WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO – When talking about offensive firepower, this was more to Jim Tressel’s liking.
With a few thousand military personnel looking on, the Ohio State football coach ascended a gray, metal ladder. Briefly pausing at the top to wave to the throng evenly split between being clad in scarlet and gray or military-issued camouflage, Tressel then wedged himself behind the cockpit of a fighter jet stationed inside a hangar on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
With a member of the military there to point out the different switches and gears arrayed in front of him, Tressel felt the need for speed.
“Can’t this thing go?” he asked.
One of six active Division I football coaches to be part of the 2009 Coaches Tour, which will see them head overseas during a week-long period from late May until early June to meet with the troops, Tressel met with enlisted personnel and their families during a tailgate event on the base. It marked the head coach’s first trip to Wright-Patterson, and it was also the first time an Ohio State head football coach had been on base.
Col. Bradley Spacy, the installation commander, offered a brief but heartfelt introduction as Tressel took the podium following his time in the fighter jet.
“He doesn’t need more introduction than this: Ohio State’s head football coach Jim Tressel,” Spacy said.
In addition to his wife, Ellen, Tressel was accompanied on the visit by former Buckeye linebacker Marcus Freeman. A native of nearby Huber Heights, Freeman also addressed the crowd and thanked the soldiers for their sacrifices.
“I grew up as a military kid,” he said. “My dad was in the military for 26 years, so this is home for me. When you see those guys and see those people in uniform, you have a big respect for what they do and how they defend you. It puts life into perspective.”
Tressel has long embraced the military during his tenure at OSU, inviting veterans and soldiers home on leave to take in practice or meet with players. The coach said he receives numerous e-mails from soldiers who are looking to keep tabs on their favorite team while stationed away from home.
The fact that he was to be applauded by military members was a bit embarrassing, Tressel said.
“It should be the other way – I should bring about a thousand of our (soldiers) over and cheer for them,” he said. “That’s why whenever they come home we want them to come to practice and meet our players and have our players have a chance to put their hands together for them and hug them and all the rest. While we may get some visibility, they’re the ones doing the jobs and they’re the ones that we need to keep reminding our young people about.
Even though they don’t make SportsCenter, they are the heroes.”
The event at Wright-Patterson was billed as a tailgate party designed as a warm-up for his forthcoming trip overseas. The members of the base were allowed to indulge a little bit for the two-hour party, which featured beer, hot dogs and hamburgers for sale as well as an autograph session and a climbing tower.
“The biggest thing you get is a tremendous reminder of all the people who make up this great country that we’re a part of, that are unselfish,” Tressel said of the experience. “There’s no better example for our young people than the United States military.”
Both to the media and later to the crowd, Tressel praised the unselfishness of the military, saying it was an attribute the OSU coaches try to instill in their own players.
Standing alongside Tressel in the Air Crew Lounge, Spacy admitted to not being a native Ohioan but said he was still impressed to have Tressel along as part of the experience.
“Obviously he’s a likable guy, so he’s got that charisma going for him,” Spacy said. “He really knows what he’s doing, and especially in the military we appreciate excellence. So when someone like him has risen to the top of his field and led his team through the challenges he has faced, that resonates very well with military people.”
The crowd backed up Spacy's comments. At least one local store reportedly found itself running low on Buckeye gear as base personnel rushed out in the days before the event to purchase anything to have Tressel autograph. Those on hand consisted of military members, civilian contractors and anyone with standard access to the base, according to a media representative.
The sheer size of the base impressed Tressel.
“There’s no bigger Buckeye military area than this one,” Tressel said. “It’s mind-boggling, the operation that’s here and all the great people that are serving here.”
Despite that, Spacy said what Tressel will encounter when he leaves the country will be on a scale 10 times bigger than what he saw at Wright-Patterson.
Freeman has no doubt the coach will be impressive when he leaves.
“He’s just a great ambassador for college football,” he said.