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Brian September 22nd, 2009 at 2:52 PM

devilsfootball jim-tressel-yo lloyd-carr-gogogo

Earlier this year when one Ohio State blogger who pops his head up around here from time to time invoked what must be the second most-dread name in coaching* to an Ohio State fan considering the leadership of his favored program, I basically scoffed at the comparison:

I'm not saying Jim Tressel is Lloyd Carr, but... what separates Lloyd Carr in say, 2002 or 2003, from Jim Tressel right now? This is a line of thought I've been seriously following for the better part of a year now. I'd like some input from Michigan fans on this.

Here's my input: that's way hasty.

Though Jim Tressel shares many of Lloyd Carr's philosophies, he's been much better at making sure his unwavering belief that he has a kick-ass defense, great special teams, and pounding ground game is accurate. This made his philosophies actually work on the field. It makes way more sense to play Lloyd/Tresselball when your quarterback is Craig Krenzel and your middle linebacker is AJ Hawk than when your quarterback is Tom Brady and your middle linebacker is Zack Kaufman.

And Tressel has consistently displayed an aptitude for pulling out the stops when it comes to The Game. The single play that leaps out to me from Tressel's oeuvre that demonstrates his mastery of Michigan came midway through 2006's Football Armageddon. Ohio State rushed to the line after a nine-yard gain, aligned in a power formation, snapped the ball almost as soon as it was set, and ran play action that sucked Ryan Mundy up and led to an easy touchdown. That touchdown represented the four points separating a win from a loss and spoke of meticulous, wily preparation. (And, of course, the fact that Michigan safety play was consistently awful for ten years.) Jim Tressel is only a dinosaur when it suits him, which is usually but not always.

"Usually" is fine when you're going up against teams you've out-recruited for a decade. It's not when you're going up against USC or Florida or Texas, and in the aftermath of Ohio State's six straight failed attempt to prove themselves something other than a local bully, Ohio State fans got antsy, even angry. Then Chris Brown of Smart Football unloaded on Jim Tressel in a guest post at Doctor Saturday. You've probably seen it already. It instantly became an internet sensation everywhere from here to Ohio State message boards to, apparently (and possibly apocryphally), Tressel himself on Columbus radio. It's remarkable in a number of ways, but mostly for the strident tone Brown adopts. Brown has established himself as the blogosphere's most knowledgeable and perceptive observer of football, and he's done so without depressing a key in anger. The effect of the piece was similar to Bill Cosby calling someone you hate a stupid caveman:

[Tressel] is not good enough of a tactician to win against the national elite who, unlike practically everyone he schemes against in his conference, have the talent to match Ohio State's, and those are the only games where coaching really matters. With his facilities, talent, and resources, winning the Big Ten is not the test.

Look at the numbers. Ohio State's failure to beat a quality opponent since defeating Michigan to punch a ticket to the national championship game in 2006, Tressel's teams have been outclassed, outsmarted, outplayed and outprepared in every big game they've played.

If you haven't read it already, stop everything immediately and do so. The thing is pure porn for Wolverines, especially because the counter-example to stupid is the guy currently calling the plays for Tate Forcier.

You'll note that the other side of the ball was ahead of USC's curve. This seems like less of an accomplishment than it did a week ago, but this kind of statement from an offensive lineman…

We spent all night trying to adjust to what they were doing up front. They did not come with the stuff we practiced against.”

…is the precise opposite of what Michigan fans will remember hearing and loathing whenever Michigan made a Rose Bowl against teams that would bash their heads in with a stick. That's high praise for the coaches and something that keeps Ohio State afloat even when they've got wonky quarterbacking—which, by my count, has been all but two years of Tressel's tenure.

This is about adaptation. In Michigan's win over Notre Dame, Tate Forcier threw 33 times, which was eight more attempts than Pat White ever had at West Virginia. Meanwhile, Tressel attempts to pound a square peg into a round, arm-punting hole. This goes beyond just the playcalling, though you'd never think it given the postgame reaction.

