Friday, June 10, 2011

When a Hero Falls

When a hero falls
Jim Tressel -- AP File photo
By Aaron M. Smith

I nervously paced outside that door for what felt like a week. I knew I would be able to do my job when he arrived; I just hoped he would give me the opportunity.

In the autumn of 2002, just a couple months after earning my degree in journalism from Ohio University, I was starting my journalism career at the tiny Urbana Daily Citizen in rural Ohio. Half of my time was spent in the news department, the other half writing for the sports section. I mostly covered high school sports, but every once in a while, the sports editor -- Steve Stout -- allowed me to use our paper's credential to cover various big-time sporting events. I covered the Cincinnati Reds a few times and was able to cover a few Ohio State football games.

Urbana University had recently hired a new head football coach named Todd Murgatroyd, who once was the program assistant/assistant recruiting coordinator under head coach Jim Tressel at The Ohio State University. Stout wanted me to do a story on him and knew I would be using the paper's credential at the next Buckeye football game. I usually roamed the sidelines, took notes, and attended the post game press conference to get experience. I hadn't done any one-on-one interviews yet. But my editors felt it would be a good time for me to do one. Stout wanted me to interview Tressel about Murgatroyd and then write a feature on the new Urbana coach. I was equal parts excited and nauseated. This interview would be, by far, the biggest for me -- that is, if I could even get Tressel to talk to a green reporter from a small newspaper in rural Ohio.

Once the Ohio State game ended, reality hit me like a salivating middle linebacker: How the hell am I supposed to get a hold of Tressel for a one-on-one interview? I had no idea how the system worked. I didn't have a clue about protocol. I didn't feel that talking about Murgatroyd was appropriate for the post game presser. I would try and corner him as he walked off the stage, I thought. I tried. I failed. A big balding fellow put up his arms and made it known to me that I had gone far enough.

Now what?

I left the room and went down a hall that looked like it may go to a locker room. It did. I walked in and saw various Buckeye players milling around in towels. I looked for Coach Tressel, but he was nowhere in sight. I talked to a security guard and asked if he knew of the coach's whereabouts. He did. Coach Tressel was taping his television show in the stadium somewhere. I asked if Tressel would be back down to the locker room. Doubtful. I was told he usually goes home after the taping.

I felt sick. I didn't want to return to Urbana and say I wasn't able to get the interview. I should've been able to do it; I was desperate not to fail. I began walking around he stadium looking for possibilities. I noticed a few assistant coaches walking out of a door and walked over in that direction. I was not allowed inside. The doorman, however, did tell me that it was possible that Tressel could come down this way. So I waited.

And waited. And waited.

Every time the door opened I stood up. Every time the door opened, someone other than Jim Tressel walked through it. Just as I was about to chalk this failure up to experience, the door opened once again. Out walked Coach Tressel with his arm around his wife Ellen. I stood up. This was my chance.

"Excuse me, Coach?"

He stopped and stuck out his hand to shake mine.

"Coach, my name is Aaron Smith and I write for the Urbana Daily Citizen," I said. "I'm writing a story on Urbana University's new football coach Todd Murgatroyd and I was hoping to talk to you for a little bit."

"Ah, Todd Murgatroyd," Tressel said. "That's a good man. I'd be happy to talk."

As I was about to spew my line of questioning, Tressel quietly asked his wife to bring the car around before inviting me back upstairs to his office. I was stunned. Here is a Division-I coach at The Ohio State University and he is taking the time to answer a small-town reporter's questions.

Back in his office he had me sit across his desk. He asked me about my career, how long I've been writing, and about my family. He then talked about Murgatroyd in great detail -- I didn't have to ask a single question. He gave me everything I needed and told me to tell Murgatroyd he said hello and good luck. Tressel then escorted me back down to the door, shook my hand again, and left in the small car his wife had pulled around.

I was forever changed after that experience. Tressel didn't need to treat me with that level of respect -- most people in his position would have kept on walking. I had been ignored by Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn when I covered a few baseball games in Cincinnati. Yet Tressel never appeared to be bothered by me. He never made me feel that I was wasting his time. He treated me the way I would expect him to treat someone from ESPN or Sports Illustrated, not the Urbana Daily Citizen.

I felt Tressel was the absolute class of collegiate sports and I followed his career since that afternoon. He was a hero of sorts -- he did things the right way.

Then came the bombshell over the last year or so that has ultimately cost Tressel his job at Ohio State. I am still stunned and in disbelief. I won't go over the details of this because it's been written about 1,000 different ways.

I will say that I still respect Jim Tressel. I feel in my heart of hearts that he is a good man who tried too hard to protect players that didn't show him the same respect. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, but I cannot believe his intent was to cheat the NCAA. Jon Thoma is a former player under Tressel and this is what he had to say on his blog about his former coach.
"We had a responsibility to present ourselves in a positive way, as we were representatives of so many things so much bigger than ourselves.  Apparently, some of us could not handle that honor. 
"To some of us, there were different priorities, and becoming a man under the watchful eye of millions around the world was too much.  George Dohrmann from Sports Illustrated suggested that Jim Tressel lost control of his football team.  Quite the contrary.  The Ohio State Football culture took over Columbus.  Coach was the only reason there WAS any control on this football team.  Ask the troubled former receiver.  Ask the star quarterback.  Our mistakes occurred away from his watchful eye.

"Our mistakes had nothing to do with Jim Tressel."
I believe that there is more truth in Thoma's words than in the thousand or so words that Dohrmann published in Sports Illustrated.

I just hope I'm not being naive. Because I don't know what would hurt more: hearing the allegations against Jim Tressel and seeing his tenure end at Ohio State, or accepting and believing that those allegations are all true.

No comments:

Post a Comment