The Inevitable Comparison

By Joe Beale on June 18, 2011 at 6:00a
Notice the short sleeves and the piles of snow in the background.Larger than life, both on and off the field.

Ever since Jim Tressel resigned as head football coach at Ohio State, commentators have been trying to assess his record and his legacy. One thing is certain: he has cemented his place as one of the all-time greats, not only at OSU but in college football. However, the way his career at OSU ended, as much as his record, invites comparisons with the greatest of all coaching legends at Ohio State: Woody Hayes. As we will see, there are plenty of other reasons why the comparison is relevant. Before that, let us examine the experiences and events that shaped them in their youth.

Wayne Woodrow "Woody" Hayes was born in Clifton, OH, a small village between Dayton and Springfield in land-locked western Ohio. Growing up on the other side of the state in Newcomerstown, he struck up a friendship with legendary baseball pitcher Cy Young. Hayes attended Denison University in Granville OH and played offensive tackle for the football team. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, eventually reaching Lt. Commander. Hayes became head football coach at Denison right out of the Navy, and never served as a college assistant.

Jim Tressel was born in Mentor OH, a suburb of Cleveland that sits on the coast of Lake Erie in northeast Ohio. His father, Lee Tressel, was a football coach at Mentor High School, and he ultimately moved the family to Berea OH when he accepted the job as head coach at Baldwin-Wallace College.  While there, Jim Tressel became friends with legendary Ohio State and Cleveland Browns kicker Lou Groza. Tressel attended Baldwin-Wallace and played quarterback under his father. After graduating, he served as an assistant at Akron and Ohio State before accepting the head coaching job at Youngstown State. 

One man was shaped by his military experience and his personal experience playing offensive line. The other was shaped by his father (who also served in the Navy during World War II) both as a football coach and a man. One was known for his fiery temper as much as for his wins. The other is known for his calm, cerebral manner and for his less-than-exciting interviews and press conferences. Looking at the years and events that forged them as individuals, it would seem that they are as different as two men can be, aside from their shared interest in sports. 

The similarities begin when considering their time at Ohio State. Woody Hayes was hired even though he was less well-known than others who were considered for the job, including former OSU head coach and future Pro Football legend Paul Brown. Ohio State hired Tressel over Minnesota head coach Glen Mason and Pitt head coach Walt Harris. Both were expected to turn the program around after humiliating home losses to Michigan. Neither of them set the world on fire in their first season.

Woody Hayes ultimately coached at Ohio State for 28 years, winning 76.1% of his games for a record of 205-61-10. Tressel coached the Buckeyes for 10 seasons, winning 82.8% of his games for an overall record of 106-22. Hayes won 3 consensus national championships and 5 overall. He also won 13 Big Ten conference crowns. Tressel won a national championship at OSU, plus 4 others at Youngstown State to make it 5 overall. He won 7 Big Ten championships in his 10 years as Buckeye coach. Hayes beat hated arch-rival Michigan a record 16 times; Tressel 9 times. 

Despite the similar success they had on the football field, the biggest similarity between the two men was how they took care of their players off the field, and how they taught their players how to succeed in life. The story of how Jim Tressel guided his troops with a message of public service and sacrifice has already been described in detail here. However, in doing so, he was following in the footsteps of the great one. 

The stories about Hayes from former players are as legendary as his coaching record. One player said that Hayes would send coaches over to your dorm if you missed a single class. Another said that the old coach was the biggest reason he was motivated to attend law school. Hayes regularly visited Childrens Hospital and Riverside Hospital in Columbus, and usually brought gifts with him. He made a special effort to visit patients that had not had many visitors. And he frequently brought his players to the hospital with him, especially the star players. 

It would be easy to fill this space and many more with stories and anecdotes about the human side of Woody Hayes. The theme would be the same one that prevailed with Tressel: a man doing the right thing at a time when the cameras were not rolling and the reporters were not watching. Most people who have heard of Hayes know about the angry outbursts and about "the punch" but how many know about the hospital visits and the academics? How many know that Hayes was an amateur historian who was admired by many of the university professors for his dedication to the subject? 

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote

"In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody."