There was a minor hubbub about Tressel dropping something analogous to Rich Rodriguez's infamous "get a life" quote, albeit in exquisitely Senator Tressel fashion:

"When I read some of them I feel terrible for them because there's no way they're happy," he said. "They've got to be some of the most unhappy people in the world, and I feel bad because we just made them less happy, and I hate to be a part of making someone less happy. I mean, they're already miserable."

Exact same sentiment as "get a life," but respun in a way that defuses the hubbub. Yea, truly, Jim Tressel is a brilliant politician. But Holy God the only person to not totally ignore the big story from that press conference was Adam Rittenberg, who spent a bunch of his post on the matter detailing the ridiculous decisions Tressel made en route to defeat:

Tressel, who said he makes most of the play calls even though Jim Bollman has the title of offensive coordinator, disdained going for a touchdown in favor of an easy field goal on fourth-and-goal at the USC 1 early in the second quarter. He also favored punting on fourth-and-1 at the USC 45 in the third quarter.

With around 8 minutes left in the game and Ohio State gripping a 15-10 lead, the Buckeyes drove to a first down at the USC 35. After a run gained 3 yards, quarterback Terrelle Pryor threw an incompletion and then was sacked for a 4-yard loss that meant kicker Aaron Pettrey would have a 53-yard attempt on fourth-and-11 at the USC 36. Tressel elected to punt again.

That punt led to the Trojans taking control for an impressive 86-yard drive that won the game.

Ohio State is going toe-to-toe with a program they consider their equal. They're actually a significant underdog, with USC favored by seven. And Tressel kicked a field goal from the one yard line, punted on fourth and one on USC's side of the field, and punted from the USC 36. All of these things are insane by the numbers and more so when you've recruited a 6'6" beast of a quarterback who can fall forward for a first down behind the swamp-beast of a guard who you stole from Michigan. Tressel shriveled up and reduced variance in a game he is the underdog in because he finds it extremely hard to shift gears. By doing so he set his team up to lose a narrow lead late. His decisions can be directly blamed for the loss. Ohio State should never have been up only five points in that game. Engineering students of Ohio State, welcome to the same level of hell I was on after the 2005 Ohio State game. May you reside here long and painfully.

This is a failure to adapt. For twenty years Tressel has operated at a significant talent advantage relative to almost all of his peers. With the relative collapses of Michigan and Penn State—who has beaten OSU of late when the talent scales approach even—there has been no local program fit to challenge Ohio State recruiting star to recruiting star, and he's rolled up conference championships and victories only to be smacked down when the big guys from elsewhere roll into town. Tressel is fixed in his ways and has not been challenged sufficiently to re-evaluate his philosophy. At this point it's hard to imagine him doing so simply because of inertia. And the big games continue to roll by without victories. Tressel, at this point, is not a version of Carr waiting to happen. He's Bo Schembechler. 


POSTSCRIPT: The exercise of comparing Rodriguez to Tressel, Carr, and Schembechler is largely left to the reader, but I'll refer you to an earlier piece that has been reinforced by the first three weeks of this season and the Smart Football article above. Money (ha) graf:

Rodriguez comes from a wholly different background than Carr, coming up through the ranks at NAIA schools and Tulane and Clemson and West Virginia. Until Pat White showed up he never had a significant talent advantage against the vast majority of opponents. He never, ever had the luxury of lying back and thinking to himself "if we out-execute the opponent we will win," and it shows. He invented a whole new offense and used it to exploit inefficiencies in recruiting. To seal the Sugar Bowl against Georgia he called a fake punt, exploiting inefficiencies in fourth-down playcalling. For the past seven years he has played Moneyball at West Virginia.

*(Number one.)



