Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Nice guys don't always finish last

By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

TEMPE, Ariz. - As one of the greatest college football games ever spilled into double overtime, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel had to wonder whether it would finish at all.

"I'll tell you what," Tressel said after the Buckeyes beat Miami 31-24, "I'm so proud of these young men."

It was just like Tressel to deflect credit from himself to his kids, much as he often finds a way to credit the father who taught him the business, and all those other coaches who showed him the tricks of the trade.

And how fitting it was, that at the end of a college football season where misbehaving was a central theme - coaches ripped referees, fans ripped down goal posts - the national championship was embraced by a coach whose temperament doesn't need icing down.

In that sense, it didn't matter whether it was Tressel or Larry Coker, his Miami counterpart, who took home the Fiesta Bowl trophy. A win by either would have proved that nice guys don't always finish last.

"They gave an excellent effort," Coker said afterward, "just like we thought."

Those were tough words to get out for a man who waited more than 30 years to get his first head coaching job in college, and hadn't lost since. But Coker made sure to give Tressel and the Buckeyes their due, despite their role in ending the Hurricanes' winning streak at 34 games.

"They're a great football team and well coached," Coker said. "They played hard tonight."

Watching their leader motor up and down the Ohio State sideline in a crisp white shirt, red sweater vest and tie, no one would expect anything less. He may look like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, and some of the routines he brought to Columbus from Division 1-AA Youngstown State may seem schmaltzy. But he never fails to pull the best effort from his players - something that became apparent the longer the game wore on.

"Our guys know what they're capable of when they all work together. And I was confident they would do the thing they know how to do," Tressel said, then paused. The last few minutes of a spectacular game and what his kids had accomplished, began sinking in.

"It was just like two great heavyweights," Tressel said, "slugging it out."

Tressel knows all about heavyweight bouts. He won four championships in six tries at Youngstown State and in the way that sports sometimes takes strange twists, that success nearly won Tressel the head coaching job at Miami.

He interviewed there, but lost out to Butch Davis, whose sudden departure to the NFL's Cleveland Brown paved the way for Coker to move from assistant to head coach. Not only that - but Coker worked at Ohio State while John Cooper was in charge.

"It's interesting in life - usually things work out," Tressel said a while ago. "They made the right decision in hiring Butch Davis and his staff. Things worked out for all of us."

In Tressel's case, it wasn't exactly coincidence. Born and raised in Ohio, his future was pretty much assured the moment his father let him tag along at work. Lee Tressel was a legend in Ohio's high school ranks by then, about to repeat the feat as a bow-tied presence on the sideline at Division III Baldwin-Wallace.

Dick Tressel, Jim's older brother, got the earliest indoctrination and followed his father's lead first. But there was little doubt Jim would take the family business the furthest.

The reasons why were apparent this spring, when Tressel took his squad on a tour of other teams' spring practices. One of the first stops was Miami. Asked why, Tressel replied, "They're national champions."

Now, people will be able to say the same about him and Ohio State, something that hasn't been possible since the late Woody Hayes prowled the sidelines with a scowl on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

Tressel is every bit as good a motivator. But he doesn't need to be a bully and he doesn't think the only way to teach kids is to browbeat them.

"Our younger guys will be back in school on Monday, but they won't have to scurry to the weight room on Tuesday or Wednesday," Tressel said.

But they'll probably be back there before the week is out.

"Life is about what comes up next," Tressel said, already planning ahead, "and so we'll go to work fairly soon."


Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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