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‘What if’ Jim Tressel never resigned?

‘The Vest’ left Ohio State under unfortunate circumstances. But what if things had gone differently, allowing Tressel to exit on his own terms?

Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about asking “What If?”. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ‘What If?’ articles here.

On May 30, 2011, as a result of the infamous TatooGate scandal, Jim Tressel resigned from his head coach position at The Ohio State University. Long story short, it was determined that Tressel had been less than forthcoming with his knowledge of unpaid college athletes (his players) exchanging autographs and memorabilia – related to their name, image, and/or likeness(es) – for tattoos...

Shameful! And for those egregious and malicious actions, he deserved a punishment more severe than some handed out to other coaches who had willingly turned a blind eye to much, much worse.

In reality, Tressel’s ‘crimes’ were minor and laughable now, especially considering the current NCAA environment. But rules is rules, I guess, and The Vest broke them. As a result, the third-winningest coach in Ohio State football history was forced to resign, tarnishing an otherwise tremendous legacy.

Photo by Gene Lower/Getty Images

Since Tressel’s resignation, he has moved on to administrative roles, recently retiring as the president of Youngstown State University. But something tells me that we have not heard the last of this coach-turned-president, because teaching, leading, and mentoring seem to be of the utmost importance to Tressel. Those things – the ability, empathy, and/or desire to help others – they’re in his bones, his very nature. So I have a hunch that his story is not yet (fully) written.

But what if Tressel’s story was just different? What if he never resigned as head coach of the Buckeyes, and instead chose to force the hand(s) of others? Would he have been fired anyway? Would a harsh, season-long penalty have been levied against him? Ultimately, we will never know. But I have a few guesses as to how things would have (or could have) played out.

Regardless of how hard Tressel fought or argued, he was always going to be in hot water. His actions, while far from deplorable, were deliberate. He misremembered certain things, failed to share pertinent information, and essentially made a bad situation worse. But if he had continued to fall on the sword, and then pushed for a harsher, non-termination penalty, I believe that he could have remained at Ohio State and continued his coaching career... at some point.

Because let’s be honest here: Plenty of coaches have done worse and (still) stuck around for a long, long time, despite their seedy behavior. Hell, some coaches have made a living out of toeing the proverbial line, crossing it constantly but never making a huge, obvious leap to the punishable side. Tressel was squeaky clean to this point in his career. He was respected and revered as a man, a coach, and a leader, without a past blemish on his resume. Sure, his actions throughout TattooGate were difficult to defend, but his character was not.

So what if Tressel does not back down and instead decides to ‘fight the power’ in a nod to Chuck D? As I said earlier, I believe that the coach of the 2002 national champions could have retained his job. It may have led to a messy situation with lawyers and whatnot involved, but were Tressel’s actions any worse or any more deserving of termination than those of other past offenders? I think not. Instead, I think that Tressel had a legitimate leg to stand on.

Say he (The Vest, The Senator) does pursue legal action and eventually accepts a six-game suspension... Then what happens? Or what if, right? In this hypothetical scenario, I think Tressel would have stuck around Columbus for a few more seasons, experiencing success but ultimately coming up short in his and the Buckeyes’ pursuit of another championship.

Because the game, especially on offense, had begun to evolve beyond what he preferred and what he was used to. ‘Tressel ball’ would have become dated and archaic. To reach another level, OSU needed speed, style, and innovation, which is what Urban Meyer eventually brought to Columbus. And speaking of...

What happens with Meyer and others if Tressel sticks around for a bit longer? Well, what if I tell you that I think things play out very similarly!? It might sound crazy, but consider this: Tressel was in his late fifties when he resigned. He had spent a decade at Ohio State, recently lost three consecutive bowl games (including back-to-back title games), and was involved in TattooGate.

So who’s to say Gene Smith and THE university are not ready to move on a year or two, or three, after the scandal? Guess who would theoretically be available around this time... That’s right, Urban Meyer! The former Florida Gators coach came out of early retirement to take the OSU job in 2012, but was previously thought to be perfectly content at ESPN.

In this sliding glass door scenario, Tressel could have retired after 2012 season and still given Meyer one full season to acclimate in Columbus. He only needed two before winning the 2014 national championship.

Another possibility is that Tressel remains at Ohio State for a handful of years, before deciding to hang it up in 2014 or 2015. By that time, Meyer is probably elsewhere. Or he is beyond comfortable at ESPN and five or six years removed from coaching. Then what does the post-Tressel era look like? I think the answer is clear and obvious.

In this scenario, Luke Fickell officially succeeds Tressel and is probably still coaching the Buckeyes today. I truly believe that. Because Fickell was and always will be a Buckeye. He bleeds scarlet and gray. And he stuck around until the end of 2016, likely waiting for his dream job to come available.

But the stars never aligned, and he became a coaching star elsewhere. If the former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach had received an opportunity in Columbus – without the shadow of a scandal hanging over OSU – then I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been successful under different circumstances.

Which means what for Tressel — again, in this last scenario? Well, how does Ohio State Athletic Director Jim Tressel sound? Perhaps another hair-brained idea from yours truly, but we watched him transition to admin life. Quite seamlessly, in fact. Gene Smith has been great as the (current) AD, but maybe he would have decided to pass the baton to Tressel and pursue other opportunities once The Vest was ready for “civilian life”. I guess we will never know.

And that is the point here, right? Asking what if but knowing the question lacks a real answer. That impossibility (of coming up with a definitive answer) is what makes this exercise fun! You or I could go in any direction, using our wildest imagination, and nobody gets to say we’re wrong!

So although we will never know or find out the alternate ending to Jim Tressel’s Ohio State story, I choose to believe it would have been a good one... Or a better one, at least.