Tressel and close games

Even before last season started, Buckeye fans were as edgy as a politician during a lie detector test. What concerned them was the number of close games in which Jim Tressel coached teams seemed to be involved.

The season merely served to confirm fears and confound those who bleed Scarlet and turn Gray. With the way the Illinois, Michigan, and Miami contests ended - Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes probably single-handedly skewed multiple American Medical Association heart studies in the Buckeye state. In fact, what I cannot figure out is why in this world of corporate advertising some enterprising executive has not approached Andy Geiger about a sponsorship. Can't you just hear it now?

"Welcome to our broadcast today ladies and gentlemen. Today's contest will be telecast live from The Horseshoe in Columbus - the home of the Medtronic Ohio State Buckeyes. Remember, when your Buckeyes give you chest pains or arrhythmia, visit your physician and inquire about one of our many pacemaker products."

Yet, OSU fans cannot say they were not warned.

Despite the often dubious veracity of posts on internet message boards, as far back as January of 2001 several with credibility informed Ohio State followers that Tressel's teams in Youngstown State were known for nail-biters (as well as championships). The posters boldly predicted Buckeyes would soon enjoy national titles and glorious victories as well as high blood pressure. Tressel's modus operandi was said to revolve around gauging what it would take to emerge victorious, waiting for just the right moment, and then ordering his gridiron soldiers to cripple the opposition with late scoring strikes for wins.

In retrospect, those who wrote such items were not just predicting what would come - they were prophesying!

The number of close games in 2001 and 2002 - coupled with the opinions of long time Youngstown State fans - has gradually begun forming a perception; Jim Tressel teams emerge unscathed from more close scrapes than a spelunker in an unexplored cavern.

The question is - is this true?

Has anyone bothered to actually check and see the veracity of the assertion, or, has it gone blindly unchallenged? Are sportswriters and faithful fans trusting this notion like a fawn does its mother? Are they relying on "everybody knows" information (which is false as often as it is true) rather than cold, hard evidence?

It is past time for someone to break this hypothesis down. It either needs to be proved or disproved. Buckeye fans and sportswriters everywhere (not to mention odds makers) should brace for Tressel teams engaging in frequent close games, or they should be informed that this is merely an urban myth whose inception is rooted in the trauma of near losses and then generalized.

Over the next week or two, we will break down the statistics.

Is Jim Tressel more apt to be involved in close games than other former Buckeye head coaches? What has been the frequency of nail biters for other top 25 coaches in comparison to Tressel? Is this related to the type of offense the Buckeyes have adopted up to this point, or is it simply a part of the Tressel style?

Today we will break down Jim Tressel versus recent Buckeye head coaches.

Before beginning, a couple of parameters should be recognized:

1. This portion of the study involves only OSU head coaches.

2. Only those in living memory of the majority of the fans were taken into account due to the longevity of W.W. Hayes' tenure and the extreme changes in the game since the late 1940's.

3. All games (division I-A and I-AA) are included for each coach.

4. Every study is limited in its scope. There are always holes to be found. Therefore, this should not be viewed as "the last word" or "airtight proof." Rather, maybe it can serve as the "first word" and the first step in discussion of Tressel's apparent penchant for close games.


Total games

3 point games

Record in 3 point games

7 point games

Record in 7 point games

14 point games

Record in 14 point games

14+ point games

Record In 14+ point games

Career Record

















































% of games 3 pts or less


% of games 7 pts or less


% of games 14 pts or less


% of games 14+ pts


Career Wins and losses














































Three Point Contests:

You should not need a calculator to figure out that Tressel is number one in this category. Despite having the fewest number of games (220), he has the highest frequency of close shaves (50). This means during the course of a thirteen game season, Tressel teams will average 3 games a year won or lost by a field goal or less. By way of contrast, Cooper would have 2.1, Bruce 2.3, and Woody 1.8.

