Now that he’s not prowling the sideline at Ohio State, Jim Tressel can talk candidly about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
So Tuesday night seemed as good a time as any to ask – what’s the secret to going 9-1 against Michigan?
OK, the answer might not be as exciting as you’d hope, but it was pretty simple, and clearly the formula worked.
“We were fortunate,” he said. “We had good players. We had great focus. We had great respect for our opponent. We would never do anything other than try to be at our best, and you have a better chance to win if you’re at your best. I think it was our respect of Michigan that was very helpful.”
Of course, emphasizing the rivalry – something Tressel clearly did in his time – also helped. From his famous “310 days” speech in 2001 to the Maize and Blue periods he inserted into each practice session throughout the year, Tressel was in some ways the polar opposite of his predecessor, John Cooper, and the result was quite different from Cooper’s 2-10-1 mark.
“There’s no question about it, we had great emphasis on the Ohio State-Michigan game,” Tressel said. “I remember learning as a young coach, I heard Bo Schembechler say, ‘You get what you emphasize.’ I can promise you, we emphasized that game.”
Tressel spoke while at the Ohio Union for the annual Celebrities for Diabetes event, which honors the life of OSU legend Jack Tatum, who passed away in July 2010 after complications from the disease. The 13th-year event has raised more than $3 million for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association since its inception.
“It’s awful special to be back on campus in Ohio State-Michigan week, period, and to have a chance to be at the diabetes event with Jack Tatum’s name, John Hicks, Jeff Logan and all the people involved,” Tressel said. “The fact that Ohio State and Michigan get together to do something good is a great thing.”
This year’s contest will be the 110th between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, and many people refer to the border war as the greatest rivalry in sports. The book written exclusively about each game in the rivalry is titled “One Game Season,” after all, and year in and year out, The Game seems to determine not just bragging rights but championships.
“I think the fact that there were so many of the Ohio State-Michigan games that defined who the Big Ten champions were going to be,” Tressel said when asked why this is such a special rivalry. “I heard them talking this week about the Auburn-Alabama game and for the first time it’s going to determine who is going to the SEC Championship Game. Well, the Ohio State-Michigan game for decades has decided things. I think because of the importance of the individual games, it made the series even greater.”
As such, Tressel seemed to understand what made the rivalry so unique. This week, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said that the responsibility of taking part in such a historic contest “sometimes can be overwhelming,” something Tressel confirmed.
“It really is a special thing to have the honor to be a part of this great rivalry, and it is a responsibility,” he said. “It is an awesome spot to be at any position in that game, whether you’re an equipment manager, a freshman who is not going to play, a starter, a coach, a fan. You spend it all on that afternoon, and it is a great responsibility.”
Tressel’s nine wins in the rivalry came in many shapes and forms. The 2001 and ’04 teams upset favored Michigan teams, while Ohio State finished undefeated regular seasons vs. the Wolverines in 2002 and ’06. Tressel also avoided upsets with BCS-bound teams in ’05, ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10.
And if the former head coach had a favorite one of those wins, he wouldn’t exactly say on Tuesday night.
“The harder the game, the more favorite it is,” he said. “There’s a couple of them near the end of our tenure there that weren’t as tough, quite honestly, but those first seven or eight, they are all pretty memorable.”
Meyer, much like Tressel, has gotten off to a 1-0 start in the rivalry as the head coach and, much like Tressel, takes an undefeated team into year two. So will current OSU coach move to 2-0 just like Tressel did in 2002?
Tressel sounds confident in that regard.
“We’re a very veteran team,” Tressel said. “You talk about the starters on the offensive line, and those are fourth- and fifth-year guys. Braxton is a three-year veteran. Carlos is really a fifth-year guy because he went to prep school out of high school. He’s a man. I’m not worried about our focus as we go up there. I think this is a very focused team. I have a lot of confidence in these guys.”