By Joe Scalzo
On the day before his induction into Youngstown State’s Athletic Hall of Fame, former Penguins football coach Jim Tressel got a call from one of his former players, Tamron Smith.
Smith, YSU’s all-time leading rusher, was calling from his home in Atlanta to apologize for not being able to attend Saturday’s ceremonies.
“I said, ‘Well, Tam, you know darn well, if you hadn’t gained all those yards, there’s no way I would be having this great day,’” Tressel said during his induction speech on Saturday morning. “He said, ‘I know.’”
With the crowd of more than 200 people cracking up, Tressel added, “And then I thought he’d laugh or something, but he said, ‘I know. Did you hear me?’
“But you know what? I do know.”
It was the funniest story from Tressel’s surprisingly funny 15-minute speech, one that centered around thanking Youngstown State for helping him build a program that won four I-AA national championships in 15 years and for serving as his family’s home.
“This is a great place,” said Tressel, who coached at YSU from 1986-2000, going 135-57-2. “Anything you wanted to be, you could be from here. And we added that little dose of love, so we could make it better.”
Tressel spent much of his speech making jokes about people in the crowd, most of whom were invited by his wife, Ellen. That crowd even included his next-door neighbors from his home near Akron.
“We’ve known them for like two weeks and they’re here,” Tressel cracked. “I could tell after we found out [about his induction] that Ellen had begun this activity of inviting anyone we had ever met to come today, whether they knew us very well or not. She wanted anyone.”
At that, the normally-stoic Tressel got emotional for the first (but not the last time) time. Holding back tears, he said, “I think the reason is, this is her school. And it’s her dad’s school. And she’s proud.”
A few seconds later, Tressel again got choked up when talking about Youngstown, saying, “My kids grew up here. K [kindergarten] through 12. That doesn’t happen in coaching. We were blessed.”
Tressel left YSU in 2000 when he was hired to coach Ohio State, where he coached from 2001-10, winning one national title and playing for two more. He’s now the Vice President for Student Success at the University of Akron, where he said he’s been forced to attend 9,000 meetings about the importance of making data-driven decisions.
Those meetings have had the opposite effect on him.
“I think the reason football and athletics and the arts are so important to college campuses is because the things you can’t measure are what life is all about,” he said.
That point was driven home during Saturday’s halftime ceremony, where Tressel was given a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 13,000.
When asked what he was feeling at that moment, Tressel said, “It’s like your life passes in front of you. It’s a very special place. The way the community embraced us, there’s nothing like it.
“Everyone knows the love affair we had with our fans and they had with our teams. And it was rekindled today.”