Jim Tressel kicked off a youth football camp in Urbana on Friday afternoon with a three-pronged message.
Be grateful, have high expectations for yourself and always keep others in mind.
After the former Ohio State football coach finished his brief speech, one of his most famous former players told the young attendees seated on the football field on the former campus of Urbana University they did not know how lucky they were to receive such a message.
“I call him ‘my dad’ because when I was at Ohio State, if it weren’t for him I would have been lost,” said Troy Smith, who led the Buckeyes to a pair of Big Ten championships and won the 2006 Heisman Trophy. “I wouldn’t have been able to play quarterback or able to play football at all.”
Smith is in Urbana this weekend for a camp he and Braxton Miller are putting on for kids ages 8-17.
The pair of Big Ten MVPs and Buckeye quarterbacks called in multiple former teammates to help work the camp and had their old coach lead off with a message that was vintage Tressel, who was known for his conservative coaching style and folksy speeches during 10 season as the coach of the Buckeyes.
“Life’s a lot better if you live it with an attitude of gratitude,” Tressel said. “We are lucky to be around this great game, to be around these people who are trying to pour into us, to live in this great country, to be able to do whatever it is we want to do, and to find out whatever it’s going to take to do that and have the freedom to do that.
“The second lesson is to have high expectations in everything that you do. Be the best student that you can be. Be the best friend you can be. Be the best citizen you can be. Be the best football player you can be. Set your expectations high. That’s what these guys did. That’s how they accomplished what they did because they had high expectations. Just by being here you’ve obviously said you want to get better, but set the bar high.”
After using the playing careers of Smith and Miller — a Wayne High School graduate who won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football in 2012 and ’13 — as an example of what that can yield, he turned to what they have in mind next. The pair are part of a group that is interested in acquiring the former Urbana U campus and turning it into a prep school for kids from all over the area and beyond.
“Throughout your life seek to make a difference for others,” Tressel said. “These guys don’t have to be here. They don’t have to be dreaming about this extraordinary academy they would like to create, but they’re doing it because they want to make a difference for others. You’ll be a great teammate if you want to make a difference for others. You’ll be a great friend, a great parent, a great professional if you want to make a difference for others.”
Tressel coached the Buckeyes from 2001-2010. He led them to the 2002 national championship and officially won six Big Ten titles along the way.
A seventh was vacated after the NCAA concluded he violated the organization’s rules by failing to report potential violations by some of his players who traded team apparel and awards for money and tattoos.
That decade-old incident, which led to Tressel’s exit in the spring of 2011, has been brought up recently by Buckeye fans as the NCAA ushered in a new era allowing players to profit off their name, image and likeness beginning this month.
Although players are still not allowed to profit directly for athletic performance, they have numerous new avenues to make money without having to skirt any rules.
The new NIL rules were among topics Tressel, who has been the president of Youngstown State University since 2014, discussed in a side interview before speaking to the youngsters at the camp.
“I think it’s just a matter of time that it was going to happen that the wealth was going to to be spread,” Tressel said. “You know, hindsight is 20/20. I’m not sure as the interest and the revenue escalated in the last 30 years if we did as good a job as we could have perhaps to involve more people into the benefit of that. And all of a sudden, here they are. It’s gonna be an adjustment, and I think it was gonna come.”
As far as being a university president, Tressel said that was not something he anticipated doing when he was young, but he has enjoyed it.
“It’s busier than when I was coaching because I was so focused on 100 guys and a dozen coaches and trying to recruit 20 guys,” Tressel said. “Now you’ve got 12,000 students and 2,000 employees and you’re trying to recruit 2,500 kids a year but it’s been a great learning thing. I think any time in life when you do something for a long time it’s kind of reinvigorating when you try to start something from scratch. You have to go to school on it. You learn something new everyday, so we’ve enjoyed it.
“I used to tell my team to focus on the moment. I used to tell ‘em that paradise is where I am and just work hard at what you’re doing and where you are and what comes next comes next. So, no, I never really thought beyond the next day when I was coaching and so forth. But I was reminded by some my mentors that as life goes on sometimes your next chapter is more impactful than your last chapter and you’re thinking, ‘How could that be?’ And that’s how it turned out.”
He has maintained a connection with Ohio State, though, and expressed admiration for the job Ryan Day has done in two seasons as head coach of the Buckeyes.
“I think Ryan’s doing good,” Tressel said. “Think about it: Going through that COVID year, the way the world is changing with all this (transfer) portal stuff, this NIL and all that stuff, he’s done a great job of keeping an even keel, keeping the expectations high for all the stuff he wants. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and watching what he’s doing.
“He’s fallen in love with Ohio. There’s no question. He’s very, very appreciative of the opportunity he has and feels a deep responsibility to do a good job with his players on and off the field. He knows the expectations are to be at the top of the heap, and he enjoys and relishes in that. And he’s treated people well.”