Wives of three Ohio State coaches talk about their lives in and out of the spotlight
Ellen Tressel, Barbara Matta and Donna Foster are part of an exclusive group that few can comprehend. They are the wives of OSU coaches-men whose salaries are high and whose pressures are higher, who are criticized by many but worshipped by more.
As the city-sized throng of fans clad in their Saturday scarlet sends a roar through Ohio Stadium following the national anthem, Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel turns his head upward. He looks to the suite from which his wife, Ellen, watches the games - she's always standing at the glass for this moment - makes eye contact with her, and waves.
While Buckeye basketball coach Thad Matta prepares his team in warm-ups, his wife, Barbara, walks to the same vendor she's visited each home game for five years to buy her popcorn and Diet Coke. She then sits with her two young daughters and watches intently as her husband - always chewing the same piece of gum from the beginning to end of the game, and never watching his players shoot a free throw - paces and hollers and sweats.
And when the Ohio State women's basketball team takes the floor, it's under the watchful eye of coach Jim Foster's wife, Donna. She can't sit near the bench - it's too nerve-wracking - and the seat to her left must always be empty. At halftime, then, as the team gathers in the locker room, an assistant will deliver Donna the box score to review. Should the team lose, she will not wear her outfit for the remainder of the season.
Ellen Tressel, Barbara Matta and Donna Foster are part of an exclusive group that few can comprehend. They are the wives of OSU coaches - men whose salaries are high and whose pressures are higher, who are criticized by many but worshipped by more.
Behind every great coach, these women joke, is an even greater wife. In a rare gathering, the trio of ladies spent an afternoon with us talking about their lives on the sidelines-and in the spotlight.
So what's it like, in general, being married to these high-profile men?
Tressel: We are all married to workaholics. It's hard. You really have to become your own person. You're part of a marriage, but you have to have your own life. You have to be fairly independent. You have to take care of everything that happens at home-everything with the home and the children.
Foster: They don't want to know about the furnace not working; they just want it fixed.
Tressel: There are times you get lonely. There are times you wish they would say, "No, I'm not going to speak" at a school or wherever. But it's not all about you. Look at all the lives they're impacting. It's about, How much do you care? And I think all of our husbands exhibit that.
Matta: Now with text messaging, they can sit in a meeting and say, "How are you? I love you!" [laughing]
Foster: I know they all care about their kids, their players. They're really good role models.
Matta: I feel like I have 13 sons. You worry about them. When the phone rings late at night, you hope that it's not one of the players.
There must be a lot of juggling on your parts, since your husbands are often away or working endless hours.
Tressel: We're not the only ones in this position. If our husbands were truck drivers, they'd be gone all the time. If they were doctors, they'd be on call. As women, you juggle. We're really good at it.
Matta: I multi-task, because that's the only way I get things done. Thad cannot multi-task.
Foster: Every single coach I know, the woman behind the coach-I won't call us saints [laughing]
Matta: Behind every great coach is an even greater wife! [laughing]
Foster: Gosh darn it, they're lucky. [laughing still]
All three of you handle the family finances, right?
Foster: Jim always said that he would be arrested if he walked into the bank and tried to cash the check.
Tressel: My Jim doesn't even know where the checkbook is!
How overwhelming is this life, especially coming from other places to Ohio State, where the stakes are obviously high?
Tressel: You cannot tell somebody what gameday's all about. That part was overwhelming. The demand on his time was overwhelming to me. And giving up a lot of privacy was hard. The rest of it's kind of fun, actually.
Foster: Isn't that amazing? I can't even imagine being the football coach's wife. I just can't.
You all say that people ask for autographs constantly, even arriving at your doorsteps seeking them. How do you handle that?
Matta: Well, he's never there, so I say, "Sorry, not here!"
Tressel: You should see our house on trick-or-treat night. About every fourth kid is Jim Tressel with his sweater vest and a tie.
Do you tend to stay in to avoid being bothered? Do you feel handicapped by your lives?
Foster: Jim and I, we go out a lot, but we tend to stay in the neighborhood.
Tressel: We have our few places-and I'm sure these girls do, too-because they'll seat you where you won't be noticed. I don't feel handicapped at all, really. It's part of the deal. The way you get through it is you realize all of this attention is only temporary. Our husbands won't all be coaches forever. They'll retire or they'll get fired, and then the heat's on the next guy. That's what keeps you sane. It's only for the moment.
Matta: And the smiles on peoples' faces when they see him. ... People were flabbergasted that he was in Wal-Mart. We're normal people!
Foster: I'm actually Jim's driver in the state of Ohio when he goes to speaking engagements. We get to spend time together. And I like to drive.
How many hours of sleep a night do your husbands get?
Matta [looking at the other two]: Does he sleep during the season? Because Thad does not sleep.
Tressel: Maybe six, at the most.
Foster: That's great. Jim probably gets four or five, depending.
Matta: Maybe four or five. I love when he talks in his sleep, though, about the game.
