Tressel's legacy at OSU? He was a winner

Tressel's legacy at OSU? He was a winner

Published May. 30, 2011 11:04 p.m. ET

Jim Tressel's run in Columbus is over. The mess surrounding Ohio State's football program is probably anything but over.

The end of this story is far from written, but I have a feeling I know how Jim Tressel will be remembered.

As a winner.

Football here — in Ohio and, specifically, at Ohio State University — is pretty important. It's conversation-dominating, weekend-consuming, traffic-stopping stuff. And that's just in April. Beating Michigan is as important as balancing the budget, and that's just part of the reason why Tressel is a legend.

That now-infamous statement that university president Gordon Gee made when things started to get hot in Tressel's kitchen, that he hoped Tressel didn't fire HIM, speaks to what Tressel had done for Ohio State football throughout this football-mad state. He'd made it The King. He was The Boss.

Tressel and his Buckeyes had a certain image, an aura, one that most people thought some tattoos and mistimed lies shouldn't have been able to wreck. Now that Tressel's decade as head coach has ended with what's quite obviously a forced resignation, one that comes amid circumstances that could have been avoided, it's clear that no man is bigger than the program.

But Tressel was pretty big. And pretty good. And very much beloved. And though his legacy is certainly tarnished, here's a bet that he'll still be remembered fondly in and around Columbus. A few clicks around Planet Twitter tell you that most of his players still think he's darn close to perfect. Many of the diehard fans who make up Buckeye Nation think the same.

He promised on the first day on the job that he'd beat Michigan, and he did nine times. In his second year, Ohio State won the national championship. People don't — and won't — forget that.

I'm not saying that line of thinking is right. I am saying his teams won a lot of rings — enough that it was OK for players to sell a few (see Small, Ray) — and brought an unprecedented level of excitement and passion to Ohio's Fall Saturdays. I've lived here my whole life, and I've heard more “O-H…I-O” chants in public places in the past six years than I did in the previous 20.

The events and investigations of the past five months have brought out strong feelings, too. Sadness. Anger. Uncertainty. Confusion. Buyer's remorse (see Pryor, Terrelle). In some cases, the feeling was shock that Tressel didn't always do the right thing.

Some look at what happened as Tressel making a handful of bad decisions. Some see a pattern.

The events have damaged Tressel's reputation and that of the university, and it's almost certain that stiff penalties by the NCAA are coming, penalties that could bring major harm to a program that's one of college football's elite.

But Tressel won. A lot. Folks won't forget that. In recent years he built a fortress around the state of Ohio's top recruits, and rarely did any of them escape. He was able to go out of state, too, and land guys who raised the program's overall top talent level. Most of them stayed four years and many became high-round NFL draft choices.

In the eight years that followed the national title season, the Buckeyes basically owned the Big Ten. They played in big games, in BCS games and became a marquee attraction. Tressel talked a lot about family, and tradition, and molding young men by way of doing the right thing. Now that we know he played a lot of ineligible players and knowingly played dumb on some (other) pretty big NCAA no-no's, we can feel like we were sold a bill of goods.

But there's no questioning the record. One-hundred and six wins in 10 years. Seven Big Ten titles. Woody Hayes wasn't exactly perfect, either, but he's a legend. It's a bottom-line business.

Legacy is a tricky thing, especially in cases such as thing one. Tressel cares about people. For every person who's spoken up to question his methods or morals, two have come forward with stories of his compassion and generosity. There's no doubt he cares about the university, his players and his reputation. He screwed up. He used poor judgment. Maybe he trusted and invested in the wrong people. Maybe he thought he wouldn't get caught.

The cover-up was most certainly worse than the crime. Tressel made a huge, costly mistake. Let's be honest: If it was happening in Columbus and had the slightest thing to do with Ohio State football, Tressel knew about it. Since he covered some things up and got caught trying to dance his way out of them, he pretty much had to go.

Some think integrity in college football, anywhere, has gone the way of the wishbone offense. They might be onto something, but that theory doesn't make what Tressel did right. Not being like everybody else was part of that Ohio State mystique, was it not?

Tressel doesn't have to be remembered for his flaws or mistakes. And, at least in most of Ohio, he won't be. A guy who loved the basics — and especially the punt — went to the spread offense when it benefited Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor. All of it was made better by the fact that most of the guys catching the big passes were home-grown recruits.

But Tressel kept trying to protect Pryor and keep those wins coming when it became clear the quarterback had made some really dumb decisions that had nothing to do with diagnosing a zone blitz. Tressel lied. The hounds were released. It got too hot in that kitchen.

We found out Monday morning that The Vest wasn't bulletproof. It wasn't as squeaky-clean as the dry cleaning and HD televisions made it seem to be, but it slayed Miami, owned Michigan and sparked a decade of football that scarlet-and-gray-clad fans, from the longtime diehards to the new and casual, won't forget. It stood for something that made Ohioans proud.

The scandal won't be forgotten, but Tressel's legacy is about more than these investigations. Right or wrong, in this football-crazy state, he'll be remembered for the wins much more than the missteps.