COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the driver side door of a pickup truck parked in a suburban driveway is a magnetic sign that says, “Fear Tressel.”
The plastic looks as weathered and beaten as the sentiment.
Some Buckeyes fans are no longer convinced that Jim Tressel is all that fearsome. Sure, he still wins 80 percent of his games, has a 7-1 record against Michigan, still wins Big Ten titles and his teams finish in the top 10. Those accomplishments are more than enough to place him among the most famous, and highest-paid, residents of Ohio.
But in just over two seasons, stinging losses on the national stage to Florida, LSU, Southern California, Penn State and Texas — three of those in major postseason games — have left a vocal minority of fans questioning their ultra-successful coach and his game plans.
Make no mistake, though, Tressel still has the confidence of his bosses.
“All I have to say is there are 120 Division I-A schools in this country — and 119 of them would love to have my problems,” Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee said of the fallout from the Buckeyes’ recent series of high-profile losses.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith went to Tressel last summer and offered to bump the coach’s salary $1 million to make him the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten. The raise means Tressel, as of last Sunday, is making $3.5 million per year.
Ohio’s governor, Ted Strickland, is paid $144,831 per year — less than 1/20th what Tressel makes.
Smith believes that Tressel, who declined to be interviewed, is worth every penny.
“I’ve always felt that it was appropriate to keep him right at the top,” Smith said of Tressel’s salary in comparison to other conference football coaches. “If you look at his body of work, which we always talk about, he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. You know all the stats. He’s just done a great job for us.”
Tressel, 56, continually swats aside questions about how long he’ll coach. Yet his new contract — which goes through the 2012 season — has an interesting addition: If he decides to retire, the university can keep him on as a professor for up to five years.
That’s the first time Tressel has ever acknowledged there might be a life for him after he hangs up his sweater vest.
Smith doesn’t believe Tressel will coach into his 80s like Penn State’s Joe Paterno or Florida State’s Bobby Bowden.
“He’s driven by what he does everyday for these kids,” Smith said. “He wouldn’t say, ‘I’m going to coach until whatever so I can get that record.’ No. That’s not him.”
In the meantime, Tressel busies himself with students wearing football helmets. The Buckeyes appear to have another bumper crop of quality recruits coming aboard on Wednesday, the first day they can sign letters of intent. The Buckeyes have big holes to fill due to graduation and three juniors moving to the NFL a year early. But there are plenty of talented players waiting in the wings.
After the Buckeyes’ most recent loss, a last-minute 24-21 defeat to No. 3 Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, there were a number of caustic letters to the sports editor in The Columbus Dispatch, mostly attacking the play-calling of Tressel and his coordinators. Some said they are way too conservative on offense; others said they took too many chances on defense. A local sports call-in show fielded numerous complaints from fans who said that Tressel has lost his touch in big games.
Gee doesn’t buy it.
“I think that we are very fortunate to have his leadership,” he said. “For those who are a part of any (negative) undercurrent, they don’t understand the value of having a great football coach.”