Tressel must beat USC to keep OSU fans happy

There’s a very good reason he’s never devoted so much as one idle thought to the pursuit of his own popularity.

Why worry about something that’s always been as certain as the sunrise?

It’s different now for Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.

Way different.

After 105 games, just into his ninth season, the man who’s always had the majority of OSU fans in his corner suddenly seems backed into that very spot.

Make no mistake, Tressel will not acknowledge this tenuous perch in advance of USC coming to town for an 8 p.m. Saturday kickoff.

Likewise, there’s no scientific way to measure his approval rating.

But the clear vibe in Columbus these days is that if he doesn’t win Saturday against the Trojans, Tressel will — for the first time — inspire more grumbling than confidence among Buckeye Nation.

John Cooper, Earle Bruce and Woody Hayes all met this moment far earlier in their Ohio State coaching careers and all were eventually undone by it.

Tressel certainly won’t be fired for losing this game, nor is he in any danger of being forced out any time soon — if ever.

He has the unquestioned support of Ohio State’s administration, which loves the Senatorial image he projects, his philanthropy toward the school and the fact he’ll never go Lane Kiffin on an opposing coach or school.

The fans, though, covet more fire than the Buckeyes have shown since Roy Hall jumped on Ted Ginn’s ankle to celebrate the opening kickoff of the 2006 BCS national championship game.

When Ginn’s ligaments went ker-blooey, so did Tressel’s label — put on him that night by ESPN’s Lee Corso — as “the best big-game coach in America.”

The Gators, LSU in the subsequent BCS title game and USC last year at the Coliseum have hammered OSU by a collective margin of 114-41 since then.

Throw in close losses to Penn State at home last season and Texas in the Fiesta Bowl in January, and Tressel is winless in his last five games against top-five teams.

Asked Tuesday about the need to reverse that trend, to regain some of the respect Ohio State has lost during that skid, Tressel went into his typical rope-a-dope.

“I don’t know that you can talk in those abstract ways,” he said. “To me that’s an abstract. Reputation? I mean, to me that’s an abstract. Now, did you block that guy? I can grade that.”

It’s a measure of Tressel’s success — an 85-19 record, including one BCS championship and five shared or outright Big Ten titles — that he’s enjoyed the favor of Ohio State’s finicky fans this long.

Winning the 2002 national championship in his second season — OSU’s first No. 1 finish in 34 years — bought Tressel’s extraordinary cache.

Whatever bumps he endured — starting the Big Ten 3-3 in 2004, having notable ex-players Troy Smith and Maurice Clarett run afoul of the NCAA — raised only tepid protests from the lunatic fringe every coach much endure.

Even after losing back-to-back BCS title games in 2006 and 2007, Tressel remained unwaveringly popular among the masses in Columbus, who instead turned their anger on the Southeastern Conference infidels who inflicted that embarrassment.

But the trouble with winning as big as Tressel’s won is that achievement begets expectation, which converts hopes to demands and turns wishes into birthrights.

Beating arch-rival Michigan, winning the conference championship and getting to a BCS bowl aren’t enough any more because he’s done it so often it’s routine.

Ohio State fans want something to beat their collective chest about besides a fifth straight league title. If that’s all this season gives them, it will inspire the same satisfaction of a 275-yard drive striped right down the middle — of the local driving range.

After three consecutive BCS bowl game losses, there’s a palpable uneasiness among the legions who follow Ohio State and reap much of their self image from how the Buckeyes fare on game day.

And why wouldn’t there be angst? Pete Carroll is 6-0 against the Big Ten and has enjoyed a 21.2-point victory margin in those games, helped by USC’s 35-3 win over the Buckeyes last year.

Another loss of that sort, and Tressel will find himself swimming against an unfamiliar current — not that he’d ever acknowledge it.

“I probably don’t think that far out,” he said. “The opening kickoff, if we’re kicking to them, is going to be the biggest thing going on in the world … And at the end of the game, if we’re successful, all of a sudden the world isn’t perfect because we’re still going to have to grade the film and come in and get ready to do it again. And if we’re not successful, chances are, as long as there’s no tragedies, the world won’t end.”

Just the world of unfettered favor he’s known for nine years.