Perhaps the real surprises is not that Tressel has been in so many close calls but that John Cooper towers above the other three in the winning percentages for the category. Bruce managed only 44% while Hayes and Tressel hovered near one another with a 58% and 54% winning ratio respectively. Even removing the first year records of each coach at a new program (to give numbers more indicative of the coach's track record once he has his type of system in place) would leave Bruce at 14-17-2 (.4545), Woody with 18-11-8 (.6212), Tressel at 24-14-2 (.625), and Cooper still at the top with a (.6447).

So what does this mean?

It is an excellent question, but I am not certain the answer is easily had.

When considering the frequency of the close games, a number of answers are possible. It could be that in coaching at a lower division of football, Tressel had to eke out more wins by the skin of his teeth and seat of his pants. Once at a powerhouse program where the talent disparity is greater and the weapons at a coach's disposal greater, the number of close games should drop if this is the case. Indeed, since accepting the Ohio State post, Tressel has only a 15% ratio of 3-point games.

However, it is also possible that Tressel just manages games in a way that creates a closer score. Perhaps it is part of his strategy. He has taught his team in practice to value and execute the finer points of football (field position, running to set up the pass, toughness, and defense) and is now willing to be patient and risk the close game. He feels he can win. I would not even put it past Jim Tressel to allow his team to occasionally go through a tough scrape (though certainly not a loss) to teach them a lesson about adversity.

Seven Point Games

Again, it takes only the naked eye to discern that Jim Tressel's teams have been in more close games decided by a touchdown or less than any of the other candidates. With 91 such contests (out of only 220), Tressel would average 5.3 during 13 game season, Bruce 4.7, Hayes 3.8, and Cooper 3.5. Since Cooper had the least and Tressel the most, it might explain why this transition has been so hard on the nerves of Buckeye fans. Those extra two games per year with a razor thin victory margin are positively brutal on their collective psyche.

So why is Tressel involved in so many games decided by a touchdown or less?

In addition to the reasons from the previous category, several more might warrant consideration. First, Tressel seems to merely want to win - not bury them somewhere near China - just for the sake of headlines. All last season, Coach Tressel stressed to the team that they did not need to win by 50, just so long as they emerged victorious. In short, a 5-point lead is apparently just that to Tressel and his staff - a lead. Second, Tressel appears confident in the abilities of his players and fellow coaches. Therefore, he does not pine away like a nervous schoolgirl thinking they will somehow lose when they are currently ahead. This means he might sit on a slim lead instead of engaging in high-risk play selection that has a better chance of backfiring than it does of helping the team. Third, Jim Tressel emphasizes the kicking game as much or perhaps more than any current coach in the Big Ten. A head coach willing to rely on his punter, place-kicker, and special teams to do their jobs is probably going to feel more inclined to attempt a field goal to go up by 5 or 6 late in a game. Translation? Fans might expect that once or twice a year the Buckeyes turn the game over to their defense after their kicker has given them a 4-point lead. Finally, it is just possible (and maybe probable) that this is part of Tressel's secret to success. This is a man who has been around football since before he could even talk. He was raised by a coaching legend in Dr. Lee Tressel. He played quarterback, giving him an intimate knowledge of offense. Is it too much to believe that he might have an instinctive ability to feel the pulse of the game? Bear Bryant believed he was not necessarily a better coach than most, but he thought he did have a better feel for the game. He knew when to hold onto the ball, when to try and score, when (and who) to substitute, etc. Maybe Tressel just has this knack as well and is willing to play his hunches when to just hang onto the ball and play it safe (which can actually be living dangerously given the risk involved if one misjudges) and when it is necessary to score.

Fourteen Points or Less

For the first time in this study, it is not immediately clear who most frequently engaged in contests decided by two touchdowns (and two extra points) or less. Not surprisingly though, Tressel comes in first again followed by Bruce, Hayes, and Cooper (in that order).

Once again, why?

