Mike Tressel ’96: Coaching comes naturally

Mike Tressel ’96 appeared destined for a career coaching football like his grandfather, father, and uncle. But when it came time for Tressel to enter college, his family encouraged him to pursue other passions.

Michigan State University Athletics photo

“The truth is, my dad, uncle, and grandfather all pushed me not to think of coaching as a profession,” he said. “They wanted me to pursue something else I was interested in, knowing that in the long run I still could go into coaching since it requires no specific major.”

Tressel, who excelled in football and wrestling, ultimately chose Cornell College because of its strong academics and wrestling program.

He became a decorated four-year starter for the Rams in the defensive backfield, a five-time Academic All-American (twice in football, three times in wrestling), an NCAA Postgraduate Scholar, and a three-time Midwest Conference wrestling champion, earning all-America honors in 1994.

In addition, he graduated first in his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Because of the focus of One Course At A Time, he said, he was able to complete his math major in two years. Only then did he consider pursuing education and exploring coaching.

“Had I been in a traditional program I might not have done that. That’s one neat thing that really benefited me,” he said. “Coaching is teaching, so having a lot of coursework in education is a huge advantage over someone going into coaching just from playing the game.”

After graduation he earned a master’s degree in sports administration from the University of South Dakota and continued the family legacy. He’s currently in his 14th year on the defensive staff with Michigan State University, which ranked in the Top 10 Football Bowl Subdivision (the most competitive subdivision of NCAA Division I) in total defense and rushing defense six times during his tenure.

Since the pandemic began he has been meeting on Zoom with about 10 Cornell friends.

“You develop relationships and learn to work with people a lot more at Cornell than you would at a big state university,” he said. “When you’re in 20-person classrooms—and a lot of my math was five to six person classrooms—it’s about relationships. It’s not like sitting in 150-seat classrooms taking notes. You’re working directly with professors, as opposed to passively listening to lectures.”

When asked how else he benefited from Cornell, Tressel related a story about meeting a classmate because she was celebrating her birthday—on his birthday.

“The very first time I ever noticed Megan was in the cafeteria. She was being delivered birthday balloons—probably from a boyfriend—and I thought, ‘oh cool, she has my birthday too,’ ” he said. “We started dating our sophomore year and we’ve been together every minute since.”

He and Megan Frankel Tressel ’96 married six weeks after graduation and have two children.