It just after 1 p.m. Dec. 29, 2008, and I was very aware of what that date meant in Ohio State football history and especially how it related to the man behind the wheel.
“Do you know what day this is?” I asked him.
“Yes, it’s Tuesday,” he answered. “And it’s lunchtime. Let’s eat!”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “You do know that it happened thirty years ago today, don’t you?”
He then stared a hole through me and shook his head.
“I had forgotten, but thanks for reminding me!”
Arthur Ernest Schlichter, the most-prized recruit in Ohio State football history before there were four stars and five stars and Rivals and Scout and the many other recruiting services, has hated this date since he was a collegiate freshman.
It was certainly a date to forget, a date that brought back terrible memories.
It was 42 years ago today, on Dec. 29, 1978 that he threw the worst pass of his football life. It not only landed in the wrong hands, It became an interception that changed the course of college football history. It is undoubtedly the most infamous and most influential interception in Ohio State’s 130-year football history.
It was the interception that ultimately ended the coaching career of a legend, the one and only Woody Hayes.
At the time I mentioned this date to Schlichter, we were working on a book of his tortured life, his autobiography titled “BUSTED: The Rise and Fall of Art Schlichter” which would be released the following year.
“You know I don’t like talking about this much,” he said, dabbing a napkin to his ketchup-stained lips. “It’s not a good memory. In fact, it’s probably one of the worst memories of my life … and you know that I have had a lot of them.” But after undergoing treatment at alcohol and drug rehab, he was finally able to get back into shape.
This, from a man who as a young boy once saw a farmhand hanging dead from a rope in his family’s barn; from someone who also sustained life-threatening burns from a fire that erupted in the kitchen a few years later; from someone whose father had committed suicide and addressed him in the only note he left behind; and from someone who at that time had already spent 12 years in prison, including months at a time in solitary confinement, for various crimes resulting from a severe gambling addiction.
But it was, without any doubt, Schlichter’s worst moment in a football uniform in a record-setting career in which he was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and later led the Buckeyes to within inches of a Rose Bowl win USC and a national championship in 1979.
He was also the player Hayes had recruited the longest and the hardest all the while promising Schlichter and his father Max that he would change the Buckeyes’ run-heavy offense from three yards and a turf burn to three and four wideouts to throwing 25 passes per game to feature his best asset: His powerful right arm.
For a while, at least the start of the 1978 season, Hayes followed through on his promise although it didn’t happen without severe growing pains. Schlichter threw a school-record five interceptions in the season-opening 19-0 loss to Penn State, and 11 games later, the Buckeyes limped into the Gator Bowl game against Clemson (10-1) with a 7-3-1 record after yet another touchdown-less outing against Michigan, their third in a row.
“It was a terrible year. I was replacing an established starter (Rod Gerald) and I thought half the team hated me. And from the time I got on campus, Woody screamed at me about one thing in particular,” Schlichter said. “Don’t throw late over the middle! NEVER, EVER throw late over the middle!”
Then Schlichter, who had thrown only four touchdown passes to 20 interceptions heading into the Gator Bowl, got hot on that cold, foggy night in Jacksonville. Very hot. He had scored Ohio State’s two touchdowns on the ground (he led the team in scoring with 13 touchdowns) and had completed 16-of-19 passes but the Buckeyes still trailed the Tigers 17-15.
“We had worked on the passing game that entire month of December,” he recalled. “And it showed.”
After Clemson fumbled at Ohio State’s 44-yard line, Schlichter drove the offense 32 yards, before Ohio State faced third-and-five at the Tigers’ 24-yard line with just over two minutes remaining. Even if the Buckeyes had not gained another yard, freshman kicker Bob Atha, who had made six-of-nine field goal attempts that season, would have a 41-yard field goal to win the game. It was well within his range.
Offensive assistants had talked Hayes into calling a short pass to ride Schlichter’s hot hand, figuring it would be safe and if they converted, they could run the clock down and either score a touchdown or give Atha a shorter field goal attempt to win the game by a point.
But his 20th pass of the night would haunt him forever.
Guard Jim Savoca brought the play in from the sideline.
“Coach said, ‘Whatever you do … DO NOT throw an interception!” Savoca told Schlichter.
“I still remember the call … ,” Schlichter told me. “’Twenty-four Tuba.’ ‘Do not throw an interception!’ Those were his last words.
“And those words would ring in my ears for a long, long time. It was a tailback delay, as simple play really. Ron Springs was supposed to circle out of the backfield and I was supposed to dump it off to him for the first down.”