Woody Hayes was familiar with this passage, and the idea it embodies became the basis of his "pay forward" philosophy. The players who benefit from their time at Ohio State cannot ever pay the university back for all that they receive. Thus, they need to pay the community forward with acts of service and sacrifice. 

Ultimately, this is the biggest similarity between Hayes and Tressel. While it is true that both men were forced out "in disgrace", they both lived out their convictions off the field in the area of public service. They paid it forward, and all of us who have been part of the central Ohio community are beneficiaries. Both men have left a legacy that will carry on long after they have passed away. Neither ever asked for a pat on the back for their efforts. And that is as it should be.


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GoBucks713's picture

Two great men that were both taken down by one bad decision. I'm glad that Woody gets the praise and love from the Buckeye faithful for all of his deeds and service to the community. I just hope that Coach Tressell gets the same treatment when all of this is said and done, no matter the outcome. I for one am mad at Tress for what he did, but it doesn't change the fact that he is still a great man and did great things for our community, and the fact that no matter what, I will always respect the man tremendously.

-The Aristocrats!

Hoody Wayes's picture

Not only in "Central Ohio", Joe.

Here on "The Border - in Lucas County and in Sylvania, specifically, where I am a two-minute walk, from the Michigan state line...I assure you, all of us Buckeye fans (many, personally) here, have been the beneficiaries of the good and great deeds done by both of these men.

Remember, Columbus is where it's located. But, the Buckeyes are Ohio's team.

That's ALL of Ohio, Joe.

Joe Beale's picture

Hoody, I've lived my entire life here in the Columbus area, and so I wasn't sure exactly what the impact has been elsewhere. I'm glad you chimed in. If you can think of anything specific to share, please post it in the comments.

Hoody Wayes's picture

History ("The Toledo War") and geography (mandating that either Ohio State or Michigan will pass through here, annually, in November) are enough to raise the rivalry quotient, between the Buckeyes and Wolverenes.

And given the disturbing number of Michigan fans in this area and our proximity to Detroit, from which we get radio/TV, you guys might want to consider something like "The Border Report", during Michigan week. Ours is a unique perspective, up here.

For example:

ohioscott's picture

Nice Post Joe.

It is sad that Tressel couldn't weather the storm. If he could have held on, then I believe this episode would have been a footnote 10 years from now, should he have coached that long. Now, the way he went out, it becomes part of the legacy narrative, much like Woody.

The only difference is the body of work that Woody amassed was much more extensive, so history has started to treat him kinder now that decades have passed. Outside of Buckeye nation I'm not so sure Tressel will get that, especially when all the haters think of his lone National Championship as tainted by a late flag and the Maurice Clarett debacle.

The other big difference between Tres and Hayes is the actual end. Hayes, true to form, was unapologetic, refused to resign, and had to be fired by his former assistant Hindman. Not being an "in the know" guy on the matter I would like to think Tressel, rather then resigning to avoid the storm, recognized his transgression and took penalty like the classy human being he is.

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." - C. S. Lewis

TKOSU24's picture

Watching the Big 33 Game --- Ohio vs. PA. The Ohio squad looks good.

But, bad news: Devin Smith turned his leg akwardly on the turf, trying to catch a TD pass from Cardale Jones in the 1st quarter. Hope it's just a sprain, but it does look like it's his (left) knee, and not his ankle.

We are already thin at WR as it is, I'm sure the coaching staff is depending on this Smith contributing as a freshman in a few it rains -- it pours.

Pray that it's a just a knee sprain.

Also, OSU should have offered the kid from Ursiline in Y-town, Akis Teague, (headed to Cincy). I know we are loaded at RB and he's small. But this kid runs a 4.4, and is looking Barry Sanders-esque in this game so far. He is fast and quick, and productive. Teague already has wo TDs in the 1st quarter, one a 60-yarder, the other about a 15-yarder and a thing of beauty --- cutting on a dime and making defenders look foolish.

He's gonna be a great return specialist if nothing else.




UPDATE --- Smith apparently is fine --- he's back in the game, and just caught a 54-yard TD pass from Cardale Jones. Great to see two future Buckeyes hook up for a scoring connection, and happy to see Smith is ok.