Almost 30 years ago, Youngstown State University and the University of Akron dueled for a major hire.
It was for a football coach, and Gerry Faust opted for the Zips.
In those ashes, YSU hired a guy named Jim Tressel.
Faust achieved an unremarkable Zips coaching career through 1994, when he was relieved of coaching tasks and introduced to various campus fundraising duties.
Well, his career arc has been a smidge different. That path winds back through Youngstown on Monday for another YSU job opportunity — university president.
It will be an epic day in his life, and for his supporters and detractors.
Tressel is not like any other applicant. That was demonstrated last week when he interviewed for the same title at his current employer, the University of Akron. The two other UA candidates filled about half the hall for their public presentations. Few empty seats remained when Tressel took the final UA candidate tour Thursday.
And president is not just any other job. It’s hinted even in how his name is presented by the boards, the public relations folks, and even us in media.
“Coach,” “Jim” and “Jimmy” occasionally have been replaced by “James,” which he probably was last called when his birth certificate was officiated.
It’s Shakespearean that YSU and UA face each other again for such a post with a similar name still in play.
That said, the relationship of the campuses is hardly the sandpaper that traditionally grinds, say, Youngstown and Warren or Trumbull and Mahoning. Plus, they both share a desire in dispensing their Kent State shadow. It’s hard to fire from your hill when a mountain blocks your view.
But it is a great script that in 1986, YSU and UA had a significant vacancy and both could have hired the same guy. Each decision wrote a pivotal and permanent college history. And here they are again.
The UA role even begins to congeal the courage needed by the YSU board if it desires to make a positive Tressel decision.
Tress supporters have wanted him for YSU president at past openings. And his local critics were always quick to raise “good ol’ boy” charges. That happened again this time around.
The UA community twice answered Valley concerns of “Who would want a football coach as president?” — once in March when his initial application was announced, and again in April when he became one of three finalists.
There were local concerns, too, of an absence of process — that Tressel would be hired in some back room as was done with other legendary Valley decisions. That fear mounted when 32 leaders put the YSU board in as tight a corner as they could with a March letter seeking Tressel as YSU president.
Tressel answered their effort by encouraging an open process, and he politely submitted his resume as any other candidate — even with local opposition not incurred by other hopefuls.
I’ve been fine with a Tressel candidacy from the start — initially for the principle, then eventually, for the person.
I’m not from a prescribed or preordained background, but from one of performance; more life smart than learned smart. So I’ll admit to a bias for those of the same.
I also have a disdain — it could be called a chip — for decisions that blindly hold onto prescriptions and preordinations even as they crash against practicality and reality.
I never believed that a school president needed to have a doctorate and felt that those holding onto such beliefs were simply hiding behind paper and policy.
Yes — I loved that Willy Wonka gave the factory to Charlie.
But I also admire that a boss for Pepsi was pulled from the camera industry, and for General Motors from phones, and for Ford from planes, and for NBC from electric — to name a few.
To be sure, such radical decisions can fail, too. In answering how such radical decisions fail, I think that’s where Tressel’s candidacy is at its best.
Great and smart people are all around us. It’s easy to spot them when their company or community or children are at their best, and that’s when they want to be spotted.
But can you spot them when their prideful pillars are at their worst?
At his best, Tressel has shown the ability to build, unite and succeed in an industry and arena as demanding and contested as American culture can create. And of special interest given the current YSU presidential gap, he’s shown to stay loyal and invest in his decisions for the long term.
Also, specifically to YSU’s current state, he has another ability no doctorate or resume can achieve.
Each of the last three YSU presidents has had issues with how the board ran itself and them. Of all the campus issues that need to be managed and led — funding, academics, unions, athletics, etc. — the board poses to be the most formidable. Its critics might outnumber those of the past three presidents combined.
Tressel — in skill and in the community clout he can muster — might be better for the board and the campus than any other candidate. The others might have skill. But the clout they’d need will take several years, and by then, their resumes will be back in play.
As for worst, the world had a chance to see him at as challenging a point a person on such a perch can find. We should get a chance to see all candidates at such points.
The military finds its best while putting them through the worst conditions.
Many have viewed Tressel’s misdeed as not to the soulless depths of others of Valley note. He protected kids and tried to provide for them amid a system that financially enriches thousands on the backs of hundreds. Supporters say he tried to independently manage and massage a flawed system that is now facing a full assault from Northwestern University athletes and others to much national acclaim.
So Monday puts YSU and the community in a situation with UA that was experienced before some 30 years ago.
What was the decision before, and how did that go for each campus and community?