Little-Known Fact About Jim Tressel: He Almost Coached the University of Miami
Six years before he took the Ohio State job and while he was coach and athletic director at Youngstown State (then in Division I-AA), Tressel interviewed for the job and wowed UM officials to the point that he was under serious consideration to replace Dennis Erickson.
"The guy was unbelievable," said Larry Wahl, Miami's senior associate athletic director in 1995. "He was as good as any coach I had been around with his plans and philosophy and personality."
Wahl spent five hours interviewing Tressel while then-AD Paul Dee and two members of the Board of Trustees were in another town interviewing another coach. When Dee returned, Wahl pulled him aside and said: "This guy (Tressel) is going to knock you off your feet."
Tressel eventually removed his name from consideration, deciding it was not the right time to leave his home state. UM went on to hire Butch Davis, a coach it did not interview until Tressel withdrew. But that timeline does not reflect how close Tressel came to being hired at UM. In his interviews, Tressel had obliterated all concerns about a button-down, sweater-vest kind of guy, a Division I-AA coach, taking over the flamboyant Hurricanes.
"Jim was just so impressive that, at some point, you say there may be initial backlash, but he is so good and so impressive eventually he'll win the fans and (players) over," said Wahl, who is now the Orange Bowl's Vice President for Communications and Community Outreach. "Heck, there was initial backlash to Jimmy Johnson,too."
This week, Tressel will lead Ohio State against the team he almost coached, when the Buckeyes play the Hurricanes in Columbus, Ohio. But in 1994, Tressel was coming off his third I-AA national championship and Miami was looking for a coach.
UM had finished 1994 10-2, a "disappointment" in south Florida. Erickson resigned to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. An NCAA investigation was hanging over the Hurricanes -- the brash group that arrived with swagger and attitude and played that way.
UM's administration -- including Dee and president Tad Foote -- had toned down some of the antics, but wanted them further toned down. So the athletic department decided it best to find a coach with experience as a head coach. Names like Sonny Lubick (Colorado State) and Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) and Terry Bowden (Auburn) were swirling, but UM had quietly heard about the coach at Youngstown State who had won national titles.
Tressel was then what he is now. Conservative, to the vest (no pun intended). Miami knew it, but had seen Bowden succeed going from I-AA to Auburn, and decided to talk to Tressel.
"I had talked to a lot of people who thought he was the up-and-coming coach," Dee said.
Dee and two members of the UM Board of Trustees tried to avoid the media spotlight and holed at the Hyatt Hotel at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. They arranged for Tressel to fly to Chicago. But the day Tressel was scheduled to arrive, another coach -- Wahl preferred his name not be used, but it makes sense it might have been Alvarez -- said if UM wanted to interview him, it had to see him that day.
The three left, leaving Wahl behind. He spent five impressive hours with Tressel, and used words like "unbelievable" and "smart as hell' to describe the coach.
"One of the things I liked about him in doing research on him was that he already recruited inner-city kids," Wahl said. "He was recruiting inner-city Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Not only that, he recruited Florida. He had a lot of Florida kids on his Youngstown State roster.
"The other thing I was impressed with was that he adapted his style to the talent level. One year he had a dropback passer, one year he had a running quarterback."
Tressel arrived prepared, carrying a spiral-bound binder with intricate details about his approach.
"It had his philosophy and what he believed in and how he planned to deal with kids and problems and all those kind of things," Wahl said. "Class work and academics and everything else."
Dee returned later that day with the Trustees, and the three spent more time with Tressel.
"They all came away with the same opinion I had," Wahl said.
Suddenly the coach from Division I-AA was not only on Miami's radar, but on it in a prominent way.
"We were down the road," said Dee, who now teaches sports law and sports management at the UM Law and Graduate schools.
The group was aware of the one concern the public might have: How can a coach from I-AA handle, as Wahl called them, the "different breed of cat at Miami." But the more they talked to Tressel, the less they worried.
"I always had the impression that he was a person who knew how to handle young men and would do a good job of it," Dee said simply.
The Miami contingent invited Tressel to come to Coral Gables, Fla., to see the campus and meet Foote. Tressel agreed, but after returning to Youngstown and Ohio decided the time was not right. He called Miami and withdrew from consideration.
Before he hung up, Dee asked: "Is there another Jim Tressel out there in I-AA?"
Would Tressel have been hired at Miami? Wahl said had he gone through the next phase of interviews "he'd have received serious consideration." Dee raved about Tressel saying: "I thought the world of the man, even though I only met him a couple times. I had the highest regard for him."
His candidacy would have been boosted by the fact that the other experienced I-A coaches withdrew. Tressel dropped out before Miami talked to Davis. Had Tressel stayed in the hunt, Tressel's experience, resume and interview might have carried the day.
But UM folks also concede that had Tressel been hired, he would not be at Miami today.
"Unfortunately, I think we would have lost him when Ohio State opened up," Wahl said. "His ties to Ohio were just that strong."
Wahl then remembered seeing Tressel at a National Football Foundation forum in Dallas a few years ago. Tressel was on the panel, where he wore a sport coat and tie. The next morning at breakfast, he was back in his sweater vest. Wahl asked where the sport coat went.
"He said, 'Larry, I'm flying back to Columbus today, and if I'm wearing anything but the sweater vest when I get off the plane, people will think something is wrong,'" Wahl said.
It's still intriguing to wonder how the sweater vest might have played in Miami. But for circumstance and timing, it could have happened.