How do you explain an undefeated team that has barely survived four of its last five games? If you are one of the beaming, boisterous Ohio State Buckeyes who last Saturday escaped with a 23-16 overtime victory at Illinois despite being outgained 358 yards to 321, you resort to clich�s. "Loving these guys to death, that's what it's about," gushed Ohio State's 6'8" tackle Ivan Douglas, whose line opened the hole on tailback Maurice Hall's eight-yard scoring scamper in OT. "We stick together," said senior defensive tackle David Thompson, who had a sack on the Illini's ensuing, ultimately unsuccessful drive. "The simple fact that we don't let up until the whistle blows is going to drive us against Michigan next Saturday."
Two years ago the notion that such intangibles as unity and perseverance might carry Ohio State over the archrival Wolverines and into the national championship game would have sounded absurd. For the 2000 Buckeyes, the typical postgame scene had all the optimism and goodwill of an Oz episode. Wide receiver Reggie Germany carried a 0.00 grade point average. Center LeCharles Bentley was being sued by linemate Tyson Walter for having punched Walter in the face during a February 2000 workout. A teammate accused senior flanker Ken-Yon Rambo of being late to team meetings—and Rambo was a captain. When the Buckeyes failed to beat Michigan for the 11th time in 13 years under coach John Cooper, no one was surprised.
"We lost our compass," says athletic director Andy Geiger, who fired Cooper the day after South Carolina drop-kicked Ohio State in that season's Outback Bowl. "The environment became one not of team effort but of fractionalized individualism. We needed a big change."
On Jan. 18, 2001, Geiger hired Jim Tressel, a native of Berea, Ohio. Those who weren't doubting the new coach's qualifications merely felt sorry for him. True, Tressel had been a respected Ohio State offensive assistant from 1983 to '85 before winning four Division I-AA championships at Youngstown State, 150 miles northeast of Columbus. But could this earnest man be expected to lift the Buckeyes out of the doldrums to their first outright national title since 1968? Soon after Tressel took temporary shelter in a Columbus Holiday Inn, a nearby church posted this message on its front lawn: PRAY FOR OSU FOOTBALL POGRAM AND JIM TRESSEL.
In a pocket of the country where 50,000 show up for spring games, Tressel has revived the Buckeyes' program. He began in the winter of 2001 by spreading his local-boy charm around the region's suburbs and fading steel towns until he had assembled a stellar recruiting class, including an oral commitment for 2002 from tailback Maurice Clarett, this year's most dynamic freshman. He then began selling returning players on the virtues of wear-'em-down run schemes, tackling fundamentals and early-to-bed Fridays. By the following January, Tressel's freshmen had a 2.92 GPA, his team was a respectable 7-5, and, most important, the Buckeyes had beaten the Wolverines for the first time since 1998. "It's important for our young people to understand the rigors of those who went before us," said Tressel, 49, last week in his office, gesturing deferentially at a portrait of Woody Hayes that stares down at him from opposite his desk.
If there is one thing that endeared Tressel to Columbus, it was his Ohio roots. Although Cooper had a 111-43-4 record, fans couldn't help but think of him as an outsider—a Tennessee native who lived in a fancy house and chose to make a TV commercial featuring his family in a hot tub. Tressel, by contrast, was Ohio to the bone. In the Cleveland suburb of Berea, home of the Baldwin-Wallace team that his father, Lee, coached to the 1978 Division III title, young Jim had shagged footballs for onetime Buckeye Lou Groza when the Toe returned to the neighborhood for visits. When Tressel noted in his first public appearance on campus that the Michigan game was 310 days away, the reference did not seem contrived.
His players, hardened by infighting and bad press, were skeptical at first of the 5'9" Mr. Rogers dress-alike who kept a recording of the Ohio State band in his car's tape deck. Some rolled their eyes when Tressel handed out copies of something dubbed the Winner's Manual, a thick notebook that includes numerous motivational quotes he had compiled, but many were open to change. "I was willing to do anything for a coach who obviously cared so much," says senior linebacker Matt Wilhelm. That included gathering in the end zone to belt out the Buckeyes' alma mater, Carmen Ohio, after every home game, one of Tressel's efforts to unify the fractious team. In their first choral performance some players looked sheepish, but now senior safety Mike Doss, a co-captain, calls it one of his favorite parts of playing at Ohio Stadium.
Building spirit is one thing; attracting talent is another. More dire than Ohio State's attitude in 2000 was its declining profile among the region's blue-chip schoolboys. Tressel's first and most important recruiting trip took him back to the town where he had built his reputation. Within four days of being hired, he'd returned to Youngstown and gotten an oral commitment from Maurice Clarett, who would go on to rush for 2,194 yards as a senior at Warren G. Harding High in Warren, Ohio, and who had been attending Tressel's summer football camp since grade school. When Clarett rushed for 175 yards in his debut against Texas Tech and then told reporters that he had done it for "all the people at home in Youngstown," he might as well have been speaking of his motivation for accepting Tressel's offer over those of Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Since he scored the nation's top recruit, Tressel's biggest challenge has been to score without him. In the nine games Clarett has played, he has rushed for 1,071 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. It's tempting to wonder how much he would have helped the Buckeyes in close calls against Cincinnati, Penn State, Purdue and Illinois had he not been sidelined by minor knee surgery and then by a left shoulder stinger. But Tressel has challenged other Buckeyes, and they've responded. Against Purdue on Nov. 9 sophomore flanker Chris Gamble, whose outrageous athleticism has prompted Tressel to also start him at cornerback for the last four games, made his fourth interception of the season to preserve a 10-6 lead with 45 seconds left. Underrated junior quarterback Craig Krenzel threw the gutsy 37-yard go-ahead touchdown against the Boilermakers, and on Saturday he escaped several key potential sacks. "Our methods aren't pretty," says junior offensive tackle Shane Olivea. "But we will keep finding ways to win."
Olivea and his teammates might be part of the minority of observers who aren't expecting the (Big Blue) sky to fall. Since the Purdue win, which left only the Buckeyes and Miami unbeaten, it has become fashionable among the talk-show set to discuss how badly Iowa (8-0 in the Big Ten, 11-1 overall) would beat Ohio State if the teams were scheduled to meet. Even those closest to Tressel know they should restrain their excitement. When colleagues in Youngstown were honoring him at a banquet soon after he got the Buckeyes job, former Youngstown State athletic director Joe Malmisur pulled Tressel aside. "I kidded him that Ohio State coaches never retire," says Malmisur. "Victories aren't enough in that town. Everyone wins, but nobody ever fills the cup."