TAMPA — It has been 25 years since Joe Tresey was a high school assistant in Columbus, Ohio, but Bob Stuart immediately remembers the look he saw in the young Ohio State graduate.
"Joe had footballs coming out of his eyes," recalls Stuart, an Ohio legend who once coached two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin at Eastmoor High. "You knew this was a real intense person."
Tresey (pronounced "Tracy") would spend the next decade as a high school coach in Ohio, then seven years at small colleges before breaking into Division I-A as defensive coordinator at Akron in 2002. Stuart remembers a "very thorough coach" who didn't mind going out of his way to learn from more experienced colleagues.
"He didn't mind putting in the extra time, driving to clinics," said Stuart, now 84 and retired in Columbus. "He went all over the state, went to Indiana. We went to Michigan one time.
"He was never bashful about going to people who had greater expertise than he did and getting ideas from them."
Now Tresey brings his expertise to USF, where he has been hired as Jim Leavitt's defensive coordinator, tasked with helping the Bulls improve on a 2-5 conference record in 2008.
You want intense? Try installing a playbook less than a week before spring practice.
"I only have five days to go. We've got to rock and roll," the 50-year-old Tresey said Thursday after his first day on the job. "We're going Tuesday. It is what it is. We're going to play fast, have minimal mental errors. … We're going to try to be the best in the Big East, just like every other coordinator is trying to be."
Tresey's defenses have helped Central Michigan and Cincinnati to conference championships in the past three seasons, and his Bearcats had USF's number, forcing eight turnovers in a 2007 victory and holding the Bulls to 10 points last season.
Leavitt, busy trying to hire a linebackers coach, did not return a call seeking comment, but Tresey's best players at Cincinnati say his defense's success is predicated on forcing turnovers. The Bearcats led the nation with 26 interceptions in 2007 and were one off the Big East lead with 17 in the fall.
"His biggest strength, and why we had a lot of our success, is that he runs a very sound defense," said defensive end Connor Barwin, who tied for the Big East lead with 11 sacks in 2008. "He's not going to take a lot of big chances, but he won't give up big plays, either. He's going to bring the takeaways."
Tresey's hiring came 11 days after his first interview with Leavitt, who subsequently offered defensive positions to at least four college assistants, each turning him down.
"Jim and I didn't have any history, so we had to get to know each other through the process. He kept me informed each step of the way," Tresey said. "Did I know exactly know who he was interviewing? No. But he kept me informed whether it was going to be a co-DC, a DC. He was looking at going some different angles. Jim was very, very fair with me, communicated with me throughout the whole process. I knew exactly where I stood. It was just a matter of time and hoping things would work out."
He inherits a defense, led by All-America defensive end George Selvie, that will have two new starters at linebacker and three in the secondary. The Bulls ranked 10th nationally in total defense under Wally Burnham, who resigned to take the same job at Iowa State. Tresey admits it won't be the same defense.
"It's going to be different because I'm not Wally Burnham," Tresey said. "Wally's got a philosophy, he developed a mind-set with this football team. I'm a different individual, I'm going to have a little different mind-set, sure."