When Jim Tressel was hired at Ohio State in 2001, he came to Columbus unproven at the Division I level of football.
But 103 victories, six Big Ten championships and a national title later, few are second-guessing OSU’s decision to hire the former Youngstown State coach.
Tressel will probably be the first coach to leave OSU on his own terms since Carroll Widdoes did in 1945. It also isn’t wild conjecture to say that he will likely leave the program stronger than it was when he replaced John Cooper.
It’s still impossible to know when Tressel will leave. But at 57 and in his 10th season with the Buckeyes — and with a contract that expires in 2014 — it’s not too early, or difficult, to speculate on potential replacements.
Once Tressel puts his sweater vests back in the closet for good, expect to see these four coaches (all of whom have ties to OSU) among several other potential candidates.
Urban Meyer will likely be the most sought-after candidate to replace Tressel, and with good reason.
The Ashtabula, Ohio, native has won two national championships coaching the Florida Gators and is one of the strongest recruiters in the nation.
A lifelong OSU fan, Meyer wore the No. 45 jersey in honor of Archie Griffin as a kid and got his first collegiate coaching job as a graduate assistant at OSU in 1986. He said he idolizes Woody Hayes and even carries a Buckeye in his pocket for good luck.
Meyer is also someone who Tressel holds in high regard.
“I think it is another thing for Ohio to brag about,” Tressel said in 2007 of Meyer’s Ohio connection. “We like to say Ohio is the birthplace of football and it is one of the great football states. Yes, we are proud (Meyer) is an Ohio guy.”
But luring Meyer back to OSU is unlikely for several reasons.
One is his health — chest pains caused by esophageal spasms nearly forced the 46-year-old Meyer into retirement last season. Even though he returned to Florida after only three months of absence, his coaching future remains questionable.
Another issue with Meyer is whether his offensive scheme can work against Big Ten defenses.
In theory, Meyer’s dynamic spread attack would be a welcome change from Tressel’s conservative and often predictable playcalling. But similiar offenses in the Big Ten have had trouble against the conference’s robust defenses.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, Illinois coach Ron Zook and former Michigan State coach John L. Smith have all tried to use spread offenses in the Big Ten, to find marginal success.
It’s unclear whether Meyer would even want the OSU job if he chose to leave Florida. Although his Ohio roots run deep, his name is often linked to the Notre Dame coaching job, which he has said is his “dream job.”
That might seem laughable after a comparison of recent OSU and Notre Dame football teams, but if coach Brian Kelly’s tenure with the Fighting Irish turns out to be anything like his first season with the school, Meyer might get called to Notre Dame before Tressel retires.
Bo Pelini is one of the rising stars in the coaching world.
In only his third year with Nebraska, Pelini has brought the Cornhuskers back to relevance after years of futility. Nebraska is ranked No. 8 in the BCS standings.
His teams display a power running game that, combined with an aggressive defense, seems patented for Big Ten football.
His body of work has impressed Tressel.
“You can see he’s done a great job of making sure that everyone understands the responsibility they have to live up to this tradition, the way that things are done in Huskerland,” Tressel told Nebraska’s Omaha World-Herald in April. “I think he’s very methodical, very prepared.”
A former captain for the Buckeyes who played at OSU from 1986 to 1990, Pelini will probably hear his alma mater calling him when Tressel departs. And he’ll have to listen, even if his immediate focus is on Nebraska.
“They have a great coach,” Pelini said of OSU to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer in April. “Coach Tressel will be here for a long time. They’ve got a great staff. All I worry about is what I’m doing in my current job.”
Besides a likely pay increase (Tressel’s annual salary is $3.5 million, compared to Pelini’s $2.1 million), the OSU job would put him in one of the nation’s most prosperous recruiting grounds, giving him resources he doesn’t have at Nebraska.
And although Pelini has revived the football culture at Nebraska, the temptation to return to his home state might be strong enough to take him from Lincoln. It remains to be seen how Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten will affect his commitment to the school.
Pelini’s contract, like Tressel’s, expires in 2014.
Of all the assistant coaches at OSU, none has been as heavily pursued as 36-year-old Luke Fickell.
A defensive lineman who started a record 50 consecutive games for OSU from 1993 to 1996, Fickell has become one of the most important assistants on Tressel’s staff, serving as the linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator for the past six seasons.
Coaching one of the most heralded defenses in the nation has given Fickell plenty of attention from other schools.
In 2008, Fickell was a candidate for the head coaching job at Bowling Green and in 2009 was nearly hired at Akron, although those jobs were eventually given to older coaches.
“Luke was recommended as someone I should speak with during the process, and we had a productive phone conversation,” Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher told The Lantern. “Luke obviously has a passion for the game.”
He also turned down the chance to coach Notre Dame’s defensive line in 2009.
Former Buckeye linebacker James Laurinaitis cites Fickell as one of the most influential coaches on the staff and someone who challenges his players every day in practice.
“I think when Coach Tressel decides to leave that Fickell is definitely someone they’re going to have to look at,” Laurinaitis said. “He’s a great leader and he’s going to be a great head coach some day, whether he’s at Ohio State or somewhere else.”
Fickell hasn’t given any indication about his immediate future, which could come into question once the season is over.
“To think about someplace else wouldn’t even cross my mind,” Fickell told The Lantern. “I don’t have enough time in the day.”
Another assistant coach who shouldn’t be overlooked is Darrell Hazell.
As the assistant head coach and receivers coach at OSU, Hazell has made his mark by taking overlooked recruits such as Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Hartline and molding them into solid NFL receivers.
Roy Hall, a former OSU receiver playing with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL, said the success of OSU receivers is a testament to Hazell’s disciplined teaching methods.
“Coach Hazell is extremely detail-oriented and he brings kind of a military approach to the way he does things,” Hall said. “He demands a lot of the receivers there and he has a lot of insight on the game of football.”
Hazell is also one of the team’s most effective recruiters, a desired trait for anybody aspiring to be a college coach. In addition to his coaching assets, he can reach his players on a personal level, Hall said.
“He’s a mentor and he gives you a lot of insight on life as well as football,” Hall said. “He’s one of those coaches that you would invite to a wedding.”
Multiple requests to speak to Hazell were declined.
Though his work with receivers is well-documented, his role with the rest of the offense is somewhat mysterious. Never one to hog the spotlight, Hazell usually backs away from questions about his role in play-calling and whatever other duties he might have with the offense.
That humility might exclude him from pursuing a head coac
hing job at OSU. However, his competitive edge might someday prove otherwise.
“He’s a huge competitor and he’s just a student of the game,” Hall said. “He takes on the war approach when he goes into a game. He knows about everybody on the (other team’s) defense, not just the defensive backs. He’s a winner, and having that ‘never-give-up’ mentality would make him a great coach.”