By Amelia Mack
YOUNGSTOWN,Ohio: Just before I was accepted into Youngstown State University as an incoming freshman, it was announced that Jim Tressel was returning to Youngstown to be the new university president. The excitement throughout the city was tangible. Slowly over the last three and a half years I have seen the perception of our university change and improve.
I had the opportunity to sit down with now Youngstown State University President Tressel in his Tod Hall office. His genuineness is the first thing I have noticed about him in every interaction I’ve had with him. At orientation my freshman year, I watched him make small talk with my dad and ask about his job. Today as I met him for this interview, he spent five minutes asking me questions. You can tell he is interested in what brings people to the university and what kind of experience they are having.
Tressel has seemed to me like a hometown hero. His name five years ago was synonymous with football and championships. Today he is coaching a much bigger team and tackling issues on a much bigger scale as he leads our university community. The perspective of the city of Youngstown and its university have changed immensely since his arrival in 2014.
When Tressel first arrived in Youngstown in 1986, it was nine years after the steel mills had left the city.
“It was just like when you lose someone and there is a period of mourning and denial. In ’86, [the residents of Youngstown] were still kind of in denial,” Tressel said.
I kept thinking, ‘I think these people are better than they think they are, they just don’t think much of themselves.’”
Tressel said he always thought a lot of the people of Youngstown, though, and by 2014, he knew the timing was right to return.
“Timing is important with everything,” Tressel said. “The attitude had kind of fallen off a little bit but there was an interest and a belief [that the city was improving.]”
“My perspective coming back the second time was ‘Gosh, there’s so many good things going on.’”
The first assessment he made was that the university and the city needed a few upgrades.
“There’s something important about feeling good about where you are,” Tressel said.
This led to the construction work on Lincoln Avenue and Wick Avenue. Although construction on Lincoln Avenue continues, Wick Avenue officially reopened on Oct. 17, with Tressel front and center at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Tressel knew that if the area was spruced up, it would only draw more people and businesses into the city and boost the local economy.
“I think all of the innovation going on in the city right now with the Youngstown Business Incubator, America Makes and the Innovation Center is exciting,” Tressel said.
“The timing is good right now, but we may not continue at this trajectory. Just because we’re progressing doesn’t mean we’re set, but that’s the fun of it. There are so many neat things happening here and we have to make sure our excellence is known,”
All of these changes have allowed YSU to recruit further away from the city, he said.
“Our freshman classes typically were 75 percent from five counties,” Tressel said.
“Now we’ve got that down to about 68 percent from five counties and that’s a lot more people from elsewhere, which brings in more people.”
Talking with Tressel about the university’s plans for the years ahead, he has a way of being involved that I think is unique to him. For example, he was able to tell me specific numbers of incoming freshman from local high schools.
When I asked him what he thought were some of the most exciting things that have happened since he became president at YSU, I thought he would mention making it to the football championship last year or even last year’s’ great graduation numbers.
Instead, he mentioned successes from YSU’s math teams, a girl in the equestrian club and two male students who just won big in the university’s bass fishing club. For Tressel, both the little wins and the big ones are what make the university an exciting place to be.
“It was almost like people didn’t think those things could happen here, but yes they can!” Tressel said. “We just have to earn it and do the work.”
When I asked about his greatest challenges, he brought it back to perception.
“It always seems to be getting people to believe that we can,” Tressel said. “Helping people understand that there is a lot more here than you’d even like to believe.”
“The hardest thing is for someone to walk in and say, ‘You know what? I can be and do and experience and live out and realize my dreams from here just as well as I can from anywhere in the world and that’s the attitude I’m going to take,’” Tressel said.
Tressel is aware that it isn’t going to be easy to change the perspective overnight.
“It’s not going to be perfect and I know there are going to be things I’d like to get better, and I’m not going to be afraid to say where I think things could get better,” Tressel said.
“I’m going to have faith that the people that I engage with will say ‘You know what, we never looked at that, we will make that better and that’s a process that takes a while but it’s part of shaping the perception of how good we can be.”
He said that YSU will continue to do what it does best, but he’s excited to see what comes next.
“Now that there is a stronger feeling of our potential, I’m anxious to see what that potential realizes,” Tressel said.
“It won’t be without hardships and realities but it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Youngstown holds many memories for Tressel, including highs and lows. When he came back to interview for the position of university president in 2014, it was the first time he had been able to drive around and see the city in 12 years.
He drove through downtown and couldn’t believe the number of businesses that had moved in. He was amazed to see that he could even drive down Federal Street. When he was working here as football coach, everything was boarded up and one couldn’t drive through downtown.
He ended up parked outside of MVR right before his interview. Carmine Cassese was the third-generation owner of the MVR, the former YSU football equipment manager, and Tressel’s dear friend.
“The MVR was kind of my campus home away from home when I was coaching here,” Tressel said. “I was either in the stadium or in MVR to have a quick sandwich,”
Cassese died in 2013 of pancreatic cancer.
“It was kind of a personal thing to drive down and think about Carmine … and reminisce in my mind about 15 years’ worth of chicken sandwiches and pasta,” Tressel said. “How much people have put into this and the things they’ve had to endure. Great success and with that, tough times.”
“We lost Carmen, which was a big deal for this community. That made it like home. I was gone for 12 years, that’s a long time, but it brought it all back,” Tressel said.
“My kids grew up here. This was home to them. [Sitting outside MVR] was the moment I thought there’s no place like home.”
How has Tressel changed the perception of Youngstown?
“I think him being here as president has brought a positive reputation to YSU. He’s invested in the school and truly cares about the students there… He makes time for those who speak to him.” – Renee Christy, YSU Alumni
“He has given YSU a ton of national exposure, highlighting the strengths of the university. He is much more approachable and in turn, I think has generated more donations for the university.” – Brenda Farone, Mahoning Valley Resident
“After having a long time where living in Youngstown has been perceived as a negative thing, he has brought a positive environment to not only the university, but the community as well. Ever since I started on my university tours, I have noticed the positivity he brings to the university… I’ve never heard of a college president who cares about his students and the community as much as he does.” Zack Digman, YSU student
“From my experience, he’s been the biggest supporter, salesman and promoter of STEM here at YSU. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Some STEM students and I got to have dinner at his house with him and some congressmen and women. We were able to sit and talk with him about his vision for the future of YSU and what it meant to him. He’s the man.” – Alex Fitzgerald, YSU STEM student