Tressel won#039;t let quotes end up on Wolves bulletin board

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2003

COLUMBUS - Jim Tressel is playing it close to the sweater-vest this week.

Never one to make extravagant statements, the head coach of No. 4 Ohio State all but bent over backward Tuesday to heap praise on No. 5 Michigan and extol the virtues of sports, life and the American way.

''When you take two of the top five teams in the country and get to square off in the 100th meeting of a rivalry, (it's) just a tremendous feeling to be a part of that, tremendous privilege to square off with an excellent team,'' he said of Saturday's showdown at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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There's no bulletin-board stuff in the wit and wisdom of the Buckeyes' bland coach.

Tressel is as colorful as tap water, particularly in the days leading up to the Buckeyes' biggest games. Maybe that's why they won the national championship a year ago and are in position so far to defend their title.

The son of a coach, Tressel was steeped in the traditions of Ohio State-Michigan at an early age. His father, Hall of Famer Lee Tressel, was gone throughout the autumn, spending most of his time looking at film, running practices and winning games at Baldwin-Wallace College. The family lived next door to the stadium.

The Michigan-Ohio State game became a kind of family reunion.

''It was always special in my house because my dad's season was over, and it was the first time we got to see him,'' Tressel said. ''So it was always a neat time.''

Despite those deep-rooted feelings, Tressel - who almost always wears a sleeveless sweater to games - never wears his emotions on his sleeve when the Buckeyes play their biggest game of the year.

''Coach Tressel is such an even-keeled type of coach, no matter what situations we get in during a game, during a season, he just seems to be pretty steadfast and keeps focused no matter what happens,'' tight end Ben Hartsock said. ''That's helped us in situations where we've been in tight games, where you see a coach who has complete focus and doesn't seem like he's lost control.''

The third-year coach of the Buckeyes, 2-0 against Ohio State's chief rival, said being emotional doesn't serve a coach's purpose.

''Well, you have to keep your focus,'' Tressel said. ''Sometimes you can get so emotionally into the game that you don't even play well (because) you get so fired up. So I think what's most important is that you keep your focus on whatever task it is that you have to do.''

It is not as if Tressel doesn't try to inspire his players. He knows that most of them grew up in Ohio and are well aware of the hype and hope surrounding the annual rivalry game.

Linebacker A.J. Hawk said Tressel told the team about a letter he received from a former Ohio State player who had never gotten over losing to Michigan in 1969. Like this season, the Buckeyes were coming off a national championship and were gunning to defend their title.

The ex-player ''still talks about how he has a bad taste in his mouth from that game,'' Hawk said. ''We definitely don't want to have that on us for the rest of our lives.''

Tressel came to Ohio State as an assistant coach in 1983. He's never forgotten his first Michigan game.

''It didn't feel that much different. Then I got into that stadium and, I'll tell you what, I can't even remember the first quarter,'' Tressel said with a laugh.

While some coaches give fiery locker room speeches, Tressel - the ultimate micromanager and detail man - quietly goes through a checklist of key points with his team.

''We just talk about what needs to be done, and some of it is X's and O's - but not long,'' Tressel said. ''None of us have the attention span 20 minutes before kickoff to hear more than about 45 seconds' worth.''

Tressel might not rant and rave or tell funny stories, but his players still get the point. They see through the stiff, cool exterior and understand what the game means to him.

''There's no downplaying'' the contest with Michigan, fullback Branden Joe said. ''Coach Tressel knows this is a make-or-break game.''