When Schlichter dropped back, wide receiver Doug Donley streaked down the right sideline and was wide open by the time he reached the end zone. Schlichter never looked his way, only at his primary receiver, Springs, who had circled out of the backfield and camped in the middle of the field but still would have been short of the first-down sticks.
The quarterback pumped once and then twice but held on to the football, as a little-known Clemson nose guard got blocked out of sight to his left. Just as Schlichter reloaded for the third time, Charlie Bauman roamed to his left on his way to becoming instantly famous. As Schlichter threw the ball toward Springs, Bauman cut in front of the pass, intercepted it and started running toward the Ohio State sideline.
Schlichter slapped his hands over his helmet twice and then sprinted toward Bauman, riding him to the ground about six feet from Hayes.
“I had been cautious about not throwing an interception the entire night and then this, this fluke play. If you watch the replay, you can see me practically hitting myself in the head before he intercepts it. Once he did, he ran to our sideline, I tackled him and the rest is history.”
Terrible, unforgettable history.
As Bauman stood up after the tackle, still holding the football in his left hand, Hayes grabbed him and delivered a right cross under his chin. It was a scene most Ohio State players had seen on the practice field dozens of times. He rarely threw punches with his right, however, because he was left-handed. And obviously, they never expected to see it during a game, especially with the punching bag being someone wearing a different-colored uniform.
“I had seen him throw a film projector when he didn’t like what he saw while we were in meetings,” Schlichter said. “And the offensive coaches often edited out my interceptions from practice, so when he had been working with the defense, Woody never saw them. They were afraid he would just want to run the ball if he saw them.”
But there was no editing out this interception, or Hayes’ punch for that matter or the messy aftermath, in which the legend with 205 wins, 13 Big Ten titles and five national titles at Ohio State would be fired by athletic director Hugh Hindman before the team’s charter flight to Columbus had left the ground the next morning. Hayes then grabbed the airplane’s intercom and made the announcement to his players as it taxied to the gate at Port Columbus.
“The whole thing was horrible,” Schlichter said. “Imagine what a burden it was for an 18-year-old kid like me to carry. I tried my best to take responsibility for it and move on, but no matter what I later accomplished in my career, I’ll always be known as the guy who threw the pass that got Woody Hayes fired.
“It was one of the saddest times of my life. One of college football’s biggest legends, the man beloved in Ohio, the man who recruited me and the man who had eaten Thanksgiving dinner with my family, the man who had promised to change the offense for me, the man who told me three months earlier I would become the greatest quarterback in Ohio State football history would no longer get to do what he loved to do – coach football.
“And somehow, I had to live with that.”
They say that life repeats itself. Sometimes, so does the game of football.
Seventy-four days following Schlichter’s interception, Ryan Patrick Day was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he grew up to be the star quarterback of the state’s largest university and soon found himself with a promising coaching career.
Seventeen years after starting his career as an unpaid graduate assistant, he had worked his way to the top, to one of the most prestigious and most historic jobs in all of football. His very first team as the full-time head coach at Ohio State was 13-0 and only two wins away from a national championship.
A year and a day ago, Day’s Buckeyes would be matched up with Clemson in a bowl game.
But this time, much more would be on the line than what was riding on that long-ago Gator Bowl. This game was a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., with the winner advancing to the national championship game against No. 1 LSU.
And once again, the Buckeyes found themselves driving down the field in the final minutes of the game, trailing but with a chance to win.
Clemson running back Travis Etienne had just collected a pass over the middle and raced 34 yards to the end zone to give the Tigers a 29-23 lead with only 1:49 remaining. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields responded by driving the Buckeyes 52 yards in seven plays, including three swing passes to running back J.K. Dobbins that gained 32 yards.
With a first down at the Clemson 26, with less than 50 seconds remaining, the Buckeyes were now within shouting distance of the end zone and a berth in the title game.
Day figured he could get sophomore wide receiver Chris Olave in a one-on-one matchup on a post route. It was the same play had resulted in the Buckeyes’ lone touchdown of the second half, a 23- yard pass from Fields to Olave that had given them a 23-21 lead.
It worked once, Day figured, so …
As Fields dropped into a clean pocket, Dobbins was open again underneath the Clemson coverage near the first-down sticks, but Fields never looked his way. His primary target was Olave, who was sprinting toward Tigers’ safety Nolan Turner. Just as Olave crossed the goal line, he was supposed to cut to the right – and Fields uncorked his pass expecting just that. However, Olave turned to the left and immediately slipped, leaving Turner all alone to catch an easy interception.
“It was a one-on-one with me on the safety, and I was supposed to run the post,” Olave explained afterward. “But when I looked back, I thought he scrambled, so I tried to work the second part of my route. He ended up throwing it, and that’s how the game ended.”
