By Jim Weber

Paul Wong
Jim Tressel was hired to do what John Cooper couldn”t beat Michigan.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Daily Sports Writer

As if becoming the 22nd head football coach in Ohio State history didn”t provide enough pressure for Jim Tressel, fans could turn on coach Tressel faster than you can say John Cooper if he isn”t successful against Michigan after his memorable introduction speech.

After formally being introduced to the crowd at halftime of the Ohio State-Michigan basketball game in Columbus on Jan. 18, Tressel, who had been coaching Division I-AA Youngstown State, wasted little time before bringing the 18,500 fans to their feet.

“I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”

Tressel has repeatedly said he was not guaranteeing victory over the Wolverines on Nov. 24.

So how exactly does the new Ohio State head coach plan to make fans proud of their Buckeyes?

“You know what the important date for the people in Ohio is just like it is to the people in Michigan. And I want (the fans) to be proud of (the players) that they went out there and they played clean and hard and tough and as well as they could. I think that”s what determines people being proud of one another,” Tressel said.

Although a clean, hard, tough loss would be nice for the Buckeyes, Ohio State fans are tired of losing to Michigan and will be expecting consistent victories over the Maize and Blue before long.

Not only is Tressel”s job largely dependent on “The Game,” his salary probably is also. Tressel signed a five-year deal worth $4.6 million before incentives. Although these incentives were not disclosed, a large incentive for former coach John Cooper was to reach bowl games and a victory over Michigan is often needed to reach the Rose Bowl.

Even if his halftime speech was not bulletin board material, Ohio State fans believe they can actually beat Michigan away from home a sentiment that faded slowly after every loss in Ann Arbor under former head coach John Cooper.

In order to beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1987, the Buckeyes won”t be able to rely on as much talent as they have had in the past. The Buckeyes are only returning 10 starters and most analysts are unsure as to how the Buckeyes will fare next season. Lindy”s pre-season poll puts the Buckeyes 39th while another respected magazine, Athlon, ranks the Buckeyes highly at 16.

Although the talent at Ohio State is much more impressive than what Tressel had at Youngstown State, he realizes that they are still undermanned for Big Ten play.

“I don”t think we have as many people at every position as any of us would like to have,” Tressel said. “But I think it”s very adequate and I think the more we get to know each other we”ll be aware of what our current weaknesses are and what we need to get better at.”

Adding to the uncertainty is the possibility that senior quarterback Steve Bellisari might not retain his job. Tressel has made it clear that Bellisari is in an open competition with sophomores Scott McMullen and Craig Krenzel for the position and that his recent nomination as a captain will not help him re-earn the starting job.

“It will give (Bellisari) an edge that he gets to go out to start the game the coin flip,” Tressel said.

“That doesn”t change that he needs to do the things that we need done for that position in order to play. That doesn”t change his job description at all.”

So far, Tressel and his straightforward approach have been widely accepted, according to athletic director Andy Geiger.

“He”s really rallied everybody,” Geiger said. “I think the team is probably more focused than I have ever seen it. He assembled an extraordinary staff. Everything is positive. The response, from alumni to recruiting, has been really extraordinary.”

Along with the fans, the players have put their trust in Tressel, describing him as a father figure and already predicting that he will be the coach to bring Ohio State another national championship.

“Well, the thing that I would like them to know is that I truly do care about them and not just about how they play football,” Tressel said. “You know, how they do everything in their lives. And if that is what a father figure is, then yes that is what I would like to do. But I want them to know that we are there for them. On the other hand, we”re going to expect a lot out of them.”

Among the activities Tressel will be carefully monitoring off the field are his player”s academics. Last year, Ohio State”s graduation rate for football players was a mere 28 percent, worst in the Big Ten. The team was also embarrassed by a 0.00 grade-point average by senior wide receiver Reggie Germany. Tressel established a 59 percent graduation rate among his players at Youngstown State and he and Geiger hope to continue the success Tressel had at Youngstown State.

“It”s (the plan) to make sure there”s no nonsense in regards to class attendance and really coordinating well with our counseling program,” Geiger said. “I think it”s everyone”s priority to raise the graduation rate across the athletic department and, frankly, across the university.”

Although the first six months on the job for Jim Tressel have been nearly perfect, he is hesitant to say that the team has bought into his system yet.

“Well, I don”t know if you could say that right now we”ve all totally meshed and bought into one another because we haven”t had any of those tough times. And when you have those tough times when you”re behind in games and things aren”t going exactly the way you want them and people aren”t saying nice things then you really find out if you believe in someone”s system.”

We”ll all know in 124 days.

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