Sunday, April 29, 2001

Tressel cracks down on Buckeyes




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        COLUMBUS — Jim Tressel remains untested at Ohio State. His football team has yet to play a real game and his players still are intimidated by their new coach.

        “You don't want to test him,” noseguard Mike Collins said Saturday. “He doesn't raise his voice. I've never seen him angry. But he just has this presence about him. When he's around, I think about standing at attention.”

        Collins came to Colum bus from Fork Union Military Academy, so he knows something about respecting rank and following orders. After their first spring with Jim Tressel, so do most of his teammates.

        The Buckeyes grew sloppy in the last years of John Cooper's regime. They committed too many penalties, reflecting a lack of poise, and skipped too many classes, reflecting a lack of discipline. They became college football 's chronic underachievers, a team that sometimes took its gifts for granted and seldom achieved its full potential.

        Thus Tressel's honeymoon period has been a pe
culiar blend of fresh-start optimism and new-sheriff dread. In the coaching business, this is pretty close to perfect balance.

        “He's after us all the time,” said linebacker Matt Wilhelm. “We've had 15 days of practice and 30 days of meetings. It's like a job. You never have a day off. You can see the change in the discipline. ... We're getting very close to being the team we want to be.”

        Though it's hard to gauge progress from intrasquad scrimmages, OSU's spring game Saturday suggested that both the public and the players are buying into Tressel's program.

        With Ohio Stadium unavailable because of renovations, a sellout crowd of 22,892 crammed into the Columbus Crew's soccer stadium to see OSU's Scarlet squad beat the Gray 22-21. Despite a live television broadcast and the stultifying nature of spring football, business was brisk enough to spawn ticket scalping.

        (Question: Why is Columbus still considered a cowtown? Answer: It's the herd mentality.)

        In such a rabid environment, a varsity football player is prone to develop an exaggerated idea of his own importance and a dangerous disregard for his limitations. Cooper lost his job in part because of his inability to contain the inherent excesses of Ohio State football. Tressel has made it a priori ty to keep his players in line.

        To that end, he is subjecting his players to greater academic scrutiny, making team meals mandatory instead of optional and demanding accountability on stuff Cooper often let slide.

        “I think it's been made clear we expect a lot from them,” Tressel said. “But they also know we care a lot about them. If that's true, we have a good chance.”

               Collins said he hadn't expected Tressel to be so engaged with individual players. He had suspected the new coach would be like the old one — a football executive, distant and delegating. Tressel surprised his players by having a door removed from his office to facilitate dialogue.

        Friday, Collins said, Tressel told him to wipe the frown from his face or he would knock it off. He guessed that the coach was kidding.

        Wilhelm said Tressel's demands were much more time-consuming than those of Cooper, but he was not complaining. Tressel believes college students crave structure, and his methods have yet to meet with rebellion.

        Asked what he might be doing if he weren't so busy conforming to Tressel's schedule, Wilhelm smiled crookedly and shrugged.

        “Sitting on the coach eating a bag of potato chips,” he said. “Or something.”

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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