Friday, August 10, 2007

Can Jim Tressel Evolve

Let me tell you a secret nobody in central Ohio would dare utter: Jim Tressel is vastly overrated.

Shhh. Don’t tell the people Columbus. They’re still in love with him. In spite of a coaching disaster in the BCS Championship last year, Tressel is still a God. They won’t lose faith in him because of one game.

But it’s not one game. Aside from 2002 the Ohio State Buckeyes have underachieved. Granted, Tressel has an impressive overall record and he has dominated arch rival Michigan but there are still some pretty big chinks in his armor. These flaws aren’t quirky or easily fixed. They are fundamental problems that have the potential to destroy the entire program.

Jim Tressel was hired because Ohio State needed to clean up its image. John Cooper let his recruits run a little wild and the result was embarrassing for the Buckeyes. Players were getting arrested, struggling in school and displaying personality traits that rubbed fans the wrong way. Jim Tressel was supposed to change all of that when he was hired in 2000. People were concerned as to whether or not Jim Tressel could make the jump from Youngstown State to Big 10 football but Ohio State needed to tighten up its image. Jim Tressel was supposed to do that.

He didn’t. Sure, the players all sing Carmen Ohio after every game but there’s still concern over academic performance and several players have been arrested. As bad as John Cooper appeared to be he never invoked the wrath of the NCAA, but Jim Tressel’s program was worthy of an extensive investigation. Tressel managed to avoid official sanctions but it was under his watch that Ohio State saw its reputation take a hit in the national media. When you compare police blotters, Jim Tressel represents no improvement over John Cooper. Ohio State’s has had more than its share of trouble.

Much of that revolved around the petulant tailback Maurice Clarett. As a freshman Clarett attracted national attention as the only offensive weapon Ohio State had. While the defense stifled opponents it was Clarett’s ability to gain yards at will that made it possible for Ohio State to overcome formidable opponents. He clashed with coaches and struggled with personal decisions but he rushed for over 1000 yards on one of the worst offenses in college football. One could argue that he was the offense.

Clarett was eventually suspended for receiving illegal compensation. Clarett accused Tressel of providing that compensation but it was not substantiated and Clarett recanted. Still, Tressel had to know that Clarett was struggling with the pressures and temptations associated with stardom and Tressel should have been suspicious of how Clarett was acquiring access to clothing, jewelry and automobiles. For some reason everybody seemed to look the other way when the flamboyant Clarett drew attention to himself and it almost cost Ohio State dearly. To be fair Clarett is not the only player to get into trouble at OSU but he was the marquee player on that 2002 championship team. A lot of people around Columbus try to downplay that fact but they don’t downplay the title, even though others do.

Because Ohio State’s 106th ranked offense was so ineffective a lot of people dismiss Ohio States 2002 National Championship as a fluke. Miami fans dismiss the Fiesta Bowl as a whitewash by officials who called the game in Ohio State’s favor. It is true Ohio State did get some calls and some bounces but 14-0 is 14-0. You can’t take anything from Tressel in 2002. The Buckeyes enjoyed plenty of good luck but they didn’t make critical mistakes. That became the hallmark of Tressel ball.

However 2003 was a different story. Ohio State should have been able to repeat. The offense had another year to improve and an entire summer to recover from the loss of the suspended Clarett. Tressel’s team cruised through a weak opening schedule with an offensive attack that was even less impressive than the previous year and the team went 11-2, beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. A low point of that season was when senior linebacker Robert Reynolds was caught on camera trying to crush Wisconsin quarterback, Jim Sorgi’s throat after a play. The violent act drew plenty of media attention but only a one game suspension. Jim Tressel dismissed it as a mistake by a player who is normally classy. A few years later Reynolds was dismissed from the Tennessee Titans after his wife filed domestic assault charges. Clearly Tressel is not a good judge of character.

11-2 is hardly a disappointment but this was a team that managed to return a lot of good players and the two loses were directly attributable to Tressel’s tentative offensive schemes. The blocking was weak, the plays were unimaginative and in 2003 the defense simply couldn’t hold on. The offense wasn’t holding the ball as long as it had in 2002 and the running game was not wearing opponents down at all.

2004 was ugly. The line was even worse and highly touted quarterback prospect Justin Zwick was getting brutalized. The running game was inconsistent again and the Buckeyes fell to 8-4. The season improved when Tressel replaced the battered Zwick with a nimble Troy Smith and the offense suddenly opened up a little. Play calling seemed to improve either because Smith could buy time with his legs or because 3 straight conference losses made the coaching staff a little desperate. Whatever the case it worked. Fans might have been upset if it had no been for a modest upset of Michigan and a sound beating of Oklahoma State in the Alamo bowl.

2005 was marred by yet another disciplinary issue. Troy Smith got caught taking money from a booster and was suspended for the opener which forced Tressel to capitulate on his starter for an early winner take all showdown with Texas. Tressel rightfully started Zwick who struggled with the more restrained play calling. Ohio State’s defense did a fine job containing the explosive Longhorn offense but Tressel squandered scoring opportunities by changing quarterbacks. The offense simply couldn’t find any rhythm and Ohio State lost a nail biter. Later in the 2005 season the stagnant offense came back to haunt the Buckeyes again and they fell 17-10.

After that Tressel seemed to open things up and Ohio State went on to dominate its opponents. This trend carried into the 2006 season where Ohio State marched through the entire schedule with a perfect record. After beating Michigan in a classic that will be replayed for decades to come Ohio State secured its spot in the BCS Championship game and waited for the BCS to select an opponent. The rest is history. Ohio State simply laid an egg. Nobody was prepared and they never made adjustments. Tressel failed to properly motivate his team and they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of an inferior team.

On paper it’s hard to criticize Jim Tressel. He’s won five national championships and he owns a career record of 197-71-2 (61-14 at Ohio State). He is 4-2 in bowl games and he has practically claimed ownership of his arch rival Michigan with a 5-1 record. It’s no wonder Ohio State fans love him. He’s a fantastic coach but there’s plenty of room for improvement.

2007 is going to be telling. Did Jim Tressel learn an important lesson last year? He’s not an emotional guy so it’s hard to tell if he’s got any fire. His record indicates that he does but his response to the BCS Championship debacle was a little too reserved. It’s OK to take a loss in stride…sometimes you aren’t the better team...but throwing a game away? That’s not supposed to sit well with coaches.

Tressel will be taking the field with a lot of new faces on offense. He’ll have to trust a new quarterback and try to find reliable receivers. He lost an experienced tailback and while Chris Wells has shown moments of sheer brilliance, there is a question as to whether or not he can hold on to the ball. Will Tressel give these new kids a chance to play or will he take the ball out of their hands and count on his defense to win games?

In Columbus fans are drawing comparisons to 2002. The return of Tressel ball. Unfortunately this is a defense that had some glaring weaknesses exposed when they faced formidable opponents late last season. Michigan and Florida put up a lot of points and gained yards at will. This unit might not be up to the challenge of achieving perfection week after week and Tressel might not get some of the breaks he got in 2002. He didn’t get them in 2003, 2004 or 2005. Sometimes you have to move the ball and score. Punts don’t win football games, points do. Just because it worked in 2002 doesn’t mean it will again. The question is whether or not Tressel has learned that lesson.

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