Do coaches have an impossible job?

BY foxsports • May 31, 2011


As Jim Tressel's resignation became news, there were 10 hours of road lying between my family and home. It was the last leg of a trip to Mississippi over the Memorial Day weekend, where we left my eldest daughter to begin a new part of her life. Namely, the one without the continuous doting of her parents.

Her future awaits her, and her life will contain many challenges she will learn to face alone. As it should. As it must.

Ohio State is also about to enter a new era, one without Jim Tressel. It too will go on, perhaps even to better things, but not without an immediate future of struggle.

As it should. As it must.

Still, as southern highways lay before us, and an uncertain future faces Ohio State, there's no level of conviction about conquering all that can pluck this feeling of sadness from the air.

* * *

The first time I was in a room with Jim Tressel was back in 2002, during a salute to Bernie Kosar and Ohio high school athletes. While the evening centered around the former Browns quarterback, when Tressel took to the podium, he owned the room. The second-generation college coach who had led Youngstown State to multiple championships had the crowd hanging on his every word.

There was a sense that Ohio State football was returning to its glory years. Here, finally, was a charismatic figure who could help us forget a humdrum era under Earle Bruce and John Cooper, where Buckeye football fell into bland mediocrity, and where Michigan was "just another game". Tressel was a coach who got it, someone who understood the tradition and meaning of Buckeye football. At long last, Ohio State had found a man to replace Woody Hayes.

Like many of the commenters and emailers who have ripped Bruce Hooley for his work on these pages, I had shrugged off hints of problems with the program over the last decade, apologizing for Tressel, hoping his well-crafted public image was the whole truth.

It's stunning how fast it came tumbling down, cascading forward from young men who had to have tattoos and cars. Had to.

* * *

The term "public relations" didn't exist when the Ohio State Buckeyes football team first took the field in 1890. Nor did it exist in 1906, when the NCAA was formed to "protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative practices of the time".

It wasn't until after World War One that the term was coined. The word and the profession are the work of Edward Bernays, who became very wealthy adapting the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to the world of government and commerce.

Inside of a generation, Bernays and those who followed in his footsteps shifted marketing of products away from need and toward desire, creating an entire industry built around creating an emotional need for material goods.

Designer shoes, clothes, cars, electronics. When college football sprang into existence, these things weren't considered to be the measure of someone's self-worth or intwined with their happiness. Now they are.

Around the same time that marketing was coming into existence, the popularity of college football sparked the creation of the National Football League, whose commissioner recently stated a goal of reaching $25 billion in annual revenue in the next several years, nearly $1 billion per year, for every NFL team.

Over $15 million dollars in revenue per year for every player on an NFL team.

* * *

Speaking of a billion dollars, what do you call an industry that makes over $1 billion profit per year, with a profit margin of 49 percent?

"Mafia" is an understandable, but incorrect, answer.

The answer is "college football". In 2010, the 68 schools in college football's major conferences earned over $1 billion in profit. Only one, Wake Forest, lost money. The University of Texas made $69 million in profit against $94 million in revenue.

They've got a great business model: Keep demand high, and employee costs low.

* * *

While the finances around college football have changed completely, players are still asked to buy into the antiquated — and highly profitable — notion that they are rewarded for their efforts by the honor of playing for their school or for academic degrees over a third of them never receive.

Jim Tressel and his peers are the lynchpin of this convenient system, tasked with keeping players yoked to their roles as student athletes for four years or more. Money swirls around these players like a hurricane, their minds trained from a young age to buy and own.

Compounding this challenge is the ever-present need to win, to keep the financial engine humming along and the media positive. Should Jim Tressel have, for example, lost to Arkansas because five of his best players weren't available, the furor regarding his inability to beat SEC teams would have replayed ad nauseum.

Tressel's detractors will point out that it is the way he dealt with his player's infractions that doomed him, and they certainly would be correct.

Tressel and the university will be bathed in criticism in the coming days, and deservedly so. But the trap that snared Tressel is baked into the system, waiting to ensnare every coach of every major college sports program who lies in an oft-successful attempt to keep the cauldron from boiling over.

Money can corrupt almost anything, and in young men and highly pressured coaches it has easy targets.

There's an inherent conflict between people told from birth to buy their way to happiness and the absurdly quaint notion of young men playing for one billion dollars in school pride. It won't go away any time soon.

This weekend that conflict helped destroy Jim Tressel, who tried to hide a problem for a favored player and who appears to have done so many times in the past. His ouster doesn't resolve that conflict, doesn't bring the system into balance. It merely allows colleges, regulators, and the media to pretend the system works.

The system only works for the CFOs at big colleges and the NFL, which receives highly trained new stars from our colleges each year. For everyone else, it's broken and getting shakier by the year.

For Ohio, all it generated this holiday weekend was sadness.


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