How the Tressels Transitioned in 2023

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It’s been nearly a year since Jim Tressel retired as president of Youngstown State University, and his wife, Ellen, a community philanthropist, also retired.

What have the Tressels been doing since they moved out of Pollock House?

How does Jim Tressel view the upcoming transition to a new president of YSU?

The Business Journal asked these questions and others. Jim Tressel’s answers follow:

As you and Ellen have transitioned into “retirement,” what has been the most significant change?

Ellen and I, first and foremost, have enjoyed more quality time together. While our schedules have been quite full, we have made that a priority. We also have tried to be more available to our family, friends, former players/students/coaches and colleagues. I have particularly enjoyed reconnecting with folks from Berea High School, Baldwin-Wallace, the University of Akron, YSU, Miami (O), Syracuse, and Ohio State – all those experiences and people that played a role in the many opportunities, blessings and highlights in my professional career.

Ellen has had a bit more time to enjoy her golfing friends, but the highlight in 2023 was the arrival of our newest grandson, Frank Watson. Young Frankie is the great-grandson of Ellen’s parents, Frank and Norma Watson. Frankie attended his first YSU football game at Stambaugh Stadium this fall. It also has been rewarding to continue adding value to YSU and OSU fundraising, to have time to further develop our Tressel Institute for Leadership and Teamwork, and to speak to a number of organizations and businesses sharing some of our lessons learned over the years.

What aspects of your daily routine have changed most since stepping down as YSU president?

We have had an interesting transition over the past two decades. During the years as a head football coach, my work week was 80-100 hours per week with a great deal of travel on a national basis with recruiting and alumni groups. Ellen spent a great deal of her time with community groups along with hosting families in the recruiting process.

Our time at YSU was even busier; however, travel was much more regional. We thought we would never find anything busier than coaching, but we did. The number of activities on campus, in the community, and events that we hosted at The Pollock House seemed endless. So, to answer your question, our daily routine no longer includes dozens of long meetings, hundreds of monthly activities or quite as many appearances.

Do you have any new hobbies since retirement?

I’m a work in progress. I have enjoyed wood working with my son, Zak, and we try and do that on a monthly basis. I have increased the amount of golf that I play…instead of nine holes per year with Ellen, I have increased to nine holes occasionally with my old coaching colleagues, Mark Dantonio and Jim Bollman…and, a bit more with Ellen.

Shifting gears, what was your initial reaction to YSU naming Bill Johnson as our next President?

I was confident that there would be an outstanding candidate pool, and there certainly was, primarily because YSU is a great institution in a wonderful community. My guess is that the confidentiality of the search process also strengthened the candidate pool. I am sure the qualifications of the candidates were outstanding.

I have extraordinary confidence in the board leadership, their diligence in the search, and their love for YSU is unwavering. My allegiance is to YSU, our students, our faculty, and the community, and our support will be fully behind Bill and LeeAnn Johnson as they serve YSU.

Do you think there is a risk in hiring a “politician” to serve as president at YSU?

Without a doubt. There was certainly a risk when I was hired as a former non-traditional academician and coach. I was fully aware of that, and my job was to see if I could develop as an effective president. Bill will be acutely aware that his “politics” are irrelevant, and that he is coming to YSU to serve ALL the people, regardless of their beliefs, ideals, backgrounds, goals and academic programs. History shows that former politicians have indeed successfully served as university presidents, the most recent example being President Mitch Daniels at Purdue University.

How do you feel about the community’s reaction to Bill Johnson’s appointment?

I have heard a variety of reactions and am not surprised. Politics are an emotional subject for sure. Just as I experienced with a broad range of opinions when we arrived at YSU, it will be Bill’s responsibility to work every day to convince all stakeholders that he is here to serve every one of them. In addition, I am confident that our community will continue their amazing support.

What qualities are essential for the success of the next YSU president?

When the YSU Board asked that question to the entire campus community months ago, before a search even began, my response to the survey included the following:

#1 – Our next president must be passionate about being here – not only at YSU, but the Mahoning Valley too.

#2 – Our next president must be a great listener and make sure all voices are heard.

#3 – Our next president must strive to learn every day the nuances of higher education, the needs of the students, faculty, staff and community, as well as the challenges and solutions for a sustainable future and productive YSU. YSU is so important to our region!

Are you concerned that the progress made during your tenure will be eroded?

We are certainly proud of the progress made from 2014 – 2023; however, there are areas that I wish we would have made more progress. I have every confidence in the faculty, staff, and leadership at YSU that we will build on past successes, and progress will be made in many more ways in the future. YSU is too important to our region to do anything but progress and improve.

What is next for you to assist in that “needed progress” at YSU and in the community?

Fundraising will continue to be a focus going forward. We have an exciting, and much needed initiative to renovate our student center. As always, student scholarships dollars will be an ongoing goal, and we are working on a project to enhance the Beeghly Center, the site of our commencement ceremonies, the home to many of our athletic teams, and facility hosting many civic activities. Ellen and I will continue to support our Tressel Institute for Leadership and Teamwork, as well. An additional initiative we are working on, in collaboration with the Youngstown Business Journal, is to create a podcast with the focus on instructional discussion on the topic of “Teamwork.” Stay tuned for more information about this initiative early in 2024.

Lastly, please take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments you are most proud of during your time at YSU, and perhaps any advice you would have going forward.

There are certainly many things that come to mind as proud moments. First and foremost, we are so proud of the impact our students, faculty, staff, and alumni have made every day in the Mahoning Valley, the state of Ohio, throughout the nation, and around the world. Of course, the physical transformation on our campus has been phenomenal.

Arguably the improvement in our graduation rates of our student cohorts in the recent years is our proudest moment. Our recent four-year graduation rates improved over 100%; our six-year graduation rate improvement over 30%.

In addition, our four-year minority graduation rates have improved over 120%, and our six-year minority graduation rate improvement is up over 70%.

As for advice, I have always believed that the word “University” is best defined as “Unity” in “Diversity”. We need to be a place where people of many different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs come together to learn about one another, gain respect for one another, and to help one another grow together to make a better world for everyone.

Perhaps the finest example that I recall showing YSU is truly a university to be proud of, was a student-panel created by our Presidential Mentors. The topic was religion. The panel consisted of seven students who practiced their particular religions and one student who chose not to practice a religion. They had a thoughtful discussion sharing, number one, why they believed as they did; number two, they shared what they felt were common misconceptions of their religion; and number three, why they felt that truly they had more commonalities than differences. I was so proud of the thoughtful way in which they shared, and there was no question that all who attended gained an understanding and appreciation for one another.

Ellen was so proud to address the YSU graduates in the Spring Commencement of 2023. I will leave you with the final thought that Ellen shared that day at Stambaugh Stadium: “What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.