How do you handle hearing constant criticism of your husbands, even just from normal people at games or the grocery store?
Tressel: Usually I'll just ignore it and go on with my business. People have their opinions, whether you agree with them or not.For us, it's not just about what happened on Saturday afternoon. For Jim, it's about turning them from a teenager into a young man. Jim's mom used to say, "You either carry a ball bat and use it or wear earplugs." It bothers my friends more than it bothers me.
Where do you sit at the games?
Tressel: We have a suite in the stadium. Usually friends and family join me.
Foster: I don't have family here, so it's mostly friends and people in the women's basketball program. I used to be down by the bench.
Matta: Oh, gosh.
Foster: I asked to be moved. (She now sits a half-dozen rows down in the lower bowl.)
Matta: When I go to away games, and I'm down there, I'm sweating like the guys.
Barbara, how do your daughters, who are both in elementary school, feel about this whole situation?
Matta: We have the team over once a month for dinner, so they're like their big brothers. They do Webkinz. They play. The girls are very into the game.
How often do you get to go on dates with your husbands?
Tressel: We try once a week-Thursdays. But it's probably once a month, because something always comes up. You just have to go with the flow sometimes.
Foster: Obviously we don't have kids at home, and I am able to do everything with him. We get to spend a lot of time together.
Tressel: You get to spend more time with your husband at an away game than at a home game.
Foster: I actually find that life is easier during the season. Between recruiting and speaking engagements, the time commitment is, I think, worse during the off-season.
Matta: During the season, we at least know where they are!
You all agree that home games are a bit crazy for you, since it means lots of out-of-town guests. What's it like constantly playing host?
Foster: I call our house the revolving door.
Tressel: Ours is Hotel Tressel.
Matta: Oh yeah. We have four inflatable beds.
Foster: But I enjoy that.
Tressel: People come in for the games, but they might start coming in Wednesday, Thursday. You've got to think about meals.
Matta: They come to see us.
Foster: They know they're not going to see our spouses!
Do you constantly have people asking for favors-particularly tickets?
Matta: I get it, but in a good way.
Foster: The only thing I hate about tickets is having to record everything. You want to just be able to have tickets in your pockets to just give people.
Matta: Like the checkout guy at Kroger!
What are the best perks to your positions?
Matta: You're able to help other people, like having Thad sign basketballs or hats and take them to the James.
Tressel: The biggest perk, really, is that you have the chance to impact a lot of lives.
Matta: We have to do that part, because the guys are so busy. I think one of the perks, too, is the traveling. I take our girls out of school to see some of the museums-The Alamo.
Foster: We have traveled to many parts of the world, and it's all because of basketball.
Any traditions or superstitions on game day?
Foster: No one on my left. I have to get the box score at halftime. I always look at it. I've never missed a game until this year, and our two games I missed, we lost. So I will never miss another game. Jim says he's not superstitious, but let me tell you, he held it over my head!
Tressel: At the end of the national anthem, Jim will turn, and he sees me in the suite. And I'm always at the window. And he makes eye contact and he waves.
Foster: That's really sweet! Jim doesn't do that.
Matta: Me and the girls eat Lucky Charms in the morning. Thad-he has to have his gum. He has to have that same piece of gum the whole game, his Juicy Fruit gum. We never talk before the game. I know he needs his peace and quiet.
Foster: Me neither.
Matta: Thad turns around after the national anthem and waves to the girls. Sometimes he blows them a kiss. And they pick out his tie before the game. They've done that since they were old enough to point. And mine is my popcorn and Diet Coke.
Tressel: One of my superstitions-my suite where I watch home games is at the very top of the stadium. I start at the ground and take the stairs all the way to the top. There's 250.
Foster: The whole clothing thing. If we've lost, I won't wear something for the rest of the season.
Tressel: You think about it every time you get dressed!
Matta: Thad, if they lose, he will not wear a tie again. We have a whole bunch of ties he will never wear again!
Tressel: My husband, he will not wear anything navy, because it's Michigan's color.
Even in the off-season?
Matta: I saw these yellow and blue dishes I wanted so bad. I had them in the cart, and the girls made me take them out!
You all obviously get to know the players on a personal level. Do you have favorite players?
Tressel: We do, but we can't tell you who they are.
Foster: We do. I've always liked all the kids he's had.
Matta: Really? All of them? They must not give you grief.
Do you stress about the games?
Foster: Yes. But it's out of our hands.
Tressel: You know they've prepared. They've worked hours and hours and hours. [Still, sometimes, things don't go well.] And that's when you really feel for your husband. You can hear the crowd, and you think, "It wasn't supposed to be that way."
What happens when they lose?
Tressel: I think all of us would say we have become very good listeners. You don't ask, you wait for them to talk. With my Jim, you can see the wheels. He's mulling it for hours. It's hard to know what to say, and sometimes, there's nothing to say. You don't have to talk, you just have to listen.
Foster: I feel the same way. Thankfully, it doesn't happen that often.