Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: History Is Upon Us Once Again
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).
The new Ohio State football coach was sleek, focused, in tune with school tradition and clearly ready to meet the challenge.
But as a workaholic – aren’t they all at this level? – he was also so invested in the job at the onset of the season it was becoming obvious the position was already beginning to consume him.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I thought I was busy in ’83, when I walked in here for the first time and was getting ready for the first game,” said Jim Tressel on OSU Photo Day back in 2001. “I didn’t know what busy was back then. Now I know what it is. It’s a little different feeling now.”
It’s got to be a similar experience for Urban Meyer now.
Sure, Meyer is already very well aware of the demands of being a major college head coach. His 10 years in charge of programs famously included a glorious six-year run at the University of Florida after very impressive two-year stints at Bowling Green and Utah.
Unlike Tressel, who put in 15 years at smaller and more isolated Youngstown State before his return to Columbus, Meyer already had endured the pressure of a rabid and wide-reaching fan base, preparations for conference and national championship games, extensive media demands and mentoring student-athletes who walk a tightrope in the glare of cameras and public scrutiny. He also saw it all from the other side last year as an ESPN analyst.
Still, the buildup to Saturday – when Meyer will trot down from the team locker room, through the awning-covered path and lead the Buckeyes across the Ohio Stadium turf to throaty cheers – has been massive and eerily similar.
In the fall of 2001, Tressel was 48 as Meyer is now. He was an Ohio native and former Earle Bruce assistant who immediately endeared himself to fans with a national championship resume and keen understanding of the importance of Ohio State football – most notably making the community proud when the Buckeyes tangle with that team from Ann Arbor.
He came across as thorough, sharp and media savvy. He liked balanced offenses and didn’t mind tinkering with the special teams. He talked about the role of academics, family and the student body.
He also inherited a messy situation. John Cooper had been fired that January after what then-athletic director Andy Geiger described as a “deteriorating climate” within the program. The OSU brand was slipping. Results were waning, off-field incidents increasing, and the talent level dropping off a bit after a very successful six-year run from 1993-98.
Tressel was pegged to come in and right the wrongs. After being introduced as OSU’s new head coach on Jan. 18, 2001, he was whisked over to the Ohio State-Michigan basketball game at the Schottenstein Center and delivered his famous “310 days” address to the crowd.
I was on hand for both occasions.
I remember being blown away by Tressel’s introductory speech in the recruiting room of Ohio Stadium, how calmly and assuredly he talked about his vision for the program and the thrill players would feel of slipping on a national championship ring. And I was courtside when Tressel walked to the arena floor to monstrous cheers and then managed to win the crowd over even more when he basically promised better times were ahead.
Tressel knew how to work the room, whether it was a packed-in basketball arena, the living room of a recruit or a social hall full of alumni and donors. He was tireless in his preparations for the Sept. 8 opener with Akron, an up-and-coming MAC program where he happened to cut his teeth as an assistant.
Just before the start of the season, Tressel’s beloved 76-year-old mother, Eloise Tressel, died of cancer. Jim’s father and Eloise’s longtime husband, Lee Tressel, died of lung cancer at the young age of 56 in April 1981. He already had a sterling record of 155-52-6 at Baldwin-Wallace College by then and was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Lee was a lifelong fan of Ohio State and after becoming a high school standout he had dreams of sharing the same backfield with Les Horvath. However, circumstances led him to B-W, where he played fullback, later coached for 23 years and eventually served as athletic director.
Moments before the Akron game, I could see emotion swelling inside of Tressel as I found a place right next to the tunnel that was forming. He and the team were waiting for the cue to run onto the field, but there was a television delay, which forced them to wait for their grand entrance.
I documented the next minute in a column I wrote for Buckeye Sports Bulletin back in 2001 – how Tressel was pacing in front of the players like a caged lion, how he looked some of them dead in the eye and had them wild with anticipation, their eyes like saucers. A colleague of mine, Dave Maetzold, with whom I now share the radio airwaves on game day at 610 WTVN, looked at me with a mirrored expression.
“That just gave me chills,” I told him.
Maetzold then rolled up his sleeve to show me the goosebumps that were still raised on his forearm.
“Me too,” he said.
We knew Tressel as professorial and later, after many elongated press conferences, as senatorial. We had not realized he was also capable of being such a rabble-rouser.