September 22nd, 2009 at 7:55 PM ^

Many people are uneasy saying a QB that just so happens to be African American may not be an intelligent QB. I happen to think that Jeff George, who is a Caucasian, was not that intelligent. Navarre, for three years just drove me crazy. Navarre finally got it his senior year. If you are not that intelligent then you are not. Race is not the issue, brains are. We all know why we shy away from commenting on a player's intelligence. In the past race and intelligence were associated together, negatively, regarding QBs. I would hope we are beyond race as a nation. I know we are not there yet. There are some great QBs that are whatever race. Warren Moon was an intelligent QB. Moon was talented too. Tennessee's Tee Martin was a heady, talented, and artful QB. Tee Martin is African American. Troy Smith was better than Terrelle Pryor at the same point in their careers. Both of those guys are African American.

Personally, I don't care what color, culture, planet or gender you are from a long as you are a good player for my Wolverines. So if I say Pryor is not that heady of a QB, my premise does not come from a race based response. I think he is playing in the wrong system. He is playing the wrong position too. Pryor is a wonderfully talented player. He is not a guy who will be a great NFL QB. Maybe he will prove me wrong. I just hope he not great against Michigan.


September 23rd, 2009 at 11:08 AM ^

Troy redshirted his freshman year so while Troy Smith looked better in his first games at QB for OSU, he was in essense, a true junior. Troy Smith was playing special teams and running back in his second season with the Buckeyes.

Otherwise, I agree.


September 22nd, 2009 at 9:36 PM ^

that Pryor is 3 games into his Sophomore season? Criticizing his game now seems a bit hasty to me.

Also, there are times when being conservative makes sense. The History of College football is littered with portfolios of coaches who were liberal in their risk taking.(Hello, Charlie Weis and Ron Zook)

The key is knowing WHEN to risk and when not to. I remember Bob Stoops--a defensive guy--faking a punt in his own end when facing Alabama a few years back. It worked and OU held on to win.

For all the criticism of Tressell, there is no disputing the fact that he wins alot of games by playing fundamentally sound and taking a low risk approach to football games. This has earned him victories over Texas, Miami, Kansas State as well as dominance over Michigan.He has won 5 Big Ten titles as well as a National Title. ALl this in 8 years at the helm. Pretty dartn good if you ask me.


September 22nd, 2009 at 10:31 PM ^

it's not hasty, it's consistent. tate has been lauded and praised for his performance 3 games into his freshman year, why not a sophomore who played a considerable amount his first year?

further no one is arguing tressel is a bad coach. dantonio is not a bad coach. however they both play a scheme, as brian argues, that will have a definitive ceiling for its shortcoming is a reliance on simplicity and not the eclectic or innovative.

i think you truly missed the point of this piece.


September 23rd, 2009 at 9:59 AM ^

The game is tied. They're play at home. Against a team with a freshman quarterback who has been stymied most of the game. They're in the opposing teams territory. Their quarterback is a 6'6", 235 pound marvel of nature. Their entire season hinges on this game.

And Tressel doesn't think his offense can gain a single yard?

If you can't do that, you deserve to lose. At least going for it keeps the possibility of winning alive.


September 23rd, 2009 at 9:31 AM ^

I sat down to watch the 2006 Championship game between OSU and Florida with a 6 pack of nice beer, secure in my knowledge that OSU was going to disembowel Florida. How could they not? Up to that point Tressel was cash money in the big games. Sure he Tressel balled it up but just when he needed it there was a 4th and 1 bomb, fake FG, wheel route to a felon.

After the opening kick off, I recieved a text message that said, "how about that SEC speed" and the sacrifice had begun. But not for the reasons I thought.

After the opening kick off Tressel's big game mojo, at least in my mind, burst. It's end was shockingly abrupt and complete.

Having watched the second half of the USC/OSU game again, I can say that punting from inside USC's territory on 4th and 1 to start the second half strikes me as a mistake. Our own coach, and I suspect USC's coach, go for that every time.

OSU also started 2 possession in USC territory in the 4th quarter and got no points. That right there would haunt my dreams if I were an OSU fan. You've got to do better than that.


