TOP 25 COUNTDOWN
No. 1 Ohio State
Under Watchful Eye of Tressel, Buckeyes Focus on Winning Title
Friday, August 29, 2008; Page E01
He's a details-matter coach who expects players to keep their lockers clean and who takes time to remember the names of each player's girlfriend. He's so narrowly focused, he once changed door codes at the team's football complex to 4-1-1-4 after a 41-14 loss to Florida in the January 2007 BCS championship game. But Tressel also holds "quiet time" before meetings, giving players a chance to reflect on broader concepts such as attitude, persistence and adversity.
"It is a mind-set; it is a thought process." Athletic Director Gene Smith said. "That's what he is able to do. He's able to get people to behave properly so that when they get on the field, it's second nature, relative to executing a play."
Tressel can micromanage or view from a macro perspective, and that style is clearly working. With this year's Buckeyes loaded with talent and experience, Tressel again has Ohio State among the top teams in college football.
"I think he's a real intelligent guy and does a great job setting goals for himself and the program," said Dick Tressel, his older brother and Ohio State's running backs coach. "That's the macro. He's really good at it, having a vision out in the future. There's a reflection down the micro level because I think he's truly an educator. He believes the experience is right now and in this moment and critical to us right now."
Tressel has won 82 percent of his games in seven seasons at Ohio State, having led the Buckeyes to five BCS appearances, four Big Ten titles and one national championship. Though he has been nagged by questions after NCAA rules violations at Ohio State and previously Youngstown State -- some sports blogs refer to him as CheatyPants SweaterVest -- Tressel has experienced undeniable competitive success with the Buckeyes.
And he again has a team poised to make an impact, with expectations running high in Columbus, Ohio.
"There's talk about what we might be," Tressel said in a recent teleconference, "and we just gotta make sure each day we write the script."
Running back Chris Wells is a legitimate Heisman Trophy hopeful. He rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore last year and has received plenty of preseason buzz about postseason awards.
"I think that he's made a giant step forward in terms of confidence, and that's allowed the game to slow down a little bit," Dick Tressel said of Wells. "In his mind, he's done a good job understanding what's going on, and I think that will allow him be patient and let the big plays come to him."
While Wells makes up the offense's drivetrain, he has capable backups such as Maurice Wells (no relation to Chris) and Dan "Boom" Herron to keep him fresh, an offensive line composed of road-graders to clear his path and quality skill-position players for support. Perhaps the only question is at quarterback. Todd Boeckman performed well last season, but it is unclear how he will combine with super recruit Terrelle Pryor, a mobile threat, to run the Ohio State offense.
Defense, however, remains Ohio State's backbone. The Buckeyes ranked first nationally in total defense (233 yards per game) and razed most Big Ten offenses last season. All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, all-Big Ten cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and a line deep with talent return this year.
"A lot of our people on our defense, we were starters as sophomores," Laurinaitis said. "Any time you have experience through games, through games like national championship and stuff, you're going to eventually have more maturity."
Tressel makes sure of it, meeting with every player before they enter their junior and senior years. He sits them in his office and diagrams the "Block O of Life" during conversations lasting a half hour or longer. This Block O, a phrase typically associated with the university's insignia, is a way for players to compartmentalize long- and short-term goals with football, academics, family and spiritual life.
"I think that Coach is extremely goal-oriented," Laurinaitis said. "And I think that keeps him focused."
Tressel may lack the zest of Southern California Coach Pete Carroll and does not have the suave of Florida Coach Urban Meyer. But Tressel, staid and plainspoken, has quietly become one of the great coaches of his time. The man in the sweater vest, a constant in an ever-changing college football landscape, has kept Ohio State at the top for years and in the foreseeable future.
"Coach Tressel, you had a feeling that he meant everything he said" during the recruitment process, Laurinaitis said. "He was a guy who was in command of the program."