According to his own statements, Jim Tressel is all about teaching his players. On multiple occasions in 2002, he allowed backups the opportunity to gain meaningful experience in pressure situations. When the Buckeyes found themselves up by large margins against Texas Tech and Kent State, the coaching staff substituted liberally. Further, they did not pull the backups when the opposition looked like it might score (and did). They allowed the young men time on the field in order to teach them. In every instance, this decreased the margin of victory, but it paid massive dividends in both the long and short term.

Another item to note is that Tressel appears to be a gentleman among coaches. Jim Tressel had every opportunity to run up the score on Kent State, San Jose State, and Washington State in 2002. He did not. During the final fourth quarter against the Cougars, against a tired and mentally defeated defense, the Buckeyes opted to run the clock out instead of scoring another touchdown to give them more power in the polls. Not once did they pass the football.

At one time there was an unspoken agreement that you did not humiliate one another whenever possible. If your team was 5 touchdowns better than the opposition, you did not tell your team not to score, but instead used the rest of the contest as a glorified scrimmage to work on the weakest points of your game. You did not get your fellow coaches across the field fired just to prove you can score another 5 touchdowns to impress your alumni, your fan base, and the pollsters. That gentleman's agreement has taken a beating in the past 25 years with Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, Houston's run and shoot, and Tom Osborne running up the score on weaker opponents. Jim Tressel will beat your team, but he does not appear to be out to humiliate you.

Differentials Greater Than Fourteen Points

It stands to reason that since Tressel is first in every category of close games, he would come in last here. John Cooper barely edges out Woody for first place while Bruce comes in third. Woody has the best winning percentage in these contests by far with a stunning 87% ratio. Cooper finished second with an almost 79% mark, Tressel third with nearly 76%, and Earle Bruce had a career mark of just under 72%.

Why was Woody's mark so excellent? Why does Tressel bring up the rear? How could Earle be such a fine coach and get blown out so often?

More than any other statistic in the study, this one can be misleading. Cooper, Tressel, and Bruce all spent considerable time building programs before coming to Ohio State. This means they were often put in the unenviable position of having to play the local bully teams on a regular basis. Why? Their athletic department needed funds, and the behemoth programs are willing to pay lesser programs to take a beating. Cooper and Earle had to face Nebraska on a regular basis while at Tulsa and Iowa State respectively. Meanwhile, Jim Tressel scheduled Division I-A teams and Division I-AA powerhouses while at Youngstown State (and actually beat them fairly regularly).

The resulting difference between the records of these coaches as a ‘has' versus a ‘have not' is pretty stark. Jim Tressel might be in third place in this category for his career, but he has yet to lose a game at Ohio State with a point spread greater than 14. That translates to a 100% winning ratio for the mathematically challenged. Earle Bruce was an incredible 51-3 (94.4%) for the Buckeyes but only 35-27 (56.5%) while directing teams at Tampa University, Iowa State, and Colorado State. Woody ended his career at Ohio State 118-17 (87.4%) and was 24-4 (85.7%) elsewhere. John Cooper was 73-14 at Ohio State (83.9%) and 39-16 (70.9%) at Tulsa and Arizona State.

Some Points to Ponder…

So, after studying the matter, Jim Tressel actually has engaged in more close shaves than an old fashioned barber and his straight razor. It is not just "group-think" or urban legend. It is a fact.

Yet, a word of caution should be noted. The past is not always a reliable method to predict the future. It is just possible that Ohio State will have 10 blowouts in 2003. It is even possible that one of those blowouts will be against the Buckeyes with the loss of the center of the defense and Andy Groom.

Furthermore, the object of the game is to WIN. If you blow out a team by 50 points, you get the same number in the victory column as you do if you beat the opponent on a last second field goal. If Ohio State were to beat every team they played in 2003 by just one point, fans and sportswriters alike might jeer but would have no choice but to use the adjectives, "back to back National Champions" to describe the Buckeyes.

Win by twenty or win by one, but JUST WIN BABY!


Still to Come:

Thursday: Jim Tressel versus top 25 coaches around the country.

Tuesday June 3: Coaches with conservative offense approaches versus pass happy attacks


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