Jim Tressel & the Importance of Quitting

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel resigned Monday.

For a man who built his reputation as a winner who did things the right way, Jim Tressel – the now former head coach of the Ohio State football program – is teaching us all another important lesson. He’s teaching us the importance of quitting.

But I don’t mean it like you might think. I’m not referring to quitting your job, something Tressel would have had to do whether by his own volition or by force. I’m talking about quitting the way we tend to present a false image of who we really are. It’s burdensome to uphold the weight of an image you’ve created over happily wearing the one you truly have.

Watching Tressel’s story unravel was like watching Mike Tyson bite Evander Holyfield’s ear all over again. I turned away only to cautiously return for glances of the unfathomable story unfolding. And maybe it’s because this story is personal in more ways than one.

Last year, my publishing company released a book entitled “Wisdom from Winners: Insights for Everyday Living from Great Coaches and Athletes.” Former ESPN analyst and college football coach Mike Gottfried compiled responses from well-known coaches to an interesting questionnaire. We even have the responses to one of John Wooden’s final interviews in the book.

Naturally, I was excited when I saw Tressel’s questionnaire come across the fax machine. I’ve never been an Ohio State fan, but I always thought Tressel carried himself with a lot of class. Plus, outspoken faith from someone who walked out what he professed to believe was refreshing and encouraging to me personally.

So, as the story of Tressel’s demise began trickling out, I initially dismissed it as poor judgment. It was a mistake. He had the players’ best interest at heart. The NCAA has stupid rules anyway. But then came Sports Illustrated’s report on Monday. It was too revealing for me to think that Tressel was just naïve or misguided. He had presented an image of an ethical coach in a profession known for its win-at-all-cost credo—and he turned out to be just like everybody else.

I even went back to look at his questionnaire responses to see what he had to offer. Then I saw his answer to question No. 5:

That response comes across as rather ethereal today rather than something tried and true. But that still doesn’t mean that’s how Tressel felt—it’s just that he was unable to align what he thought to be true with his actions. Maybe it was the pressure to win. Maybe it was the drive to succeed. Maybe it’s not an absolute truth he holds. But it’s now just an axiom for Tressel, not a verifiable life philosophy.

As crazy as it might sound, I have a feeling Tressel might feel relieved today. No longer does he have to prop up a pristine image at all cost. It might cost him future work as an NCAA coach, but at least he can be honest with himself now and get on with the business of facing his faults.

On some level, I know exactly how Tressel feels. There was a time when, as the son of a preacher man, I felt the pressure to present a perfect image. But I learned being two-faced is hard work. You’re always thinking about public perception – and you tire of holding the best face forward while the other one is unable to evolve into a better version of who you know you should be, of who you want to be.

That’s the thing about hypocrisy: we’re all wrestling with it on some level. We know who we want to be, but dang if we can’t get the want to and the are to align perfectly. Becoming who God wants us to be – and to do it in a way where our words match our actions – requires an aggressive approach like the one King David took:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! – Psalm 139:23-24 (ESV)

I think deep down Jim Tressel believes the things he says, though his thirst for other earthly pursuits won out. However, I don’t want to let Tressel’s story go to waste as simply a cautionary moral tale that we know all too well.

Instead, I want to use it as a reminder that I’m a flawed human being who simply cannot become the man of character and integrity I want to be without God’s help. It’s only once we take our masks off that we can begin the work of allowing God to shape and mold us into the person He wants us to be.

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