After the Buckeyes systematically took down Akron 28-14, Tressel was still flushed from the experience, and he was beginning to lose steam in his posture and voice as he discussed his debut. He then talked about his parents – the voice of his father in his head and how he spent much of the week thinking of his mom.
It was Eloise’s dream as much as Lee’s for Jim to become the head coach at Ohio State. After all, she was an alum. She died on Aug. 18, exactly seven months after Jim’s appointment, but three weeks short of being able to see it come to fruition on game day.
I remember writing how Jim finally begged reporters to direct their questions at the players and he suddenly looked ashen and slumped over. It was as if someone had walked over and unplugged him. The endless preparation and emotion leading into his first game at the helm of the Buckeyes were enough to overwhelm even someone normally so stunningly composed.
Now it’s Meyer’s turn.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Even many of his critics believe he is the right fit for the OSU job and that championship days are just ahead. Despite pleas from his family to slow down, it doesn’t appear Meyer has a gear below fifth – and an intensity meter to match.
He appears refreshed and reinvigorated after a year away from the rigors of coaching, but there is no question he has poured himself into this new venture, one he, too, once dreamt about while growing up in northern Ohio.
Meyer has addressed the media with regularity since he was unveiled as head coach on Nov. 28. He’s logged long hours on the recruiting trail, at coaches clinics, in the film and meeting rooms, and on the practice field. He’s welcomed the presence of students, shaken countless hands, promoted the program, taped videos, glad-handed gift givers, etc., etc.
Now the time is at hand for actual football.
Seeking their first win since last Nov. 5, and looking to try to put a 6-7 record and stinging NCAA sanctions behind them, the Buckeyes are set to face another MAC school, Miami (Ohio) on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network).
Like Tressel, Meyer will take to the sideline of that game amid high anticipation and with a gaudy record. Over the same 10 year-span Tressel was winning Big Ten titles, leading OSU to three BCS championship games and racking up more than 100 wins, Meyer posted a record of 104-23 from 2001-10, including a pair of national titles and a like number of SEC championships while at Florida.
Meyer also enters this new phase of his coaching career with heartache from the loss of a parent. His father, Bud, died on Nov. 11, missing his son formally accepting the Ohio State job by 17 days. Earle Bruce, who would lose his wife of 56 years, Jean, a month later, delivered the eulogy.
Urban grew up with a picture of Woody Hayes in his family home in Ashtabula – and with discipline.
Bud was not a coach; he was a chemical engineer. But he was tough.
He once signed a waiver allowing Urban’s third-grade teacher to spank the lad if necessary. When young Urban called home to tell his dad he wasn’t enjoying minor league baseball – he was a 13th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in 1982 – and wanted to quit, Bud informed him he didn’t accept quitters in his family and wouldn’t accept Urban at home.
Meyer played for two more years before an arm injury ended his professional baseball pursuits. That led him back to football, and eventually coaching. And the drive, toughness and no-excuses approach he learned from his father led him to this moment, a date with destiny as Ohio State’s 24th head football coach.
Chances are the magnitude of the moment will engulf Meyer at some point on Saturday. He hinted at the idea on Monday during his first-ever pregame media luncheon as OSU coach.
“Obviously to say I’m excited about Saturday, it would be a very shallow statement, because I think everybody knows that,” he said. “But I’m honored to be here, honored to be the coach of The Ohio State University football team and to come back home and coach in the great state of Ohio.”
Meyer said he will even make notes to himself to stay attuned to the game “because I’ll be coming out of my shoes a little bit. It’s going to be an emotional time. Very much so.”
And, perhaps channeling his pseudo-predecessor, Tressel, he added, “it’s real.”
Yes it is.
It’s history, too.
Ohio State has not lost to a MAC school since 1894, when the Buckeyes opened their season with a 12-6 loss at Akron. Only one OSU coach has ever lost his debut – Jack Ryder in 1892. OSU fell at Oberlin that fall in the third season of Ohio State football. Ryder got to make amends when he regained control of the team in 1898 after serving as head coach from 1892-95. The Buckeyes shut out Heidelberg in the ’98 opener, 17-0.
Counting Ryder once, Ohio State had 11 coaches in the fledging years of 1890-1912 and 13 since – including Meyer and Luke Fickell, who coached the team during the tumultuous 2011 campaign as the school sought a more high-profile successor to bridge the program past the Tressel era.
