Jim Tressel feared the worst when he received a phone message from San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary on Oct. 25. Singletary, who was with his team in London, wanted to talk about former Buckeye and current 49ers quarterback Troy Smith.
“He said it was regarding Troy, and as a parent, I’m like, ‘Oh, what did Troy do?’ because that’s how you think as a parent,” Tressel said. “So I called him back real quick, and it was good news.”
The good news was that Smith would be starting against the Denver Broncos in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith. Singletary was simply gathering information about his new quarterback.
Smith is 3-2 as a starting quarterback for the 49ers.
Conversations like that between Tressel and Singletary are not unlike the talks Tressel has with Ted Ginn Sr., who coached Smith at Cleveland’s Glenville Academy.
Since Tressel was hired in 2001, 14 of Ginn’s former players have played for Tressel at Ohio State. At least one Glenville player has committed to OSU every year since 2002, forming what has become known as the “Glenville pipeline.”
But the connection between the two coaches started when Tressel was still coaching at Youngstown State University.
Ginn and Tressel met while attending meetings for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1997, where the two discovered that they shared a common vision for their programs.
“I always admired him and understood his work,” Ginn said. “He took the leash off us at Youngstown State and made you great. He gave you a purpose and a reason to play football at Youngstown State, and I saw that early on.”
The Glenville Tarblooders were hardly a power when Ginn became coach in 1997, as the school was struggling to subsist in one of the poorest areas in east Cleveland.
But the school’s fortunes changed when Smith transferred there in 2001 and teamed up with future Buckeye and 49ers teammate Ted Ginn Jr., helping the school reach the state playoffs during his senior year.
Smith was the first Tarblooder to play for Tressel at OSU and was followed by a wave of others that included future NFL players Donte Whitner and Ginn Jr.
The two schools have since become linked with each other, and Ginn Sr. said the values he shares with Tressel made him comfortable forming that relationship.
“Coach Tressel helps you become a man but he also lets you know that you’re doing a job,” Ginn said. “You’re a servant to your state and community. It’s an obligation that you have to do. He’s doing a great job selling Ohio State to the players, and that creates a winning concept.”
Senior offensive lineman Bryant Browning, who graduated from Glenville in 2006, echoed Ginn’s sentiments.
“Coach Ginn and coach Tressel have that connection with each other,” Browning said. “Both guys really care about you on and off the field and make sure you do the right things to become a proper young man.”
The mutual respect between the two coaches goes beyond football, Tressel said.
“Coach Ginn has made a huge difference in many young people’s lives,” Tressel said. “His passion really is his school and giving those kids opportunities to become all they can be.
“It just so happens that football is kind of his hobby,” Tressel said. “In his 24 hours of the day, he probably spends two or three hours on football and the rest on the kids.”
Ginn said he doesn’t get much sleep at night, and there are times when he receives phone calls late at night to help his players.
“If we don’t help the kids, who will?” Ginn said. “Take that responsibility of helping the kids like a father and giving them guidance — that’s not in the coaching curriculum, but we put it in the book.”
Coming to OSU as an underdog quarterback, Smith surpassed expectations by winning the Heisman Trophy in 2006. During the trophy ceremony, he thanked Tressel and Ginn for their guidance.
But the accolades Smith received at OSU didn’t make his transition to the NFL any easier, as he started in only two games during his three years with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens released Smith before the start of the 2010 season, and he signed with the 49ers as a backup. But an injury to starting quarterback Alex Smith led him into the starting role, and he made the most of it.
The 49ers defeated the Broncos in Smith’s first start as he threw for 196 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, Ginn reflected on the player who had come to embody everything he and Tressel coach for.
“That’s a miracle,” Ginn said. “If you go by the design of what people think and what’s been in place for many years about kids from the inner city, that is a miracle.”