By Denise Dick
Jim Tressel’s energy, community knowledge, leadership skills and name recognition make him a good choice to be Youngstown State University’s next president, community leaders say.
But some point out he’ll have to adopt a management style different from that of a head coach.
“He doesn’t have the usual academic background that university presidents typically would have,” said Bruce Beeghly, who served as a YSU trustee from 1992 until 2001 and later as a member of the Ohio Board of Regents. “He does, however, have many fine qualities that would serve him well as president.”
Tressel is a great communicator, a proven leader and fundraiser and has demonstrated skills in areas of public relations, Beeghly said.
Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court says that while academic credentials are important, so is the ability to engage the community, and Tressel has that.
Connie Hathorn, Youngstown City Schools superintendent, believes the leadership skills Tressel honed as a coach would serve him as YSU president.
Atty. Paul Dutton, a former YSU trustee and former member of the Ohio Board of Regents, points out that many colleges and universities are opting for presidents from outside of the academic arena.
The day after President Randy J. Dunn announced he would be leaving YSU after seven months on the job to take the presidency at Southern Illinois University, Tressel supporters launched a campaign backing him for the job.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, wrote a letter to university trustees, signed by 31 union and business leaders, advocating that the board dispense with a presidential search and appoint Tressel. Since then, other groups joined the chorus.
Trustees have hired AGB Search of Washington, D.C., the same company that conducted the search when Dunn was hired, to lead the search for a new president.
Dr. Sudershan Garg, trustees chairman, said he hopes Tressel applies, but the panel plans to follow through the process.
Beeghly agrees with the board’s decision to do a search.
As part of that process, Tressel “should, as any candidate, lay out his vision for the university both academically and otherwise,” Beeghly said.
Tressel, who has worked since 2012 at the University of Akron, where he is the executive vice president of student success, hasn’t said publicly if he’s interested in the YSU job. Attempts by The Vindicator to reach him have been unsuccessful.
Tressel served as head football coach at both YSU and Ohio State University, leading both teams to national championships in their respective divisions.
He resigned in 2011 from the OSU job amid a scandal involving players receiving cash and tattoos for memorabilia. He was accused of withholding information from university officials and National Collegiate Athletic Association investigators.
As part of his punishment from the NCAA, Tressel is prohibited from having direct involvement with a school’s athletic department until December 2016.
Beeghly said the NCAA investigation is something that Tressel should be asked about as part of the vetting process.
“But people learn from mistakes they’ve made and hopefully he is a better person today for it...,” Beeghly said. “It’s just a part of his record. He has many other successes.”
B. David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sport administration at Ohio University who studies intercollegiate athletics administration and NCAA enforcement, doesn’t believe Tressel’s punishment would preclude him from serving as YSU president.
At YSU, the athletic director reports directly to the president.
“You could argue it both ways,” he said. “The university president is ultimately in charge of everything. But for a university president athletics is only 5 to 10 percent of their job, if that.”
Ridpath believes Tressel is up to the job, saying “... when you run a major football program and you’re dealing with the money you deal with, I think a football coach does possess at least some of the qualities you’re looking for in a president.”
And Tressel likely has more knowledge about what goes on around campus, outside of the football stadium, more so than many other coaches probably do. His name brings a lot of cachet.
“He’s a god there,” Ridpath said. “When he was at Youngstown State, he was also the athletic director. With his name recognition and at a place like Youngstown State which is smaller, he’s familiar with the community. I don’t know him. I think I met him only one time but I don’t think he’d be a bad choice, to be honest with you.”
Judge Krichbaum, a YSU graduate and avid YSU sports fan, believes Tressel would be a good choice for the university’s next president and should at least be considered for the job.
“I suppose my bottom line position is he would be an outstanding choice for president of YSU,” the judge said.
While he recognizes the importance of the appropriate academic credentials in a university president, it’s also important the president be an energetic community person who can engage the community.
Judge Krichbaum said he’s not concerned about the NCAA issue regarding Tressel’s presidency.
“In the job I’m in, someone who’s been involved in some form of misdeed, being rehabilitated and getting back up on your feet, is the most important thing and he’s done that admirably,” the judge said.
Tressel has maintained the respect and admiration of the community despite his problems, he said.
“I know him personally,” Judge Krichbaum said. “He’s a quality guy and a good man.”
Hathorn also believes Tressel can do the job.
“Coaches are good leaders,” he said.
Part of being a good leader is assembling a good team around you, said Hathorn, a former high school football coach and one-time NFL prospect.
Retired Judge Donald Ford of Howland, who served on the 11th District Court of Appeals, Trumbull County Common Pleas Court and Warren Municipal Court benches, said that while Tressel wouldn’t bring an academic background to the position, he would bring a lot of community support and be a significant money raiser.
While the NCAA investigation that proved Tressel’s undoing at Ohio State is part of Tressel’s portfolio, Judge Ford said that with what Tressel is doing at Akron, it doesn’t appear to be a negative factor for most people.
A 2011 study on American college presidents by the American Council on Education found that while the majority of most college and university have spent their careers in higher education, that’s beginning to change.
“The share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent,” the study found.
The study reports that university presidents spend most of their time with budgeting, fundraising, community relations and strategic planning.
Dutton, who served as YSU trustee from 1979 to 1988, nine years on the Ohio Board of Regents and 14 years as a trustee at Central State University, said many universities have followed the nontraditional route with their presidents in recent years.
Lawyers, former senators, and former heads of federal departments have served and are serving as university presidents across the country.
“I wouldn’t rule him out as an effective president just because the most dominant aspect of his career has been that of a head football coach,” Dutton said.
If Tressel applies for the job, one of the tasks of the search committee should be to determine how Tressel’s experience of two years as a vice president at Akron relates to the presidential position, he said.
“The search committee should also discuss his skill set with [Lou Proenza] the president of the University of Akron, who I believe speaks highly of him, and other vice presidents, particularly in the academic areas,” Dutton said.
He believes Tressel’s greatest challenge as president would be quelling the concerns of the university’s academic community because his primary experience is that of a head coach.
Another consideration is the difference in management style required for a head coach versus for a university president, Dutton said.
“The management style of a head football coach is top down,” he said.
A coach is somewhat of an authoritarian figure, determining what a team does and when members do it.
“At a university, the management style is collegial,” Dutton said. “It’s bottom up.”
A university president must reach out to different groups, including, students, faculty, trustees and alumni to ensure there’s buy-in to his or her decisions.
Dutton doesn’t believe Tressel’s NCAA issue means that he’s unqualified for the president’s position.
“I don’t think it was done of mendacity or a sense of criminal intent,” he said. “In part it was to protect his players.”
Two other leaders contacted for this story declined to comment, and five others either couldn’t be reached or didn’t reply to messages.