Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Second Time’s The Charm
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
So what does Urban Meyer do for an encore now?
It’s an intriguing question. One that the national pundits won’t broach until well after this postseason mélange is complete.
But we’re not national pundits, are we? And since followers of Ohio State football have a little more time on their hands than normal, we’ll go ahead a take a sneak peek.
Meyer, of course, will be asked countless times between now and the Aug. 31 opener with Buffalo how he can do any better than the unlikely 12-0 mark the Buckeyes just posted. His answers may vary but surely will center on the same things we heard throughout 2012 – commitment, toughness, hard work, etc.
The coaches will require all of those things and no doubt the Buckeyes will be responsive, but every year is different; every team has its own personality and stamp.
The Buckeyes will be very high in, perhaps even atop, the preseason rankings. The experts will point to the return of quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde, leading tackler Ryan Shazier, the starting safeties, kicker Drew Basil and will mention the loss of just two starters on an offense that averaged 37.2 points per game and popped for 50-plus a school-record four times.
It will look very, very strong on paper. The Buckeyes haven’t lost with Meyer under the headset and don’t plan to anytime soon.
Still, truly vying for a national title will require Ohio State to successfully navigate a 14-week, 12-game schedule, winning the Big Ten crown in Indianapolis and then triumphing in the BCS National Championship Game against some other superpower.
It won’t be easy. It never is.
Only One Direction To Go?
Meyer going undefeated through the entirety of the regular season in his first year as Ohio State head coach summoned up comparisons to two others who managed to do the same – Carroll Widdoes and Earle Bruce, the latter Meyer’s mentor.
Their immediate popularity from those impressive debuts took a hit the following year.
Widdoes, a trusted Paul Brown assistant, led the Buckeyes to a perfect 9-0 mark and league title in 1944. Coaching during the most torrid part of World War II, Widdoes had a 44-man roster made up of five seniors, three juniors, five sophomore and, get this, 31 freshmen.
However, 24-year-old Les Horvath, a senior on the 1942 national championship, was allowed to return since he was enrolled in Ohio State’s School of Dentistry and the college football hierarchy allowed a fourth year of eligibility because of the war. Similarly, outstanding linemen Bill Hackett and Warren Amling were deferred from military service and entered veterinary school, which allowed them to play.
It was obvious early on the Buckeyes had a standout defense with shutouts of Missouri and Iowa and went on to roll through the schedule until an 18-14 survival against Michigan.
Ohio State was forced to follow Big Ten policy and decline an invitation to the Rose Bowl – the conference didn’t believe in postseason showcases back then – and, no surprise, Army was voted as the nation’s top team by The Associated Press.
Still, 1944 was a special year for OSU football fans. Widdoes was branded an instant success. Horvath won the program’s first Heisman Trophy.
The next year started off similarly with dominating wins over Missouri and Iowa and a shutout of Wisconsin. However, the Buckeyes were completely outclassed in Week 4 as they lost 35-13 at home to Purdue. That ended Widdoes’ unbeaten string to start his OSU coaching career at 12, a mark Meyer has tied and stands to break in the 2013 opener.
The Buckeyes rebounded with four straight wins but were nipped 7-3 at Michigan, and Widdoes had his opening. He never aspired to be a head coach and didn’t at all enjoy the schmoozing of alumni and other appearances that went with the job. He asked legendary athletic director Lynn W. St. John if he could switch back to being an assistant. St. John agreed, and shifted Paul Bixler into the top role.
Bruce also took over the program as a well-respected former OSU assistant, although in between his days on Woody Hayes’ staff and being named head coach at his alma mater in ’79 he had successful runs as the head coach at the University of Tampa and Iowa State. And before he coached under Hayes from 1966-71, Bruce was a dynamite high school coach at four different Ohio schools including Massillon, where he was a perfect 20-0.
The magic returned as soon as Bruce coached his first game as Woody’s successor. Ohio State wiped away Syracuse, 31-8. The Buckeyes then squeaked out a 21-17 win at Minnesota, blasted Washington State and won 17-13 at UCLA.
That game was staged at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Bruce knew what the victory could do for his team. Soon after takeoff from L.A., the Buckeyes flew over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and set a goal to return. They did.
