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Jim Tressel: 'Everybody is important'

Ohio State head football coach talks about the importance of understanding everyone, including gay and lesbian athletes

By Michael Daniels
Reprinted with permission from Outlook Columbus


He’s just led the OSU football team to a Rose Bowl victory, but there’s no rest for head coach Jim Tressel. During the week he’s off visiting recruits at their homes and in their towns. On the weekends he’s hosting them at Ohio State, working to build the best possible incoming freshman class for the fall of 2010.

Yet in the midst of this hectic – some might say insane – schedule, Tressel took time to share his thoughts, insights and philosophies on student-athletes, diversity and what being a winner really means.

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I begin by thanking the coach for this historic interview. As best I can tell, this is the first time that a Division I NCAA head football coach has done a one-on-one with a GLBT publication, and I’m humbled and honored that OSU, Tressel and outlook share this distinction.

What’s the best part of his job? I want to know. What’s the best part of being at OSU, of being in Columbus?

“Watching kids grow into whole people,” Tressel says. “The most unique thing [about being at OSU,]” he adds, “Is how much the people who have attended Ohio State love their school, perhaps more than any other place I’ve come across. That enthusiasm appeals to such a wide range of interests and cuts across all age groups. Columbus is a world-class city with small-town friendliness and accessibility. People are interested in people here. That comes through every time new recruits and their parents first take a look at our city.”

When reading Tressel’s book, The Winners Manual, I was profoundly impacted by his discussion of the difference between purpose and goals - purpose being who you are, goals being what you do. Tressel also discusses the difference and importance of faith and belief. “Faith is who you are,” he writes. “Belief is what you do with your faith.” Throughout the book, he emphasizes tolerance, understanding, compassion and love - especially for those who are on a different path of purpose or faith. I ask him how these principles be can applied to understanding people of other races, genders or sexual orientations.

“We try to tell our guys that an authentic you is the best you,” Tressel says. “That’s truly what freedom means, and the beauty of living in America. People can live their beliefs.”

I mention to Coach that it’s becoming slightly more common to see professional athletes come out as gay or lesbian after they retire, but it remains rare for active athletes to come out, and nearly unheard of for collegiate athletes to do so. I ask him why he believes this is so.

“What we have, quite often, with our athletes, and with a number of young people in any sport, is that from the time they were 6 or 7 years old, their identity has been through sports,” Coach says. “You’re the tallest, you’re the fastest, you’re the best player. All their feedback has come in terms of their role as a player, and they are often hesitant to go beyond that narrow role.”

“An opportunity, and a real challenge, we have when they come to college is to get them to see themselves with a broader lens. What are their interests? What are their dreams? What are the principles they believe in? We want our guys to define themselves in terms of ‘who they are’ and not simply ‘what they do’ with a certain block of their time. The greatest achievement we can have as coaches is that a young man leaves us with a concept of who he is, what he wants from life, and what he can share with others – someone who is ‘comfortable in his own skin,’ and that identity can go in a number of directions.”

But what if a player on the OSU football team were to come out as gay, I want to know. What advice would Tressel offer him? Would the team, fans and University be supportive?

“We strive to teach and model appreciation for everyone,” Tressel says. “One, we are a family. If you haven’t learned from your family at home that people have differences and those strengthen the whole, then you are hopefully going to learn it as part of the Ohio State football family.”

“Two, every part of our team is important and every role has value – no job is too small and no person is irrelevant – that’s a great lesson that transcends into society. When I think of the diversity we’ve had on our team the past few years, it goes way beyond just a racial, sexual or ethnic mix. We’ve had players who had different religions, players who came from different economic backgrounds, players who are parents, who are spouses, who are caring for ailing parents, who are wheelchair bound, who are battling cancer, and on and on. Whatever a young man feels called to express, I hope we will help him do it in a supportive environment. Everybody is important, and maturity is learning to find and appreciate those differences in others.”

If Tressel could impart one, and only one, winning concept to his GLBT students, alumni, faculty and fans, I ask, what would that be?

“If we appreciate each other,” he says, “Then we have a chance for something great.”

Thank you, Coach Tressel, for your time, your dedication to all student-athletes, your service to our community and your commitment to excellence for all of Columbus.

Reprinted by permission from Outlook Columbus.