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Jim Weber

Behind the sweater vest: Jim Tressel, mundane or mod?

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

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Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. With top-ranked Ohio State's first high-profile Big Ten game on tap Saturday night at Wisconsin, he tracked down Jim Tressel for the tale of the sweater vest.

Football coaches are a conservative lot, in general. But even by those standards, Jim Tressel has developed a reputation in his decade at Ohio State as unusually meticulous, prepared and set in his ways. For proof, look no further than his signature sweater vest.

Tressel's personal brand of geek chic has become as synonymous with the Buckeyes as Bear Bryant's houndstooth cap or Steve Spurrier's imminently tossable visor. Tressel's gameday attire is as consistent as Ohio State's run as a Big Ten powerhouse. Every Saturday, it's the sweater vest with an American flag pin at the bottom of a V-neck covering a white collared shirt and tie, finished with dark pants and white tennis shoes. He may wear a jacket in the cold, but underneath, the uniform is always the same.

Many have speculated that Tressel wears the outfit as a tribute to his late father, Lee, who coached him at Baldwin-Wallace and was known for his patented bow ties. But Tressel said he was never conscious of following – or starting – any tradition when he started donning the vests during a wildly successful run at Youngstown State in the '90s. Perhaps the first one was a gift. But he does remember finding them very comfortable. Once people came to expect it of him, well, he couldn't stop.

That goes in rain, sleet, snow and even heat. Sweater vests are great attire for crisp fall weather, but when Ohio State played Texas in Austin in 2006, Tressel raised some eyebrows when he wore the garment in 85-degree weather. That's nothing.

"It's been much hotter than that at a number of home games," Tressel said in an email.

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To stand out from the players' scarlet jerseys, he wears gray at home, and red to contrast the Buckeyes' white shirts on the road. He has the Nike-issued tops ordered for every game before the season and never wears the same game-day sweater vest twice: The used ones are given to charities.

[Related: Before they were coaches: Playing careers and pics of BCS coaches]

Of course, sweater vests are every fall's must-have fashion in Columbus. The look can be seen on enough fans in the Horseshoe on Saturdays that at least one website, jupmode.com, traffics in everything from sweater-vest baby bibs to sweater-vest koozies. Local retailers are used to customers who specifically ask for a "Tressel vest."

They might as well rename them that. Tressel has become such an ambassador for the fashion that he's even featured in the Wikipedia entry for sweater vest. The joke is that he's helped bring them back in style. After all, you never saw sweater vests littering Ralph Lauren catalogs or being worn by Justin Timberlake before Tressel emerged on the national stage, did you?

Tressel vests are now such a staple of Ohio State football that you're more likely to see his players trying on different uniforms than the coach himself. Never a school accused of being "Oregon-ized," OSU bucked its regular uniforms for last year's Michigan game and traded them in for throwbacks to honor the 1954 national championship team. And this year the Buckeyes will face their arch-rivals in Nike's pro-combat outfits. Would Tressel be open to a "combat sweater vest" to match his team?

"Nike knows what I like and knows I'm not big on changing it," Tressel said.

In other words, never mess with another man’s sweater vest.

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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.

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