They wiped away Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa without allowing more than seven points in any of those six wins. And the dream continued when a late blocked punt led to a Todd Bell touchdown and 18-15 win at Michigan. Ohio State went through the regular season 11-0 and had climbed all the way to the top of the AP poll.
But the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl appearance couldn’t have been tougher, a virtual away game vs. No. 2 USC. They lost to the Trojans by a mere point, just missing out on the national title.
How harsh is the head coaching job at Ohio State? The next year, Bruce and the Buckeyes were being booed at home.
They were shut out 17-0 by UCLA at Ohio Stadium and managed to score just three points in a home loss to Michigan. A 31-19 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl followed, and before long, it seemed, fans were referring to Bruce as “Old 9-and-3 Earle.”
Ohio State lost three games in every season thereafter until 1987, when Bruce was fired the week of the Michigan game and the Buckeyes ended up 6-4-1.
Year Two Remember
Here’s the good news for Meyer: There are several examples of outstanding accomplishment in the second year of running a major program at Ohio State.
For whatever reason, follow-up years have been lots of fun and sometimes even glorious, especially when you bring the men’s basketball program into play. Coaches who logged highly successful second seasons at Ohio State include Brown, Fred Taylor and Jim Tressel, all of whom won national championships in their second go-round.
John Cooper endured the first losing season in Ohio State football history in his initial year of 1988, but the Buckeyes jumped to a tie for third place in the conference and eight wins the following year. Plus, they became fun to watch again with 28 or more points in seven games and an epic comeback win at Minnesota.
Jim O’Brien started with even less when he took over the basketball program after Randy Ayers’ firing in 1997. No offense to Carlos Davis, a local kid who tried his hardest to play point guard in 1997-98, but the upgrade to Scoonie Penn the following year was like putting delicious frosting on a plain cookie.
The Buckeyes were just 8-22 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten in O’Brien’s first season on campus. With Penn as Michael Redd’s running mate, and Ken Johnson becoming a force inside, the Buckeyes tied the program mark for wins up to then with 27 and advanced all the way to the Final Four.
Speaking of Ayers, he inherited a program on the rise after Gary Williams’ three years on the job and a recruiting class that included phenom Jim Jackson, and he managed a pretty solid debut season of 17-13 in 1989-90. The Buckeyes eked their way into the NCAA Tournament that March.
The following season, however, Williams’ vision came to fruition as the Buckeyes were a true power in the game. They won their first 17 games, 27 overall, claimed a piece of the Big Ten title and headed to the NCAA tourney as a 1-seed. The league championship was the program’s first in 20 years.
Taylor, of course, was the architect of Ohio State basketball greatness. A former basketball and baseball player at the school, he posted an 11-11 record (7-7 in the Big Ten) in 1958-59, his first on the job. The next year with sophomores Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Mel Nowell eligible to join Larry Siegfried and Joe Roberts in the starting lineup, OSU steamrolled to a 25-3 record and the 1960 title, the program’s only national championship.
Thad Matta also came into a delicate situation in the summer of 2004. O’Brien had been fired and the program was feeling the weight of a heavy NCAA investigation. Matta somehow won 20 games and bumped off undefeated and top-ranked Illinois in his first season. But 2005-06 surpassed all reasonable expectations as the Buckeyes won an outright Big Ten title and earned a 2-seed for the Big Dance.
Hayes didn’t earn any parades in his second year at Ohio State but the Buckeyes did improve from 4-3-2 to 6-3. They also stunned No. 12 Michigan with a solid 27-7 thumping. When the Wolverines made a return visit two years later, OSU was the No. 1 team in the country.
Ohio State dumped UM 21-7 on Nov. 20, 1954, and took down USC 20-7 in the Rose Bowl to claim Hayes’ first of five national championships.
The first title in program history came in 1942, which happened to be Brown’s second year at OSU.
But, of course, no second-year story is more compelling or more amazing than the 2002 season, as Tressel’s Buckeyes won all 14 games at their disposal, many of them in heart-stopping fashion.
Bringing It All Together
So what could kick the upcoming campaign to another level?
Well, if the 2013 Buckeyes are to emulate the 2002 team it would be good karma for cornerback Bradley Roby to announce that he’s coming back.
After all, it was All-American defensive back Mike Doss who called a press conference right after the 2001 season and surprised those in attendance by saying he would return to Ohio State. I still remember seeing Doss in the parking lot on my way into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. He was on his cell phone, crying.