Nobody in the silent Ohio State locker room following the game took the loss harder than Olave. He was basically inconsolable, although teammate after teammate approached him and tried.
“He is very upset in the locker room right now,” Day said in the post-game interview. “He thought Justin was scrambling. Actually, we had exactly the call on that we wanted. Justin does a lot of creating, so they were not on the same page. Things like that happen. Unfortunately, that happened to us on the last play of the game when we needed it most.”
As bitter defeats go, this one was way up there. Ohio State had dominated the first half but had been forced to kick three field goals in the red zone instead of scoring touchdowns and the lead was only 16-0 when it could have been 28-0.
Then a targeting penalty on Shaun Wade on a corner blitz when the Buckeyes sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence changed everything. A controversial overturn of a Buckeyes’ touchdown on a completed pass changed to an incomplete pass also prevented them from taking the lead at one point in the third quarter.
It was a game that Ohio State did not win although its players, like many who watched it, figured the better team had lost.
This time, however, no punches were thrown, and no coach lost his job afterward, but the similarities are eerie. And the heartbreak was the same. It was an extremely painful loss to Clemson and just like the one 41 years earlier, the “what ifs” were endless and relentless.
What if Wade had not been called for targeting? What if the officials had let the Ohio State return of a fumble for a touchdown stand, as replays showed it should? What if Fields had checked down to Dobbins? But most of all, what if Olave had completed his designed route and cut right instead of left?
It is a moment that Olave has lived with, spending a calendar year thinking only of redemption. Against Clemson again. In the College Football Playoff.
“I know he took last year personal, maybe a little bit more personal than he should have,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said this week.
And if you took a poll in Ohio State’s locker room, teammates would agree that nobody wants to win Friday’s rematch more than Chris Olave.
Ohio State quarterbacks had attempted tens of thousands of passes from Schlichter’s interception in 1978 until Fields’ in 2019.
Hundreds of them had been intercepted.
But none were as prominent or as remembered as those two passes which landed in the hands of a Clemson defender in the final minutes with the games on the line. They will last forever in Buckeye football lore. And in Clemson’s, too.
Forty-one years apart, almost to the day.
And both led to gut-wrenching, heart-breaking Ohio State defeats that have and will cause lifetime-lasting regrets and awful memories.
To his credit, Hayes redeemed himself over and over again following his final game through his constant philanthropy, remaining a fixture on campus and even teaching military history in the ROTC building before dying of heart failure at the age of 74, some eight years and three months following his last game.
Springs, Schlichter’s intended receiver, died in 2011 from complications from diabetes. (His son Shawn became an All-American cornerback at Ohio State). He and Donley both later became stars with the Dallas Cowboys.
Charlie Bauman now resides in Cincinnati and works for Federal Express. He has long hated his connection to Hayes’ demise and even once temporarily changed his last name to his wife’s maiden name to avoid the unwanted recognition. He never grants interviews about the play or the game and refused my overtures to talk about it.
The most-recent Clemson hero, Turner, now a senior, most sit out the first half of Friday’s game against Ohio State for a targeting call from the second half of the ACC championship game win over Notre Dame. His first appearance will not come until the Buckeyes’ first offensive play of the second half.
Olave, who had tested positive for Covid-19 the week before the Big Ten title game against Northwestern, will be back on the field Friday – and there likely isn’t a game in his young life in which he has anticipated more than the one he is about to play.
Today, Art Schlichter sits in an Ohio state prison in Youngstown, with nine months and change left on a 12-year sentence.
Today is yet another anniversary which he would hate to acknowledge. He follows Buckeye football closely from behind bars, reading about them via his Internet privileges and watching most day games. His problem are the night games, like Friday night’s 8 p.m. kickoff. The “lights out” time in prison life prevents inmates from watching the second halves of such games.
A year ago, he was as saddened as most Ohio State fans the way the game against Clemson ended, realizing the extreme anguish that Olave must have felt for the miscommunication with his quarterback.
“The interceptions stay with you,” he once told me. “The ones that cost you a win always stay with you. And when you throw one that ends your season, and you feel like you let your teammates down, imagine how that feels. Now multiply that by 100 and when it leads to your beloved coach getting fired …”
At least that is one burden Fields and Olave do not have to carry.
Their chance at redemption, to right a wrong that has haunted them for one year, now is only two days away.
And by the time the game reaches the second half, Ohio state prison Inmate #777924 will be lying in his bunk, the lights and TV turned off, rooting for them both.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Snook, a 1982 Ohio State School of Journalism graduate, has written 14 books on college football.