hudnell!"

The woman standing by quickly broke out into a huge smile. "You're not interrupting anything important here," she laughed. I immediately apologized and told her, "I didn't think you were a reporter because you don't have a notepad or a recorder or anything."

Tressel just flashed an almost ornery grin, looked at me and replied, "This woman doesn't need one of those microphones. I tell you what ... she has never misquoted me. Ever. Not even once."

I found out seconds later that the woman the coach was standing with was Ellen Tressel, his wife.

I'm not going to lie, I had some butterflies in my stomach in anticipation of speaking with Tressel for the first time. Perhaps he noticed that I was a little nervous when I approached him and decided to break the ice with a little gag at my expense? Who knows?

Either way, we ended up talking for about five minutes before the rest of the writers and reporters caught wind that he was available for comments. I still appreciate the time he took to speak with me on my first day on the beat. The talk was more of a friendly chat than an interview.

I mean, he could've easily acted mightier than thou with his type of credentials. But instead, he was a genuine, personable guy, as if he was a junior high defensive coordinator, not a five-time national championship winning college football coach.

I also recall — on the same day — that the players were being directed by an assistant coach to make their way over to their respective stations for photos. The coach was requesting that they do so in a timely fashion. The players just continued talking and laughing with one another, not heeding the assistant coach's requests.

All of a sudden, it was as if God had spoken.

Tressel exploded into the players, barking out orders to get to their stations immediately or else. I have never seen so many 300-pound men move so quickly in my life. As laid-back as Tressel could be sometimes, he showed that day that he can unleash a wrath if you step out of line. Simply said ... he's one part Tony Dungy, another part Woody Hayes.

I've caught some flack recently from a few readers about my defense of Tressel and my disregard for NCAA law in my columns, following his resignation.

One reader wrote that he doesn't understand how I can defend a man who lied to his boss and the NCAA? Or how I could label Tressel as a great man and role model after what has happened? The reader said I was too emotional and it showed with the gruff language I used in my reference to the NCAA being "pimps."

Well, it's true ... I am emotional in this case. I've spent a lot of time around Tressel for the past six years and have come to respect the man dearly. Not only for his many victories, Big Ten titles and BCS bowl wins, but also the cordial way he treated the people around him, most notably myself. Couple that with my disdain for the NCAA's unlawful practices, and yes, emotions are going to jump off the page.

Should I lie in my columns? Should I avoid creating conflict by offering the same take as everyone else, just to remain civil? Or should I offer the truth, as I see it? Sorry, but I will always choose the latter.

As for my language when referring to the NCAA? Well, I'm not going to flower up my opinion with lollipops and rainbows when talking about an organization that exploits young people and breaks anti-trust laws each and every year. I will always call a spade, a spade.

How can I label Tressel as a great man and role model? Easy ... because he is a great man and role model.

If you don't believe he's a great man, then tell the thousands of less fortunate families, hospital patients and members of the military — who Tressel has helped out both emotionally and financially over the years — that he is a bad man.

Better yet, tell Tyson Gentry — a walk-on player who suffered a spinal cord injury in practice, which left him paralyzed from the waist down — that Jim Tressel is a bad man.

In 2007, Gentry told Tressel that he really liked this certain workout machine they had at the athletic center because it helped him feel so much stronger. He also told Tressel that he always had to wait in line for a long period of time to use it. Tressel inquired to an assistant about the machine, which cost about $6,000.

Less than a week later, the company which manufactures the machine sent one to Gentry's home for personal use. The NCAA investigated whether it was an improper benefit or not.

Here's a young man who's probably never going to walk again, let alone ever play football, but this particular gift needed to be investigated? And I'm supposed to support the NCAA over Tressel? Really?

I shouldn't label Tressel as a great role model, right? Tell that to the plethora of Tressel players who grew up without a father or faced major hardships as a child, that he's not a great role model.

Tell it to Troy Smith. Here was a young player who came from the rough streets of Cleveland with no father to help guide him. Here's a guy who also battled some issues with maturity when he first came to Ohio State, doing things like accepting $500 from a booster.

However, Jim Tressel didn't toss him to the side like many would and have in the past. No, he became an example for Smith, a father-figure if you will. Smith went onto to win a Heisman Trophy, but better yet, graduated from college and became an upstanding citizen in the community, most notably with his work in children's hospitals. Smith has credited Tressel many times for helping mold him into the man he has become today.

There are endless stories about Tressel's positive influence in people's lives. Far too many to publish in one column.

Yes, he lied to the NCAA — and his bosses (allegedly) — but I don't think a great man should lose his job because he tried to protect his kids. No, not from the police for committing criminal acts, but from the NCAA for selling their own possessions. And he paid for it by losing his job.

He noticed the university was extremely nervous about everything that was going down. So he made the decision to resign, helping to make things easier on everyone involved.

Much the same way he did for me on my first day, when he saw a nervous kid approaching him. He made it easier for me.

That's why I will always support him.

The only thing I'm upset with Tressel about, is that he didn't go Woody Hayes on the NCAA like he did his players who were lollygagging on that photo shoot six years ago.

Of course, he's too great of a man and role model to react that way.