It was five years ago this week when Jim Tressel made his first appearance as the Ohio State head coach at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago.
This was the first opportunity for most Big Ten media members and fans to see what Tressel was all about. Of course, he had not coached a game yet for OSU, having just taken the job the previous January after a 15-year stint as the head coach at Youngstown State.
Today, on the eve of the 2006 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon where Tressel’s Buckeyes figure to be favored to repeat as conference champions, we will relive that moment from Aug. 2, 2001. This speech is republished from our book on the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
As the newest member to the Big Ten coaching ranks, Tressel spoke last.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler served as the Kickoff Luncheon emcee for the crowd of 2,000 at the Chicago Sheraton Towers. Fowler recounted a story about going to France to see American Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France bicycle race.
Tressel picked up the Armstrong theme and adapted it as he shared his feelings on a number of topics. Here are excerpts from that speech, which was greeted by rousing applause from the nearly 2,000 people in attendance:
“I’ve been sitting up here this entire luncheon trying to figure out what I can share with this group, having only been a part of this Big Ten family for the last six months.
“I have been racing through my mind thinking about what I have learned these last six months. If I could just take off on something Chris mentioned earlier when he talked about his experience with following Lance Armstrong and the great pleasure he is going to have when he goes to the White House and presents him as the champion.
“I think back to Lance’s tremendous story. Many of you, I’m sure, have read his book. I don’t remember the exact title, but it is something along the lines of ‘It’s Not About The Bike.’
“That told of his story and what’s really important.
“I think about the Big Ten and what I’ve learned the last six months. Let me say it this way – it’s really not about the ball.
“I had a chance to know and admire guys sitting up here for a long time. They have always opened up their programs to coaches from every level, high schools to colleges to the NFL, to come and study with them.
“I know we’ve taken advantage of that. I have worked with some of them, coached against some of them and shared some things with some of them. The Big Ten conference is about the people.
“As I came to Ohio State six months ago, I thought it was about coming to Ohio State to coach football. What I’ve learned is it’s not just about that ball.
“As a matter of fact, a month ago my mom was diagnosed with a tough cancer and she’s fighting it. Being at Ohio State gave me the opportunity to be among the elite of institutions across the world. And, as we speak this afternoon, she is able to get the treatment that has never been done anywhere in the world.
“If I wasn’t at Ohio State, that probably wouldn’t be happening.
“So I know it’s not about the ball.
“We saw that excerpt that (injured Penn State player) Adam Taliaferro gave (via videotape). He came and visited our team at Ohio State this spring. He talked to our guys about how much their presence in the hospital room and their prayers and Coach (John) Cooper and his staff who came to see him and the doctors and the hospital meant to him.
“Then, you hear his story and how it affected (PSU coach Joe) Pateno, who has been coaching this great game for some 50 years.
“It’s just another reminder that it’s not about the ball.
“Yesterday, we all had to live through the tragic death of (former Buckeye) Korey Stringer and what he meant to the Mahoning Valley, which is a part of Ohio where I coached for many years and where Korey grew up.
“He always treated Youngstown State with the same respect he treated Ohio State or anywhere else and he went on to the NFL. He always came back to help people in the Mahoning Valley. That’s the kind of person Korey Stringer was.
“That was another reminder as we go along that it’s not about the ball.
“Then, all these kids show up here on each side. These coaches would love to get up here and talk about their kids. Our kids are the same. We have Jamar Martin and Michael Collins here. That’s what it’s all about.
“Everyone talked about six months ago, ‘Coach, can you coach the kids at this level? It’s going to be different.’
“I hadn’t been at this level for 15 years, but what I’ve learned in the last six months is they are the same kids we had when I was at Ohio State 15 years ago. They’re the same kids on every one of these teams. They are great kids and they want to do great things.
“The Big Ten conference is about the kids. It’s not about the ball.
“We hope to continue learning along the way. We hope to represent the Big Ten conference in the manner Ohio State always has. We look forward to great competition with all the folks up here at the head table. Thanks so much.”