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Commentary: Jim Tressel belongs on the field with rest of 2002 National Championship team

Lantern file photo

Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is at least partially responsible for the fact that Saturday’s regular-season finale versus Michigan will be the Buckeyes’ final football game of the season.

But for a brief moment Saturday, during a game in which the No. 4 Buckeyes will be playing to finish their first season under new coach Urban Meyer undefeated, Tressel will take center stage.

OSU will honor the 10th anniversary of the program’s 2002 football team, the last Buckeye squad to win a national championship, in a ceremony during halftime at Ohio Stadium Saturday. The Columbus Dispatch reported Nov. 12 that Tressel, the coach of that team, plans to attend.

Tressel’s return comes in a game in which the Buckeyes will be pursuing a 12-0 record for the season, but will also be the final time the Buckeyes take the field this season. That is a result of a postseason ban levied against OSU by the NCAA in response to the 2010 “Tattoo-Gate” scandal that ultimately forced Tressel to resign in May 2011.

As one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in college football, the Buckeyes would be in very good position to play for a national championship if not for the NCAA sanctions. A big reason for the Buckeyes’ season instead ending Saturday, no matter the game’s result, was Tressel’s failure to disclose his knowledge of players accepting improper benefits by selling memorabilia for tattoos.

For Buckeyes fans who make that link, it will be hard not to have any bitter feelings toward Tressel when considering what could have been for the Buckeyes this season. That could lead many fans to boo or react negatively when Tressel is introduced on the field Saturday.

That said, Tressel belongs to be on the field with the team he coached, and he should be honored with cheers and applause as the players on that team will be.

While there will always be a wide range of views on what Tressel’s imperfect legacy should be, his success as a coach when it came to winning games is undeniable. Even excluding the 12 wins from the 2010 season that were officially vacated by the NCAA sanctions, Tressel had a career record at OSU of 94-22.

The highlight of his career, of course, was leading the Buckeyes to a 14-0 season and a national title in 2002. That championship can’t be celebrated properly without recognizing Tressel’s role in that accomplishment.

That championship would not have happened without Tressel, then in his second year leading the Buckeyes. Tressel did a masterful job in building a championship program quickly, leading a team that lost 10 combined games in the final two seasons before he took over as coach, to an undefeated season in only his second season.

Certainly, some credit has to go to Tressel’s predecessor, John Cooper, who was responsible for recruiting the upperclassmen on the 2002 team, including former quarterback Craig Krenzel, defensive end Will Smith and safety Mike Doss. Cooper, however, was not getting results on the field, and Tressel built a coaching staff who developed the inherited talent while also bringing in recruits such as former running back Maurice Clarett and two-way standout Chris Gamble who played key roles that season.

The purpose of Saturday’s ceremony is to honor a national championship team, the pinnacle of achievement for any athletic program. While the Buckeyes might be deprived of their opportunity to pursue a national championship this season, that does not discredit what the 2002 team already accomplished.

The fans who stand up and cheer for the championship-winning players should give the team’s sweater-vested leader the same response. Booing Tressel would tarnish what is supposed to be a moment of celebration for one of the greatest teams in OSU history, a team who likely wouldn’t have reached that level of greatness if not for Tressel.

The focus of Saturday’s game should be solely upon the Urban era, as Meyer attempts to lead the Buckeyes to an undefeated season in his first year as OSU coach. For a brief moment, however, the greatest accomplishment of the Tressel era will be celebrated in front of the OSU crowd, and that championship cannot be properly celebrated without celebrating the coach who built that team.  

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