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YSU gets ready to forge ahead without Tressel

YSU gets ready to

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Jim Tressel reflects in his university office on his tenure, which has had triumphs as well as hardships over more than eight years. His last day at work is Jan. 30.

YOUNGSTOWN — President Jim Tressel’s 8 1/2-year tenure comes to a close as this Youngstown State University semester gains momentum.

When he chooses to look back, Tressel undoubtedly will recall triumphs as well as hardships over a transformative university presidency.

The decision to go came just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to that point, Tressel was the most senior and longest-serving public Ohio university president.

With that in mind, he thought perhaps it was time to “not overstay my welcome.”

He said he and his wife, Ellen, started wondering: What was the best exit strategy and what did they still want to accomplish as the conclusion neared?

“Like any family unit, you have discussions as you plan, and we talked about what’s the right exit strategy,” he said.

But the pandemic altered those plans in 2020 and caused Tressel to put retirement on the back burner for a time.

“As we started coming out of the pandemic, maybe 18 months ago, I started having some meetings with board members to talk about the best timing — for us as family — best timing for the university and giving the trustees some time to think through their succession planning,” Tressel said.

Last June, he decided to exercise his 180-day notice. His last day at work is Jan. 30.

He said the thought of retirement didn’t come lightly after his decades poured into the university — through coaching or administration.

“I came to the conclusion it was time to cut it back a little bit. Let’s have a little more freedom to be with family, be with friends,” he said. “Spend some time with my former students, my former coaches — those kinds of things … But you’re always tied up.”

‘TIMING IS EVERYTHING’

Tressel had a less-than-ideal end to his coaching career at The Ohio State University, resigning following an NCAA investigation in 2011 that uncovered violations stemming from several former Buckeye football players trading memorabilia for tattoos.

Tressel tried a hand in consulting for the Indianapolis Colts from September 2011 to February 2012 before serving as vice president of strategic engagement at the University of Akron from 2012 to 2014.

His start at the YSU helm happened fast, following the brief tenure and unexpected August 2014 departure of Randy Dunn after only seven months as university president. That departure sent the administration scrambling, but set the stage for the Tressel era to begin May 9, 2014.

“Timing is everything,” Tressel said. “This university had been through three presidents in four years, they were really in need of some stability and familiarity.”

His first course of action after assuming office? Seek guidance from students.

“I met with my presidential mentors group there, to give the president a student perspective. So often you sit in meetings with staff and administration, but I wanted to know what the people I’m here to serve think,” Tressel said.

The consensus from his first group of mentor students was that streets on campus needed fixed.

Those plans were set in motion, and many may remember the two road projects that shut down Wick and Lincoln avenues for about a year starting in 2016.

“They (presidential mentors) said, ‘You know, you have to be proud of the place that you come to. Your parents, your friends — you need to be proud of where you are,'” Tressel said.

The $5.2 million project, covered primarily by grants, brought new sidewalks, resurfacing, updated landscaping, curbs and lighting, and lane and parking configurations. About $800,000 in improvements came from private donations.

Another class of presidential mentors advised Tressel to improve the residence halls. “We need more places to live,” Tressel recalled the group saying.

“So we went about starting to build luxury apartments. We started with 160 beds, then we did 220 more, and we did 200 more and then we did 200 more. But I found out from the students that that was important to them,” Tressel said.

This caused a culture change to the physical makeup of the mainly commuter school.

It started first with a 3.4-acre, four-story building situated along Rayen Avenue, tucked between Fifth and Belmont avenues.

The University Edge apartments opened at the beginning of the 2016 fall semester during which the university saw a 14 percent increase in the number of students living on campus.

Phase two of the building brought a second Edge building and the addition of the Barnes & Noble bookstore. Another set of apartments, the Enclave, was developed in 2018 and included a retail complex that houses a Chipotle and Mercy Health location. The most recent expansion of the campus residence halls came in 2021 with the opening of the Campus Loft apartments.

Tressel said what he’ll miss most after his time in higher education will be interacting with students to influence change.

“I used to marvel that some coaches had a system and they brought their players in and they plugged them in their system, right? I always did it the other way: I assessed my players and I tried to build a system that would fit my players. And I think that you come in and assess your people. You assess your opportunities. Now let’s build a plan,” Tressel said.

