Top Ohio Republicans are name-checking former Ohio State University head football coach Jim Tressel as they search for a new consensus candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown this year.
Tressel, the president of Youngstown State University, near Cleveland, has become a top GOP recruit. So has author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, as dissatisfaction with Republican Senate candidate Mike Gibbons, a wealthy investment banker, lingers after Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel's unexpected withdrawal from the race.
"Jim Tressel is welcome pretty much wherever he goes in Ohio," said Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio.
"Obviously, he's had the opportunity now to run some universities, so he's certainly got football team management and now university management under his belt. He's obviously a great campaigner because you've got to work hard to recruit young talent against everybody else," Joyce said. "Tressel's certainly an interesting idea."
According to two Republicans, Tressel has not expressed interest in the Senate seat as he closes in on his fourth full year as president of Youngstown State University. However, that hasn't halted overtures from those within the party and hopes from some that he would entertain the idea of a campaign.
"I wish he was [interested]," one prominent Ohio Republican said, citing his statewide name identification has a pre-eminent reason.
Requests for comment to the president's office at Youngstown State were not returned.
If Tressel were to run, he would have to by state's filing deadline on Feb. 7, leaving a shortened time period to consider a bid. Along with Vance, who is being prodded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to run, Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, is considering the jump to the Senate race from his current gubernatorial bid.
Tressel has served as president of Youngstown State University since May 2014, the same school he guided to four Division 1-AA titles in the 1990s as head football coach. He is best known for his decade of success on the field at Ohio State as head football coach, where he led them to a national title in 2002 and two other BCS national title game appearances.
Perhaps most importantly to Buckeye fans, he had a 9-1 record against arch rival University of Michigan.
Yet Tressel's tenure ended abruptly in 2011. He resigned after he did not report that Ohio State players were exchanging memorabilia for tattoos from a Columbus tattoo parlor, and falsely claimed to have only just heard about the situation when it became public in December 2010. He ultimately released a statement of contrition and left Ohio State in May 2011 facing NCAA violations and sanctions.
The disturbing end to his coaching tenure does not stop Republicans from floating his name.
"He would be awesome, and he could win — but I'm not sure he would do it," said one GOP operative when asked for a candid assessment of a possible Tressel bid. "There's no one better we could get. He'd be a star."
Over the past decade, Tressel has been an intermittent donor and supporter of Ohio Republicans. In 2010, he donated $250 to Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In 2016, he financially supported Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign by giving the maximum donation of $2,700 and appearing with him at campaign events in the state along with Ohio State Head Football Coach Urban Meyer. He also donated $500 to Sen. Rob Portman's re-election effort.
Nationally, Tressel's only donation outside of his support for Kasich was $1,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2008, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the GOP presidential nominee.
Tressel's wife, Ellen Tressel, made a series of donations to President Trump's campaign and the RNC during the 2016 general election campaign.
If Tressel were to take the plunge, he would not be the only one with an Ohio State football background running for office this year. Anthony Gonzalez, a former receiver for the Buckeyes, is running in the state's 16th Congressional District to fill Renacci's impending vacancy in Congress. According to one GOP strategist in the state, the ties to Buckeye nation would lend credence to any candidate — especially Tressel.
"Anthony Gonzalez has a lot of people for him because of his Buckeye pedigree," said Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based GOP strategist. "In Ohio, particularly Central Ohio, you can never discount a Ohio State personality running for something."
"Ohio State is such a strong attraction for most Ohioans that someone who coached Ohio State football will always be a popular name for political office," Weaver said. "Having said that, it's a big leap from Youngstown State University presidency to statewide candidate."
By accepting the position at Youngstown State nearly four years ago, Tressel retired from his days roaming the sideline in his trademark sweater vest that became a staple during his years in scarlet and grey. But Republicans believe his entrance in the 2018 field could make Ohio Democrats nervous.
"I know [Democratic Congressman] Tim Ryan wants him to take over the Browns," Joyce said with a chuckle.
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.