GLENDALE, Ariz. – Whether Jim Tressel is a saint or a snake, as his fans and critics conversely and passionately will contend, remains an unanswered question as he prepares to prove again one undeniable characteristic – winner.
Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes will go for their second Bowl Championship Series national title in five seasons here Monday against Florida, which on top of the four Division I-AA titles he won as coach of Youngstown State and a history of big wins in big games make Tressel arguably the best coach in college football.
But – and there is always a "but" when it comes to the 54-year-old native of Northeast Ohio – this championship would be won while the Buckeye program is on NCAA probation for major rule violations that occurred during the 2002 title run, which was helped by now-imprisoned tailback Maurice Clarett.
It would be quarterbacked by Troy Smith, who was convicted in 2003 for his role in a fight where a woman reported her jaw was broken and previously has been suspended for accepting money from a booster. The cash to the quarterback scenario was similar to one that caused the NCAA in 1991 to hammer Tressel's Youngstown State with probation.
But – the word again – Tressel never was found directly involved in those violations and despite a laundry list of scandals always has survived and been praised by his bosses. He raises money for the OSU library and cancer research and has helped guide Smith, through Christianity, to a more stable stretch of life that has culminated in this 12-0 season and the Heisman Trophy.
His impact on his players is undeniable. Even Clarett, who was booted out of the program after claiming he had classwork done for him, received extra benefits from boosters – including Tressel's car dealer – and has had lengthy run-ins with the law, called his old coach last summer on his fateful last night of freedom as he drove around Columbus with an SUV loaded with guns and vodka.
It's why among Buckeye faithful he enjoys near Woody Hayes-like status and not just because he is 5-1 against Michigan.
"In Ohio, I think a lot of people say, 'In Tressel We Trust,' " defensive lineman Quinn Pitcock said. "He is considered as God."
Much of that comes from Tressel's ability among Buckeye fans to avoid blame for off-field issues and NCAA compliance failures. He may, indeed, have had no knowledge of anything. But the nature of college athletics is that the program is a well-protected machine, and in virtually every scandal the blame falls on a disposable individual – the rogue booster, bumbling assistant or bad-apple player.
No matter who was at fault in the past, current Buckeyes say things have changed in terms of behavior, so maybe Tressel learned regardless of blame.
"I don't want to say when [Clarett] was here the situation was totally opposite than what it is now," Smith said. "Don't get me wrong, there are guys in situations that you don't approve of.
"I guess now there is a better sense of decision-making. I mean, it is not like one guy just made the situation the way it was because everybody, you know, at the end of the night – you look at yourself in the mirror and you make your own decisions."
In fairness to Tressel, Ohio State isn't close to the only program dealing with off-field issues, NCAA run-ins or anything else. There isn't a lot of purity in the game.
Monday, however, seems like a crossroads moment for Tressel, the steady, sweater-vest-wearing coach who seems to thrive on his serious public image. A win puts him in a rare class of multiple national-championship coaches and further solidifies the Buckeyes as a juggernaut that keeps on rolling.
But a victory also would trigger a clause in his contract that would void his current $2.4 million per year deal. Tressel would, in essence, be a coaching free agent and with Alabama recently paying Nick Saban some $4 million per year, he could ask Ohio State for pretty much whatever he wants. Five million? Six?
Then there is the specter of the Cleveland Browns, who have struggled under current coach Romeo Crennel, who just let four assistants go in an effort to save his own job. For Tressel, the son of Ohio, the appeal of one day taking over the vaunted Browns, where off-field scandals no longer are the fault of the head coach, might be appealing.
Who knows? At this point Tressel understandably wants to talk about the Florida game only. His success in big games – the Buckeyes have been dominant against both arch-rival Michigan and gone 4-1 in big bowl games while Youngstown State had all those playoff victories – is about to reach mythical proportions.
"He is best at drawing up schemes," defensive tackle David Patterson said. "Since I have been here, there is only maybe one game we haven't been in a position to win it at the end. We have lost games. But every game we lost except for one we have been in a position to win it."
"[He knows] when to take the chance and not always sitting back and let the game control its own destiny like in regular-season games," Pitcock said.
Tressel shrugs that talk off in his typical, humble way. He is almost as famous for his conservative wardrobe and politician talk – he has been called "Senator Tressel" – as his coaching. But – again – his players claim he has a biting wit when the television cameras are off.
For his part, Tressel doesn't reveal much personality to the media. He even refuses to admit he is a big-game coach.
"We haven't always had success in every game," he said, pointing out that in coaching, every game is a big game. "This year we have had success in all our games. And we haven't prepared any differently this year than we have any other year."
On rolls the machine Monday; on goes Jim Tressel, saint or snake, teacher or cheater, reality almost assuredly falling somewhere in between.
- Jim Tressel