TURNAROUNDS

This was not the first time Tressel worked to lift up the Youngstown community.

In September 1977, Black Monday and the subsequent shutdown of the city’s steel mills and related industries forged an economic collapse that took close to 50,000 jobs by 1982. Unemployment reached upward of 24.9 percent and left the city with its Rust Belt reputation.

At the start of the collapse, Tressel was just beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Akron. Throughout the 1980s, he went from coaching stints at Miami University, Syracuse, and an early venture into coaching as a quarterback and wide receiver coach at OSU.

Tressel came to YSU in 1986 to be head football coach.

“When I got here, I wasn’t from Youngstown, I was from Cleveland, so I had heard of the steel mill crash but didn’t know much about it,” he said. “Then I got here and I thought, man, these people are still kind of in the tank and this is years after the fact.”

Tressel said he was inspired to do what he could to uplift the community.

“The city felt the negative publicity from the mills, from the mob. But they hadn’t had something to stick their chests out about. I remember telling my team, ‘This is bigger than us, this is about what we can do for the whole region,'” he said. “The greatest outcome of our championships was to see the joy that our city, our region of Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana hadn’t felt.”

After only two seasons, Tressel lifted the program into the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs. But that was only the beginning of what was the most successful tenure of a YSU coach.

In 1991, Tressel led the Penguins to the first national championship in a 25-17 victory against Marshall University following a 19-point scoring effort in the fourth quarter.

It was the first of four national championships Tressel’s teams won for the university and gave a community something to unify itself.

ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

Translating athletic success to academics, Tressel helped oversee a resurgence in the university’s performance, expanding the Honors College and receiving the Higher Learning Commission accreditation, among other feats.

“The retention rate, which when we got here was about 64 percent, now it’s close to 80 percent. The graduation rate was around 33 or 34 percent, and now it’s nearly 50 percent,” Tressel said.

Tressel said he set out to find ways to raise more money for scholarships, to leave students with less debt and lower the cost of education. Year one saw the university doubling its fundraising — a trend that continued throughout his tenure.

Notably, YSU and the YSU Foundation secured a record $24.1 million in gifts during the 2021-22 fiscal year.

But with success also came hurdles: YSU has seen a 21 percent decrease in enrollment since 2010, which led to some financial hardships.

Neal McNally, vice president for finance and business operations, projected a possible $10 million revenue shortfall if enrollment continues to decrease in the 2022-23 school year.

WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

As workforce development becomes more prevalent, one of Tressel’s last ventures has been working to shape YSU’s role in the rapidly growing electric vehicle and energy storage industries in the region.

It started with the emergence of the YSU Excellence Training Center, a 54,000-square-foot training and innovation center that focuses on making advancements in manufacturing and integrated technologies.

The university also has entered into a partnership with Foxconn that will focus on helping the EV industry build and scale a sustainable workforce around advanced manufacturing, energy storage and other integrated technology solutions, such as artificial intelligence, 5G and cybersecurity.

“Over the course of history, Ohio has shown that it knows how to build a workforce,” Tressel said. “YSU and our partners across the state and nation are committed to ensuring that we have the skilled, talented workers needed for the electric vehicle industry to succeed. This training and innovation center will be central to those efforts for our nation.”

LEADERSHIP ADVICE

Tressel said he will not stray too far from YSU, as he plans to continue fundraising.

He also will still have a footing in academia as he plans to work with the newly established Division of Workforce Education established by Gov. Mike DeWine.

“Change is good. If you look at any of the nine presidents here, each one has been fortunate to be here at the right time for what their strengths might have been,” Tressel said.

An interim president, Helen Lafferty, will be overseeing the university as the board of trustees conducts a national presidency search.

Tressel advises the person who becomes the 10th president to “go in and listen closely and learn.”

“The first thing I did when I took over the football team in 1986, took over the Buckeyes, the presidency in 2014, was find out what these people were thinking, what they were feeling and needing, and seeing how I could serve him,” Tressel said.

Replacing such a prominent figure won’t be easy but Tressel advises his successor not to try to be him.

“It’s the same advice I give to head coaches: Go in and be you, don’t go to Ohio State and try to be Woody Hayes, Alabama and try to be Nick Saban,” he said.

“Forge your own path and identity.”

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