This is part of a series looking at crucial moments, games, and decisions in Ohio State football history, and how things may have played out if they had gone a different way.
The search to replace John Cooper as Ohio State head football coach dragged on longer than you probably remember.
Cooper was fired on January 3, 2001, just two days after the Buckeyes no-showed the Outback Bowl against a not-very-good South Carolina team.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that Jim Tressel was the best possible choice for the program. But that wasn’t quite so clear at the time.
Athletic Director Andy Geiger went through a long list of possible candidates before officially hiring Tressel on January 18.
So how different could things have turned out if Geiger went another direction?
By the time Cooper was officially canned on January 3, it was pretty clear that the program needed a change. The Buckeyes were just two seasons removed from an 11-1 campaign where they finished No. 2 in the nation, but had cratered badly in next two years.
They went 6-6 and missed a bowl in 1999. The 2000 team started hot, winning its first five games and reaching No. 6 in the national polls. But a shocking 29-17 home loss to Minnesota sent the season into free-fall. Two weeks later, they lost to Drew Brees and Purdue.
They closed the year by losing at home to Michigan, and in the Outback Bowl. That 5-0 start melted into a 3-4 finish.
It was the sixth time in 12 seasons that Cooper had lost both The Game and the bowl game.
Why had Cooper failed? The consensus at the time was that it had something to do with him being an outsider. He had no previous OSU ties, which meant to many people that he simply never understood the Michigan rivalry.
It was no coincidence that the search for his successor centered on a number of names with previous OSU connections.
Walt Harris had been an offensive coordinator under Cooper before taking the head coaching job at Pitt in 1997. He went 6-6 and 2-9 in his first two seasons, but seemed to have things trending in the right direction with a 5-6 mark in 1999 and a 7-5 record in 2000.
Fred Pagac was a Buckeye through-and-through. He played tight end under Woody Hayes, and served as a grad assistant and assistant coach at OSU from 1978 to 2000. He had been the Assistant Head Coach in 2000, and was the logical choice if Geiger wanted to keep things in-house.
Mason was an intriguing name as well. He had played linebacker for the Buckeyes under Hayes, and was then the head coach of Minnesota. You’ll recall that his Gophers had just pulled off that big upset in the Horseshoe a few months earlier. He had built Kansas into a 10-win team in 1995, and taken Minnesota from 3 wins to 5 to 8 in his first three seasons. The 2000 Gophers slipped back to 6-6, but there was no denying that he had built the program up significantly since he arrived.
Former OSU linebacker Chris Spielman had no coaching background, but got an interview with Geiger anyway.
Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops was a Youngstown native, and coming off a national championship in his second season with Oklahoma. He was never a serious candidate.
There were other names in the mix as well, including Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, who had absolutely no ties to Ohio State. Bellotti was one of the hot national coaching names that year, having taken Oregon from 6 wins in 1996 to 7 in 1997, 8 in 1998, 9 in 1999, and 10 in 2000.
There have long been rumors that during Bellotti’s interview with Geiger, he asked if Ohio State and Michigan had to play every year. That story remains in the realm of the apocryphal, but if true, likely was the end of his candidacy.
And because it was a coaching search in the 21st century, Jon Gruden’s name was mentioned as well. (Really!)
And then there was Jim Tressel. He served as an OSU assistant under Earle Bruce, and had four Division 1-AA national championships to his credit at Youngstown State University: 1991, 1993, 1994, and 1997. But the Penguins took a step back to 6-5 in 1998, made the national championship game in 1999, and then flamed out of the first round of the playoffs in 2000.
He had a championship history, but had he already peaked as a coach? It was a fair question.
Geiger chose Tressel. That night he made a promise about something that would happen roughly 10 months in the future, and Buckeye football hasn’t been the same since.
What could have happened
Several other coaches made the trip to Columbus to interview with Geiger. Bellotti did, and so did Mason.
What if Geiger was leery that Tressel was past his prime? What if he was wowed by the rebuilding job Mason did at Kansas, and the growth he had shown at Minnesota? He did just thump the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe, after all.
With the benefit of hindsight, it sounds crazy. But at the time, it was a defensible position.
So what happens if it was Mason addressing the crowd at the Ohio State-Michigan basketball game on the night of January 18, 2001?
It’s doubtful he would have said anything with the staying power of Tressel’s “310 days” line.
And then after that, it’s hard to imagine he would have been able to match Tressel’s on-field success, either.
The 2001 Buckeyes start slowly, but gradually pick up traction. They finish a 7-5 year with an inspiring win over a not particularly strong Michigan team.
Tressel, meanwhile has found a new home. After Notre Dame fired Bob Davie following the 2001 season, the Irish chose Tressel over Georgia Tech’s George O’Leary. He immediately scores a major recruiting win, convincing Youngstown-area native Maurice Clarett to join him in South Bend.
Despite losing out on Clarett, the Buckeyes – just like the Gophers before them – follow Mason’s pattern of improvement, putting up a solid 10-win year, including another victory over the Wolverines. They suffer a few close losses after the Maurice Hall-led running game struggles in key moments.
The 2003 team returns virtually everyone from the year before, but some bad luck leaves them at 10-2 again, this time with a loss to Michigan.
There is a big step back in 2004, as a talented senior class heads off to the NFL. The Buckeyes finish the year just 8-4, and lose to the Wolverines again as starting quarterback Justin Zwick narrowly misses wide receiver Troy Smith on a slant route late in the red zone.
In 2005, patience is wearing thin with Mason. The Buckeyes enter The Game with a 9-2 record, but lose in Ann Arbor. That marks the end of the Mason era in Columbus.
With Tressel firmly set at Notre Dame (thanks in part to his 4-0 record against Michigan), the Buckeyes have to look elsewhere for their coach.
This time they learn from the mistakes of the past. A proven track record of success is more important than simply having Ohio State ties.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, there is a perfect candidate very close to home. He has taken his program from a 3-8 first season to 9, 8, and 8-win seasons, and then put together an 11-1 Sugar Bowl championship campaign in 2005.
Unlike Mason and his dull, pro-style offense, this coach is an innovator with an exciting spread-based attack that promises to modernize the Buckeyes.
And on January 12, 2006, the Buckeyes introduce West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez as their new head coach.
Who takes over at Michigan after 2007 if Rodriguez is in Columbus? Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, and Cal’s Jeff Tedford were among the other candidates. That means we very plausibly could have had a world where Jim Tressel coached Notre Dame, Rich Rod coached the Buckeyes, and Brian Kelly coached Michigan. Try not to hug Andy Geiger too tightly the next time you see him.
Terrelle Pryor running a Rich Rodriguez offense would have been pretty exciting. Although, given the coaching carousel laid out above, maybe Pryor ends up in South Bend instead.