Moments later he came in and said he had promised his mother he would complete his degree, intimating that may have trumped his desire to leave. Doss, of course, did come back, became a rare three-time All-American, and served as captain for the ’02 team as the Buckeyes came up with win after win in the fall and in the desert.
Roby’s decision may not be as dramatic or for the same reasons, but he’s already hinted at what could draw him back to school.
“A national championship next year would definitely be a good incentive, a good reason to come back,” he told reporters late in the season, “but, like I said, I haven’t been thinking about it too much and I don’t want to say anything that’s going to cause speculation.”
Doss talked openly about trying to win a national title in his final year at OSU, even though it hadn’t been done for 34 years. Roby also may be willing to fan his cards out on the table and proclaim his intention to help OSU go after a BCS title. And like Doss, Roby is a special player with enough skill and fortitude to make a huge difference.
With apologies to John Simon and Shazier, he was the best defender on the team last year and a huge difference-maker. He plays the ball very well in coverage, tackles extremely well and has a knack, as Doss did, for game-turning plays. In fact, he scored a touchdown via fumble recovery, interception and a blocked punt in 2012.
Any real run at a national championship is going to require fantastic defense. That never changes. Johnathan Hankins’ exit along with the rest of the starting defensive line makes for quite a challenge, but Meyer has made sure to load up that position for the future with top-line talent.
If Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt and company can develop quickly – and they are all off to very promising starts to their careers – then it will be up to the playmaking ability of the back seven to make this a special group. Roby would be a huge key to that task.
What would be decidedly different about next year’s team and the 2002 squad is the established parts on offense compared to 10-plus years ago when the Buckeyes were still developing youngsters such as Nick Mangold and Rob Sims up front, had a freshman tailback in Maurice Clarett and still weren’t sure if Craig Krenzel was the man for the job at quarterback. Also, the coaches liked what they had returning at wideout in Michael Jenkins and Chris Vance but were experimenting with adding other athletes to the mix, namely Chris Gamble.
The 2013 Buckeyes will be loaded with veterans on offense, including four returning starters up front, receivers Devin Smith and Philly Brown, and a talent-rich backfield of Miller, Hyde and, presumably, Jordan Hall, who has applied for a medical redshirt.
The Buckeyes also will return a pair of tight ends in Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman, who developed last season.
Why is that important? Statistics show that no team has won a national championship in the BCS era without getting notable receiving production at tight end. It’s just the way of the world now – and it makes sense.
Teams good enough to contend for a national championship generally are well-coached, have a quality defense and have star power on offense. Teams that are capable of beating them can slow down a great quarterback or running back just enough to force the contending teams into using other weapons. That’s where the tight end comes into play.
The 1995 Ohio State offense was probably the best I’ve ever seen from a Buckeye team. It had Eddie George in Heisman form and Terry Glenn worthy of the Biletnikoff on the outside. Quarterback Bobby Hoying had a career year and major league weapons at his disposal. But several of OSU’s drive-sustaining plays that year involved Hoying dialing up tight end Rickey Dudley, who was drafted ninth in 1996 – just two behind Glenn and five ahead of George.
The 2002 offense included a quiet and efficient Ben Hartsock at tight end, who ended up third on the team in receptions.
Wisconsin proved Miller can be bottled up by a defense set up to do so. Anyone can crowd the line of scrimmage with defenders or bracket a hot receiver. But one-on-one coverage with the tight end is always going to be there, and the Buckeyes are going to have to tap into that more in 2013.
Vannett and Heuerman combined for 17 catches in 2012 – the same number Hartsock registered 10 years earlier – and could double that total next season. They’ll be at a much more certain starting point when camp breaks.
“In the spring when we were putting the new offense in I was kind of lacking confidence in myself and the plays,” admitted Vannett, a redshirt freshman in 2012. “And now after studying the playbook in the offseason I really understand the plays a lot better, a lot more clearly, and I think that’s improved my confidence on the field.”
But perhaps the most important facet of all for Meyer and his coaching staff in terms of putting the 2013 team in a championship-or-bust mindset will be tapping into their anger over being left out of the equation this year.
“I love coaching angry teams,” Meyer said. “Nothing like coaching a group of kids who want to prove everyone wrong.”
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.