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Tressel's reverence in Youngstown goes beyond football

by Mike McFeely

Youngstown, Ohio

If you think the relationship between Youngstown State and former football coach Jim Tressel should be complicated, you could not be more wrong. The relationship is simple: Youngstown State, and the Ohio city in which it is located, reveres Tressel as a hero and sees him as a great man. Period.

It is left to outsiders to wonder if Tressel's dances with the NCAA both at Youngstown State and Ohio State have left a smudge on his legacy.

Jim Tressel (Photo courtesy Youngstown State University)

Earlier this week, I posted a video blog politely raising a question about Tressel's induction into Youngstown State's athletic Hall of Fame this weekend. I didn't say he shouldn't be inducted, but simply raised the idea of whether it will be awkward given Tressel's well-chronicled exit from Ohio State amid NCAA infractions and earlier, lesser-known issues at Youngstown State.

Friday's edition of the Youngstown newspaper, The Vindicator, sent this answer to my question in the form of a column written by Penguins beat writer Joe Scalzo :

"Note to all those uppity NDSU fans who seem offended that YSU is honoring a 'cheater': Go soak your head."

That would be the definition of non-ambiguous.

There are some indisputable facts about Tressel. His place in Youngstown history and why he is so highly revered is a bit more nuanced.

First, the facts:

Tressel won four NCAA Division I-AA national titles and had two runner-up finishes in the 1990s at Youngstown State, making the Penguins the powerhouse of that division.

He later won a national championship at the highest level of college football, at Ohio State in 2002.

Youngstown State drew attention from the NCAA during Tressel's time there because quarterback Ray Isaac, leader of the early national title teams, received money and the use of cars while playing for the Penguins. His benefactor was pharmacy magnate Mickey Monus (who later spent time in federal prison for corporate fraud). Monus was a major Youngstown State booster who was on the committee that hired Tressel and was on the sidelines during Penguins games. 

When the allegations finally came to light several years after they occurred, Youngstown State and Tressel conducted an internal investigation ESPN called "a sham."  Isaac was later found guilty of tampering with a juror in Monus' federal trial. 

The NCAA didn't take a serious look into Youngstown State's situation until late in the 1990s. The school eventually admitted to lack of institutional control and the NCAA docked it some scholarships. But since the NCAA statute of limitations on violations had expired, the school kept its 1991 national title.

Tressel, more famously, was involved in the Maurice Clarett mess at Ohio State and later resigned in 2011 following a different controversy that involved players selling school-issued gear in exchange for cash, tattoos and other benefits. Tressel was also cited for lying to the NCAA and covering it up.

He is currently an administrator at the University of Akron.

Those are the facts. The reasons why the good citizens of Youngstown and its university would take offense at the suggestion Tressel is less-than-perfect are based in history.

Youngstown was once a booming steel-mill town where good-paying jobs were plentiful. It was a city that built America and helped win the Civil War and two World Wars. That ended abruptly on Sept. 19, 1977 (still known as Black Monday) when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it was going to close its massive operation at the end of the week. In an instant, 5,000 Youngstown residents were out of a job. Other Youngstown-area steel mills like U.S. Steel soon shut down, too, and moved their jobs overseas.

That time period was immortalized in a Bruce Springsteen song titled "Youngstown."

The effect on the region was, and still is, devastating. Not only were the mill jobs lost, the ripple effect on other industries and businesses was crushing. Jobs, people and money fled Youngstown. Crime (including the Mafia), corruption, poverty and desperation moved into the city. Youngstown's population dropped by more than half and it became one of the most crime-ridden cities in America.

In came the clean-cut Tressel, who was hired in 1986. As ESPN wrote about a decade ago:

Tressel looked like a minister in his trademark sweater vest and perfect haircut, and played the part, too, founding a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at the school. His athletes traveled in coat and tie and said "Yes, ma'am" to airplane flight attendants. He talked constantly about his players as family and about the team as a tool for community pride. As many as 20,000 fans a game filled the team's downtown stadium, cheering for the Penguins -- and for the revival of a valley's heart. "That's what kept that city alive, the university and the hospitals," said Ray Isaac, quarterback on Tressel's first title team. "We were the toast of the town. We had parades. We had it all."

And the Penguins won, and won often. They won national titles in 1991, '93, '94 and '97 and lost in the championship game twice more. Tressel left for Ohio state in 2000.

Bob Hannon has been the Youngstown State football play-by-play man for 23 years. He told me: "Coach Tressel is a legend here in Youngstown. He built this place. Our facilities are the best   and without Coach Tressel it would have never happened. He is also a better man than he is a coach."

Bill Schuler is a Youngstown native and YSU graduate who now lives in Georgia. He wrote me to explain Tressel's impact on the city and university:

"After the steel mill business crashed in the late 1970s the city went in to a period of great job loss and poverty. Youngstown became the center of the "Rust Belt" with remnants of the the once great manufacturing community Y-town was. As time went on the population declined (and is still in decline) and there wasn't much hope.

"In the early 1980s Y-town produced a world champion boxer named Ray Mancini and he was a symbol of the toughness and grit the town was made of and the people got behind him. Ray is a great guy, but he also left when he got the chance. Many people were somewhat stuck there due to lack of skill and education.  Many of the jobs were hourly jobs that were unskilled labor positions at the mills.

"Then came Jim Tressel. Yes, it was great that he won national championships while he was here, but there is so much more to him than you could ever realize. He put Y-town back on the map and all, but the man did so much for the community in other ways. That is what set him apart and made him somewhat of a hero.

"I hope that people of Fargo never have to go through what we have gone through. It was really, really bad. The people and children living in poverty paired with the Mafia crime magnified the issues. The coach took care of many people in the area and did many great things that have nothing to do with winning football games."

The situation with Youngstown and Tressel was a unique confluence of factors brought together by winning football games. That is why their relationship is uncomplicated. 

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)