CANTON — Standing before a room jammed with some of his most loyal admirers, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel apologized several times during his first public speaking engagement since being suspended and fined for violating NCAA rules.
Speaking to a crowd of 400 — many of them Ohio State fans clad in the school’s scarlet and gray — at a luncheon sponsored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tressel charmed a pro-Buckeyes’ audience during a 40-minute speech focused on handling adversity.
Tressel began his remarks by saying he couldn’t say much about the recent troubles at Ohio State “because of the nature of the investigation.”
“But I can tell you this,” he said. “I consider all of you a part of the Buckeye Nation. I sincerely apologize for what we’ve been through. I apologize for the fact I wasn’t able to find the ones to partner with to handle our difficult and complex situation.
“I also apologize because I’m going to have some sanctions. But the mission doesn’t change. That’s the pledge I have to you. The mission I’ve always had is we make sure we help young people change their lives.”
Dressed in a charcoal suit and dark red tie, Tressel also apologized for being a distraction to Ohio State’s top-ranked basketball team, which enters this week’s NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
As part of the school-imposed penalties announced last week, Tressel was also publicly reprimanded and required to make a public apology.
Before he was whisked off to the airport, Tressel was asked if his speech served as his public repentance.
“I’ve tried to apologize all along,” he said.
Tressel received a polite standing ovation the moment he entered the room at Tozzi’s on 12th restaurant. He was joined at the luncheon by several former players, including Dustin Fox and Tim Anderson, who played on Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team under Tressel.
Fox greeted Tressel with a hug when he entered the restaurant. Fox has been troubled by criticism — some of it harsh— aimed at Tressel.
“I don’t think you can judge one man’s character or legacy off one instance,” Fox said. “Maybe a lapse in judgment occurred. I don’t question his intentions, either. It’s hard to put yourself in his shoes.”
Last week, Tressel was suspended for the first two games next season and fined $250,000 for failing to notify the school about information he received last April involving two players and questionable activities involving the sale of memorabilia.
Five Ohio State players were suspended five games in 2011 for selling jerseys and other memorabilia to the owner of a local tattoo parlor, who was under investigation in a federal drug trafficking probe.
The NCAA could levy additional penalties on Tressel, who has been at Ohio State since 2001 and is wildly popular among Buckeye fans.
An engaging and charismatic public speaker, Tressel sprinkled in a few jokes during his speech. He cracked that he offered Buckeye freshman basketball star Jared Sullinger a spot on OSU’s football team.
“I told Sullinger, tight end,” Tressel said. “Don’t even have to practice. Just show up.”
Tressel spent much of his speech breaking down Ohio State’s roster almost position by position, giving fans who paid $12 for a lunch of pork chops, mashed potatoes and corn, a peek inside a program now under more scrutiny than at any other time in his tenure.
After 32 minutes, Tressel opened the floor to questions, but none of the fans in attendance asked about the recent turmoil in Columbus.
One of the final questions was from a man who wondered how Tressel has dealt with widespread media criticism. Tressel answered by recounting that he spoke to his players last week about handling tough times.
“I told them this, one of the neat things about adversity is that you hear from some people how they appreciate what you have been in their lives,” he said. “You also hear from some people who don’t think that fondly of you. Don’t get tempted to be mad at them. That’s not healthy.”
Tressel took one last question.
“Yes sir,” he said, pointing to the back of the room.
“Coach, we all know you’ve got a lot going on in your life right now,” shouted a man. “Take care of yourself. Hang in there.”
After leaving the dais, Tressel snaked through the crowd, shaking hands and stopping to sign an autograph for a wheel-chair bound fan on his way to the door. He was followed closely by former Ohio State offensive lineman Kirk Barton.
“Which airport are we going to?” Tressel asked in the driveway entrance as he climbed into a waiting vehicle.
Tressel then waved and thanked several well-wishers before being driven off.