CANTON, Ohio — Bothered by harsh criticism directed at his cherished coach, Dustin Fox wanted to offer support to Jim Tressel.
“He’s my guy,” Fox said as he waited for Ohio State’s embattled coach.
“He has helped more people, won more games and done more for the university,” said Fox, a former defensive back for the Buckeyes. “He changed my life, and I’m so far from perfect. I can’t throw stones.”
Seconds later, Tressel stopped before entering a crowded restaurant dining room and hugged Fox, who played for him on the Buckeyes’ 2002 national title team. Fox asked Tressel how he was doing after perhaps the most turbulent week of his career.
“I’m OK,” Tressel said.
Standing before an audience of loyal supporters, Tressel apologized several times Monday during his first public speaking engagement since being suspended for two games and fined $250,000 for violating NCAA rules — a punishment that could become more severe.
Speaking to a group 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 the sold-out luncheon crowd during a 40-minute speech in which he centered on handling adversity.
Dressed as impeccably as ever in a charcoal suit and dark red tie, Tressel opened his remarks by saying he couldn’t offer much about the recent scandal at Ohio State “because of the nature of the investigation.”
He then got contrite.
“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.”
Tressel later apologized for also 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 publicly reprimanded and required to make a public apology. During a news conference last week in Columbus, Tressel never offered any such apology.
So, before he was whisked off following the event, Tressel was asked if this speech served as his public repentance. He looked puzzled.
“I’ve tried to apologize all along,” he said.
This was a first step in repairing his tarnished image, and Tressel did so in front of an adoring crowd that hung on his every word.
He was given a polite standing ovation the moment he entered the room at Tozzi’s on 12th, a restaurant he has visited annually for the luncheon since his days coaching Youngstown State. Along with Fox, former Buckeye players Tim Anderson and Kirk Barton shared the dais.
Last week, Tressel was suspended by Ohio State for the first two games next season and fined 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, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, 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 OSU freshman basketball star Jared Sullinger a spot on the 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. While some in Ohio have defended Tressel’s actions, he has been lambasted nationally. 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.”
Tressel said thanks and stepped down from the podium.
At past luncheons, he has stopped to speak with reporters. But this time he said he could talk only “if you walk with me” as he snaked through the exiting crowd. He shook hands with a few well-wishers and stopped to sign an autograph for a wheel-chair bound fan on his way to the door.
He was followed closely by Barton, who carried the coach’s overcoat.
“Which airport are we going to?” Tressel asked as he climbed into a waiting vehicle.
Tressel waved and was off.
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