The following is a look at how each of the coaches of the last 100 years have fared in their debuts at Ohio State:
* 1913, John W. Wilce – The Buckeyes entered their first-ever season of conference play and new AD Lynn W. St. John pegged Wilce, a former three-sport star at Wisconsin, as the man to succeed John R. Richards. Wilce started his time in Columbus well as the Buckeyes posted a dominant 58-0 win over Ohio Wesleyan on Oct. 4. He went on to win at a .688 clip at OSU in 16 seasons and was enshrined as a coach in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.
* 1929, Sam Willaman – The Buckeyes were coming off a solid 5-2-1 season but hadn’t won the Western Conference title since 1920 when Willaman succeeded Wilce, his boss the previous three seasons. The Columbus Dispatch described Willaman’s promotion as a “mere formality” but St. John flirted with the idea of luring Knute Rockne to OSU – and even interviewed the legendary Notre Dame coach. Willaman, though, landed the job, and the 39-year-old former Buckeye player got off to a nice start with a 19-0 win over Wittenberg on Oct. 5. Willaman went on to log a 26-10-5 (.695) record in five years on the job, but the university decided to bring in a dynamic outsider to replace him.
* 1934, Francis Schmidt – The outspoken and sometimes foul-mouthed Schmidt came over from TCU, where he wowed onlookers with his innovative and combative style. He played college ball at Nebraska, also earned a law degree there and served as a U.S. Army captain during World War I. OSU fans were smitten with his intensity right away, especially when he declared the rival Michigan Wolverines “put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as we do” during his introductory press conference on March 2, 1934. Schmidt started the gold pants tradition, won in his first four tries vs. UM and went 39-16-1 (.705) in seven years at Ohio State. But before all that was the Oct. 6 opener with Indiana, which the Buckeyes won 33-0, dazzling a then-record Ohio Stadium crowd of 47,736 in the process.
* 1941, Paul Brown – After Schmidt’s Buckeyes misfired in their battles with Michigan from 1938-40, St. John sat down with the coach, who decided to resign in lieu of being fired. The university then tabbed Brown, one of the most successful coaches in Ohio high school history. During Brown’s nine seasons at Massillon alone, he went 80-8-2. That included a run from 1935-40 in which the Tigers won six straight state titles and posted a record of, get this, 58-1-1. In that time frame, Massillon outscored its foes 2,393 to 168. Brown, of course, was only beginning his legendary run through the sport as he won a national title in his second season at OSU. He went on to great success as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and also founded the Cincinnati Bengals. The ’41 opener was a reflection of Brown’s impeccable attention to detail and ability to adjust as OSU outlasted pesky Missouri 12-7 on Sept. 27. Fullback Jack Graf scored both Buckeye touchdowns.
* 1944, Carroll Widdoes – World War II flipped the sport of college football and caused Brown to leave OSU as a Navy lieutenant. Brown appointed Widdoes to take over OSU head coaching duties in his absence and the former assistant did a remarkable job as the Buckeyes went a perfect 9-0, won the conference title and paved the way for Les Horvath to win the Heisman Trophy. Widdoes was a four-sport star at Otterbein and well aware of the growing Ohio State football tradition and the pressure that accompanied the head coaching job. He led out an OSU team of five seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and 31 freshmen and the Buckeyes absolutely stomped Mizzou in the Sept. 30 opener, 54-0.
* 1946, Paul Bixler – Another Brown assistant – and former rival as an assistant coach at Canton (Ohio) McKinley – Bixler got his chance when Widdoes asked to step down as head coach after a 16-2 record in two seasons. Widdoes was a quiet and religious man who had no interest in attending to the ancillary responsibilities of the job, such as speaking to alumni groups. Bixler lasted just one season after OSU was blasted 58-6 by Michigan at Ohio Stadium. He went 4-3-2, the first tie coming on opening day, Sept. 28, as the Buckeyes stalemated Missouri, 13-13. Bixler resigned in February 1947 to accept the head coaching job at Colgate.
* 1947, Wes Fesler – Ohio State needed to get back to its roots and find a commodity as its head coach in 1947. Eventually, the logical choice was former three-time All-American fullback Fesler, who was also a three-year letterman in baseball and basketball at OSU. Once again it was the Missouri Tigers coming to town and once again the Buckeyes found themselves in a dogfight, but won 13-7. The Sept. 27 win was deemed “unimpressive” and was followed by a 24-20 loss at Purdue. The Buckeyes fared just 2-6-1 that season. Fesler improved to 21-13-3 (.608) in four seasons but after eventual Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz and company lost 9-3 to Michigan in the infamous Snow Bowl in 1950, it was time for the school to court another coach. Citing the pressure like many before him, Fesler resigned – but took over the program at Minnesota 47 days later.