September 23rd, 2009 at 1:40 PM ^

What is the expectation here that Tressel isn't living up to? Is he basically being criticized for not winning 4 or 5 national championships this decade (a feat that would be unmatched in the modern era of college football)? And what are these "big games" where he is costing OSU wins? I don't think it is unfair to punish any coach (Tressel, Carr, Paterno, everyone else in the country) for losing to USC during the Pete Carroll era. They have destroyed everybody (yes, even you SEC schools). The only teams to even keep it close are this years Buckeyes, the 2005 Longhorns, and Weiss' 2005 team (maybe throw in Va Tech in 2004, even though the score still ended up in double digits).

Brian threw in Texas on the list of teams the Buckeyes had struggled against, but I don't think losing on two last second drives against Vince Young's national title team and last year's team that probably deserved to play in the championship game is cause for criticism, especially when a blowout win in Austin is sandwiched between those two. So essentially Tressel is only being criticized for losing to Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll (and for not winning a national title with Todd Boeman as his quarterback). Welcome to the fucking club, Vest.

As for the SC game this year, Tressel put a freshman QB and an offense that hadn't done anything all day (or the next week either for that matter) in a position where they had to drive the length of the field in a hostile environment. Barring a great performance from Joe McKnight, OSU wins that game and Tressel is being slurped over like after the Miami Fiesta Bowl win. With the way his own offense struggled (missing on a fourth-and-two the week before allowed Navy back into the game, remember) I can't argue with the conservative strategy he implemented.


September 26th, 2009 at 10:19 AM ^

You need to recheck your stats and/or learn the strategy behind football. First off, OSU did not have a freshman QB, USC did. Your comment that OSU's offense didn't do anything all game is the whole point of this post (you really didn't get that?!). USC put 8 in the box with 2 CBs and a deep safety all game. OSU had 3 WRs and still ran the ball up the middle 75% of the time despite being outnumbered 6 to 8 in terms of blockers (QB -1, WR -3, RB -1). When the other team has more guys then you in the box you throw (or if you have to run then run outside of the box!). This is football 101. This is what bad HS coaches know. When the other teams strength is run D up the middle you don't spend all game running up the middle!!!

If Tressel had any brains he would counter to USC putting 8 in the box by throwing a bubble screen to his slot WR. Throwing a bubble screen would of gotten OSU 30 yards or more because the slot WR was UNCOVERED ALL GAME. If the outside WR blocks the CB, then the only person who can tackle the slot WR is the S who is 20 yards away and in the middle of the field. A quick slot would easily score. This would also help open the run game because after you score on a 60 yard screen pass, USC is going to cover you WR. That means it will be 7 on 8 in the box meaning the RB makes 1 guy miss and he has a big gain. These points are all mentioned in the article by Chris Brown mentioned 2-3 times in the original post the you must not have read.

Besides what play to call, the fact that while OSU was AT HOME and the underdog Tressel still didn't go for 2 4th and 1's or a 50 yd FG shows you he has decided to not lose instead of going for the win. If OSU makes one of those plays the pressure switches over to USC's FRESHMAN QB who is on the road for the first time in a night game at a loud, packed stadium and he needs a TD.

Also, why do you think no team should beat USC under Carroll, nevermind a highly ranked team at home at night going up against a young QB in his first ever road game? An unranked Washington, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA have beaten USC. Fresno State almost beat USC at USC (when USC had 2 Heisman winners in the backfield) and Fresno is in the WAC! USC is so overrated annually. They play in a terrible conference (the second/third best team Cal almost lost to Minnesota) and their bowl games are 90% of the time at home. So USC beats up (except once a year) a conference with teams like Arizona, Stanford, and Washington States and then wins 1 hard game at home when the other team travels 1,000 miles minimum to get there. Yeah, they sound untouchable, unless you are Washington or Stanford.


September 23rd, 2009 at 2:11 PM ^

I think there is validity to the Carr/Tressel comparison, and by saying that I'm not trying diminish either one as a coach. My observation:

1. Both are (or were in Carr's case) amazing recruiters. While Ohio is a better base than Michigan, getting 4 and 5 star recruits is hard no matter where you are.
2. Both seem stubborn and risk-adverse.
3. Both probably share Bo's view the Big Ten is the be all and end all.
4. Both suffer from unrealistic expectations from their fanbase.