NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–By each Friday of the 2002 college football season, the complete football game plan for the Ohio State Buckeyes has already been installed, explained and executed many times in practice.
But on Friday morning and again on Friday evening, an even more important game plan is put into place. That’s when several Ohio State coaches and later many players meet for a weekly Bible study, share and accountability time.
Looking for an explanation for the Buckeyes’ amazing 13-0 record, which has included seven fourth quarter comebacks, and carried them into a national championship match-up with Miami in January 3rd’s Fiesta Bowl?
Look no further than the faith head coach Jim Tressel and his players have shown in each other and their own spiritual progress.
“It’s certainly not a liability to be a Christian at Ohio State like it is at some places,” said Tom Rody, an Athletes’ in Action staff member who helps conduct the coaches and players study along with AIA staff member Jim Schmidtke. “The coaches provide a strong umbrella of support which helps undergird the entire program.”
Tressel has been the Buckeyes’ coach for less than two years but has taken the Scarlet and Gray back to their once familiar place at the top of the college football mountain. He started their faith when his 6-4 team went into bitter rival’s Michigan home field last year and won there for the first time since 1987.
The faith continued this year as OSU pulled off one amazing comeback after another including a fourth quarter, fourth-down rally against Illinois and another comeback win against Michigan to propel the Buckeyes into this year’s national championship game.
Maybe not so well known is Tressel’s declaration of his job at OSU as, “my ministry,” and his faithful attendance at the early Friday morning coaches Bible study, held in the Buckeye coaches’ meeting room.
“The coach has been nothing short of great to us,” said Schmidtke, who counts Tressel as a true Christian brother regardless of the outcome of this week’s game. “He is an active proponent of Christianity to all those around him, but even more important is the way he lives his values and his walk with God.”
His star players have been quick to pick up on the positive message delivered through the Ohio State program.
“Football is very important to me at Ohio State, but its importance pales in comparison of Jesus Christ in my life,” said starting cornerback Dustin Fox. “It helps keep me strong during all what we’ve been through, to walk straight and stay in the word.”
During his 15-year career at Youngstown State, Tressel’s teams compiled a record of 142-62-2, including four national titles and two runners-up finishes. More importantly, he and his team established a pattern of visits to the Salvation Army, local hospitals and an active involvement in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“We wanted our fans to be proud of us in the classroom, in the community and the football field,” Tressel said.
“What impressed me most in the interview process was Jim Tressel, the person,” said Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, the man responsible for hiring Tressel as head coach. “As impeccable as his record is, it’s the other things which make him stand out for this job.”
Today, Tressel can be clearly seen on the Ohio State sideline, wearing a gray OSU sweater vest and red tie, much like a hatless Tom Landry, calmly surveying the often-chaotic football situation and plotting his next move.
“He doesn’t give in to the world regardless of the circumstances” Schmidtke said. “He lives his faith for all to see and really takes his integrity to heart. That’s what makes him a great leader.”
Along with his personal building blocks to success with Ohio State’s highly publicized program, Tressel said he counts accountability and spiritual advisement as key elements.
Tressel meets with Rody and Schmidtke during the season along with Columbus FCA staff member Brian Hawkins and West Central Ohio area director David Mabry to stay grounded to what is important.
“He has a favorite Bible verse or Christian message he signs on every football he autographs,” Mabry said
His legacy of spiritual leadership has also rubbed off on many. Sophomore running back Maurice Hall, who scored the winning touchdowns against both Illinois and Michigan, has recorded statewide radio interviews about his personal faith as have junior tights Ben Hartsock and Jason Caldwell and sophomore cornerback Fox.
“My faith and my belief system has helped drive my competitive fire and my personal walk with Christ,” said Hartsock.
All four players along with their head coach will be part of a special Fiesta Bowl breakfast along with Miami players and coaches, sharing their faith beyond football.
“All the players realize they’re front page news now, but a month from now, when people forget about the national championship and football, they want to be recognized for their Christian faith,” Schmidtke said.
The optional Friday night gathering at the athletic complex plays a big part in strengthening the players for the challenges on and off the football field.
They have a time of sharing and praying, worship and often hear from a former Buckeye great sharing his Christian faith including among others former Buckeyes’ All-American Clark Kellogg.
“We’ve had over two dozen Buckeye players share their faith in churches, and schools,” Schmidtke added. “That is thanks to a great coach, great support and great kids.”
Maybe Ohio State’s amazing runs towards the 2002 national title isn’t so amazing when you know the true source of strength for the head coach and his players.