* 1951, Woody Hayes – You didn’t think there was any chance Wayne Woodrow Hayes might have lost his Ohio State debut, did you? Well, he didn’t. But it wasn’t a Rembrandt. The Buckeyes opened the ’51 campaign on Sept. 29 facing Southern Methodist and failed to properly showcase the T-formation offense Hayes espoused and many believed marginalized Janowicz. Hayes and his Buckeyes eked out a 7-0 win. Ironically, the only TD of the game came on a passing play, giving the crowd of 80,735 some form of excitement. The inauspicious start has almost no connection to the 28-year work of Hayes as head coach, in which he logged a mark of 205-61-10 (.761), won multiple national championships, ushered in some of the greatest players in school history, and cemented the school’s place among the best programs of all-time. It also should be noted that his first staff at OSU included the following assistant coaches: Bo Schembechler, Doyt Perry, Bill Arnsparger, Esco Sarkkinen, Gene Fekete and Ernie Godfrey.
* 1979, Earle Bruce – Another of Hayes’ many well-regarded OSU assistants, Bruce came over from Iowa State after his old boss was unceremoniously fired following the embarrassing punch of Clemson defender Charlie Bauman in the ’78 Gator Bowl. Following a living legend proved taxing on Bruce, who sometimes fired back at his critics. But his passion for the game and winning was magnetic and his first team at OSU embodied his hunger and spirit. The Buckeyes opened that year with a 31-8 dismantling of Syracuse on Sept. 8, the school’s 800th all-time win. By Nov. 17, the Buckeyes had pocketed an 18-15 win at Michigan and headed to the Rose Bowl 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. A one-point loss to USC in Pasadena kept Bruce from becoming the only OSU head coach to win a national title in his first season on the job. In nine seasons at the helm, Bruce averaged nine wins a season with a record of 81-26-1 (.755) – the best mark in the Big Ten over that span.
* 1988, John Cooper – Coop also followed an eventual Hall of Famer at Ohio State and similarly led the Buckeyes to a very impressive win over Syracuse in his first game on the sidelines as OSU head coach. The Buckeyes won 26-9 on Sept. 10 and did not commit a penalty in running the Orangemen off the field. It was just the kind of performance OSU fans and administrators were hoping for after Bruce was fired controversially prior to the ’87 Michigan game; the school also had to replace AD Rick Bay when he resigned in protest. A Tennessee native who ironically played his college ball at Iowa State, where Bruce once coached, Cooper arrived from Arizona State and with a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl on his resume. Despite a mark of 4-6-1 in his first season, and many fans calling for his ouster after heartbreaking defeats at the hands of UM, Cooper lasted 13 years and managed to go 111-43-4 (.715) at Ohio State. He, too, has been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
* 2001, Jim Tressel – OSU’s 28-14 win on Tressel’s debut wasn’t overly memorable other than the significance of his takeover of the program, but it actually was fun to watch. The Buckeyes dominated the afternoon with 525 yards of total offense compared to the Zips’ 248. Returning quarterback Steve Bellisari, who had won a heated battle for the starting nod in the spring, was sharp throughout and wowed the crowd with a 61-yard scoring bomb to Chris Vance. Jonathan Wells led the way on the ground with 119 yards rushing and 2 TDs. Tressel’s record … well, no one knows what Tressel’s official record is anymore.
Photo by Jim Davidson
* 2011, Luke Fickell – There isn’t enough room in cyberspace to fully explain why Fickell, a former OSU defensive lineman, found himself with the reins of the program last summer. And there’s no reason to relive the 6-7 nightmare that followed. However, the likable and well-spoken coach did manage to win over most OSU fans during the turmoil, and he certainly got the Buckeyes to perform at a high level for the Sept. 3 season opener. Ohio State absolutely destroyed Akron 42-0, racking up 27 first downs to the visitors’ five. Tight end Jake Stoneburner caught four passes, three of them touchdown tosses from Joe Bauserman. True freshman Braxton Miller relieved Bauserman and connected on 8 of 12 passes for 130 yards, while linebacker Andrew Sweat led the attack on defense and grabbed an interception.
* 2012, Urban Meyer – ???
*This is the fourth 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.