Youngstown State announced this week that its president, Jim Tressel, would be stepping down in February. You remember Jim Tressel: He was the coach with the sweatervest who coached Ohio State to a national championship in 2002.
Tressel’s journey from head football coach to college president was not exactly traditional. Prior to his time at the helm in Columbus, Tressel, after the usual rounds of grad assistant and position coach, became head coach at Youngstown State, where he spent 15 seasons. From there he went to Ohio State (which we all remember well) before resigning following Tattoogate — a scandal we all probably look at with a different set of eyes after the events of the last year.
But what after that? Tressel spent a hot second as a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts before making his way to higher education administration in earnest, as a vice president for strategic engagement at the University of Akron. It wasn’t long after that he was named president of Youngstown State.
There are certainly pros and cons to Tressel’s appointment as a university president. For starters, Tressel does not hold a Ph.D. like most college presidents we know. We also must question how much he knew about faculty relations and higher education administration after serving in roles in athletic departments which operated very differently.
On the other hand, if we’re being frank, presidents are responsible for one thing above all else: fundraising. That Tressel could do, no problem, and there were probably few other candidates who could have exceeded that metric compared to the school’s old football coach.
On the whole, it’s not as though Tressel was a bad president: He held his role at Youngstown State since 2014. However, the fact he was hired as a president of a university in the first place remains a bit of a head scratcher. Athletic director? Sure, that would have made a lot of sense. Head of a foundation? That also jives. But actual head honcho in charge of the day-to-day administration of a school employing thousands of staff members and with a strategic mission to educate members of the community?
In short, while it worked out for Tressel in this case, it should be obvious that skills in football don’t necessarily translate to skills in other areas, and there’s a lot of independent growth that has to happen for many of these transitions to be successful.
We see this all the time with ill-fated broadcasters. It was painful to watch Drew Brees on Sunday Night Football on NBC — a show renowned for its high-quality production and analysis, especially compared to other network productions. But Brees is not alone. Jason Witten lasted just a season on Monday Night Football before deciding that his playing days were not behind him and maybe the broadcast route his old quarterback Tony Romo took was not for him.
On the flip side, we have folks like Baker Mayfield: players we really, really wanted to see succeed purely because they have the hearts of champions and the leadership that makes them hard not to love. It’s the stuff of movies (literally, like Rudy). But then there’s the fact they ultimately have to be technically perfect quarterbacks in the NFL; heart can only take you so far.
That being said, being bad at other things shouldn’t remove the accolades from the good stuff. Drew Brees is still a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, whatever his on-air struggles. Baker Mayfield was awesome in the Progressive commercials.
Further, and perhaps most sobering, being great at football doesn’t mean you’re a good person. Urban Meyer is one poignant example of that fact lately, as someone who is undoubtedly a great coach, but whose character has come into question with report after report of his single year spent in Jacksonville. On the more extreme end, we have Deshaun Watson, who is living proof that some teams will sell their souls for a shot at a Super Bowl. And then there are folks like Jon Gruden and Dan Snyder who, despite being successful coaches and owners, are questionable at best as standup leaders.
On the positive side, we have many examples of athletes who make the transition to their “other” selves seem effortless. However, we can’t all be Malcolm Jenkins and flawlessly transition from Pro Bowl play on the field to social activist to bow tie designer or Tony Romo who seems more made for television than he ever did for the football field, or LeBron James who is translating his superstar career into being an owner of sports franchises.
Heck, we can’t even all be Jim Tressel, who somehow managed to become president of a large university after decades of coaching football and a strong though tainted reputation for leadership and doing the right thing.
But those transitions aren’t effortless as they seem. Like getting on the field or court in the first place, it takes work to get there.
So, unpopular as the opinion may be, athletes won’t be good at everything just because they’re athletes. We love the success stories of great athletes or coaches who can go on to do other things with seeming ease, but the reality is, for most individuals who make that successful transition, it takes years and effort. Development of hard skills in other areas requires actually learning and practicing those skills to become an expert.
Being a natural isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and maybe we should begin praising athletes who put the same effort into finding their second career or new passion that they do on the field.