Over his career, Jim Tressel won twelve national coach of the year awards as a head football coach at the Division 1 and 1AA levels. After serving as an assistant coach at the University of Akron and Ohio State, as well as elsewhere, he was named the head football coach at Youngstown State University. From 1986 to 2000, his teams at Youngstown State won four NCAA Division 1AA national championships. That success led to his being named the head football coach at Ohio State University, where he coached from 2001 to 2010. Over that decade, his teams won more than 80% of their games, compiling a 94-22 won-loss record, officially. More importantly to Ohio State football fans and Tressel’s legacy, the team went 14-0 in his second season, winning the national championship, and his record against the Buckeyes’ arch-rival, the Michigan Wolverines, was 8-1. After the national-championship season in 2002, his teams did, however, have a more mediocre record in bowl games and BCS bowl games (overall, 5-4 in bowl games and 4-3 in BCS bowl games), but Tressel remained a very respected and popular coach. His teams won six Big Ten championships, even if they did not win any further national championships. Then, in May 2011, Tressel resigned under considerable pressure after it was revealed that he had ignored evidence that his players were violating NCAA rules, most curiously by exchanging team merchandise and memorabilia for tattoos.
After resigning from his coaching position at Ohio State, Tressel worked during the 2011-2012 NFL football season as a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts. In 2012, he was named Vice President for Strategic Development and Student Success at the University of Akron. His candidacy for the presidency of Youngstown State follows his very recently being an unsuccessful finalist for the presidency of the University of Akron.
I think that the reasons that Tressel has been named the president at Youngstown State are fairly obvious. He has a long history with the institution and many political and other connections throughout the state of Ohio. And despite the scandal that led to his resignation from Ohio State, he remains a relatively well known and well liked figure throughout the state. So, it can be argued that his being named president at Youngstown State is a somewhat singular situation, involving a person with a somewhat singular history with the institution and somewhat singular stature and connections across the state in which the institution is located.
But, there are equally obvious reasons why his having been named president of any university, particularly a public university of some size and with a fairly long history, should be troubling.
First, he was a football coach for almost the entirety of his career, with only very brief experience as an administrator with any academic responsibilities. Arguing that a football coach has the requisite experience to be successful as the president of a university is tantamount to admitting how skewed the priorities of our institutions have become. It is reflective of the increasingly widespread conflation of celebrity and popularity with appropriate leadership experience. When Ronald Reagan entered politics, many skeptics questioned how a moderately successful actor could be taken seriously as a politician. His political success, however, paved the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s even more improbable political career, and during the last GOP presidential primary campaign, we saw almost ridiculously under-qualified candidates such as Donald Trump and Herman Cain attracting some serious attention and being given some consideration.
Second, Tressel not only seems to lack the requisite administrative experience, he also lacks the sort of academic credentials that we typically take for granted that the presidents of universities will have. He received a B.S. in Education from Baldwin Wallace in 1975 and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron in 1977. He does not have a Ph.D., has no academic publications of any note, and has never earned any sort of academic rank. If we have come to the point where we do not expect that the presidents of universities be academics, we are, in effect, very clearly and very pointedly conveying that our primary mission is no longer academic. Oh, our non-academic presidents may give lip service to the continuing, central importance of academics, but we are, in fact, accepting the corporatist argument that our institutions are now “something” much more than the programs and courses that we offer and the faculty who teach them.
Lastly, Tressel would not have resigned as the head football coach at Ohio State if he had not made a major error in judgment in choosing to ignore what he clearly knew were violations of NCAA rules. One can argue that some of the NCAA’s rules are ridiculous, or even that the whole structure of big-time college athletics has become farcical, with billions of dollars in revenue being generated for institutions and coaches while the actions of players are closely monitored to ostensibly preserve their amateurism. But, beyond those arguments, the fact remains that Tressel made a professional decision that was ill-considered enough to be derail his career as a coach. To be very clear, it was a professional error in judgment directly related to institutional standards and student behavior. What kind of message does it send that, barely three years later, he is being named the president of a university? I am not suggesting that no one should be given a second chance, but his being named a vice president at a university was a very significant second chance. This is considerably more than a second chance.
What kind of a message does it send about the integrity of our institutions, about our maintaining the values expressed in our institutional missions and mottos? The motto of Youngstown State University is “animus liberates,” which means “the mind freed” or “the spirit freed.” One feels compelled to ask how this decision by the Board of Trustees of Youngstown State University frees either the mind or the spirit. From what? From professional accountability?