MIAMI – Let me take you back more than four decades to a time in Ohio State football history that many have forgotten. Or maybe most fans are just too young to remember. It was a time that involved big names, actually the biggest in the coaching business today both in the NFL and in college football, terrible tempers and yet so little quality defense.
It was a tumultuous time to say the least.
This story started following the 1980 Rose Bowl, a heartbreaker of a loss for the second-ranked and undefeated Buckeyes. Ohio State had dominated USC on the field but yet kicked too many field goals and left too many would-be touchdowns get away in the red zone, accounting for a last-second 17-16 loss to the Trojans, costing the Buckeyes a sure national championship. It was a game, an outcome and a pain so familiar to what occurred with Ohio State’s loss to Clemson a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl.
Head coach Earle Bruce, just a year after being hired to replace the legendary Woody Hayes, was about to lose a young secondary coach that he really liked, a brash young coach whom he knew had a very bright future, when 29-year-old Pete Carroll left the Buckeyes to become defensive coordinator at North Carolina State.
That is when his defensive coordinator, Denny Fryzel, suggested he hire another brash young coach who happened to be a good friend, a former Kent State defensive back who had played for the legendary Don James. He happened to be coaching defensive backs at West Virginia at the time. Bruce listened to Fryzel describe this coach and followed up by interviewing him, figuring immediately that 29-year-old Nicholas Lou Saban Jr. probably had what it took to continue Carroll’s success with this young secondary.
For Saban, the offer was too much to pass up. Stay in his native West Virginia? Or work for the Ohio State Buckeyes, a perennial Big Ten power?
That is how Nick Saban first arrived in Columbus, Ohio in early January, 1980.
After coming off such a promising first season, Bruce never guessed what would take place during the following two seasons. He had an All-American quarterback in Art Schlichter back as a junior. He had tons of talent on both sides of the ball, such as receivers Doug Donley and Gary Williams and a bruising, fast running back in Tim Spencer. He had instilled some much-needed discipline that many believed was lacking in Hayes’ final seasons. Ohio State had started 7-1 that year, with a 17-0 shutout loss at home to UCLA as the only blemish by the time a dark day in school history, Nov. 8, had rolled around, a home game against big underdog Illinois. That sunny day at Ohio Stadium started as expected as the Buckeyes jumped to a 28-0 lead and appeared headed for an easy win. But by the time it was all over, everything had changed.
Illini quarterback Dave Wilson had set Big Ten records by throwing 69 passes, completing 43 of them against Saban’s secondary, for a conference-record 621 yards and six touchdowns, five in the second half alone. To be frank, the Buckeyes’ secondary couldn’t cover anybody that day as Wilson completed pass after pass after pass and they had to hold on at the end to win 49-42.
Rarely if ever did Ohio State’s football team feel so downtrodden following a win.
That season ended with two consecutive losses, 9-3 at home to Michigan and 31-19 to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, in which Ohio State blew a 19-3 halftime lead.
While 1980 season was bad defensively, the ’81 season was about to get worse. Much worse.
It was Schlichter’s senior season and following a 24-19 win over Stanford and John Elway, the Buckeyes started 3-0 and flew home from Palo Alto, Calif., with an airplane load of optimism. But starting the following week, the defense, and particularly the secondary, just fell apart at the seams. Florida State moved the ball up and down the field in a 26-17 upset of Ohio State at Ohio Stadium. Then Wisconsin upset the Buckeyes 24-21 at Madison before the worst day yet was about to happen.
And if that Nov. 8 a year earlier was a dark day in Ohio State football history, Nov. 7, 1981 was worse, much worse.
All the Buckeyes, 6-2 at the time, had to do was win at Minnesota, beat lowly Northwestern at home and then win at Michigan to win the Big Ten title and head to the Rose Bowl. Midway through the fourth quarter, they were well on their way, leading the Gophers 31-21. But then Minnesota quarterback Mike Hohensee got hot. And the Buckeyes’ secondary again reverted back to the way they played against Illinois a year earlier.
Hohensee completed two late touchdown passes, the final one a fourth-down desperation heave into the end zone that bounced off safety Kelvin Bell’s hands into Minnesota receiver Chester Cooper’s with only 2:38 remaining. All Bell had to do was knock down the pass instead of trying to intercept it and the game was basically over.
However, it ended with a 35-31 shocker, an Ohio State loss in which another quarterback, Hohensee, had set several school records. He had completed 37-of-67 passes, and 12 of the completions went for 182 yards went to Cooper. Both receiving numbers were also school records at the time, as was Hohensee’s 444 passing yards. He was the third quarterback in less than one year to set most of his school’s single-game passing record against an Ohio State secondary (the third was Purdue’s Scott Campbell).
Cooper later recalled how easy it was to get open against the Buckeyes defense, which often covered him with a linebacker.
“I kept going back to Hohensee and saying, ‘They’re not covering me’ — which every receiver says to the quarterback after every route,” Cooper said. “… Hohensee gave me a, ‘Yeah, I got ya.’ It was just too easy, and it shocked us, especially since we were playing Ohio State.”
It was Minnesota’s first win over Ohio State since 1966.
Even though their Rose Bowl hopes were shot, the Buckeyes rebounded to whip Northwestern 70-6 and upset Michigan 14-9 on two Schlichter TD runs. They then had to hold on to beat Navy 31-28 in the Liberty Bowl as the Midshipmen had a season-high in passing yards, too.
As the New Year dawned, Bruce’s team was coming off a bowl win and his second straight 9-3 finish. But he had to do something because the bend-but-don’t break defense had made a habit for two seasons of given up record-setting days to opposing quarterbacks. And there had been too much breaking following the bending.
So, he had made up his mind to fire Fryzel and linebackers coach Steve Szabo.
There were many stories of what happened next, but I had good sources in the room that day that stated he had planned to keep Saban, when suddenly the secondary coach rebelled against the firing of his good friend Fryzel. Saban also resented Bruce for not letting Fryzel use a more complicated defensive scheme, involving blitzes and more press coverage. Saban stood and immediately erupted at Bruce, screaming expletives at him. Bruce, resenting what he deemed obvious insubordination, then fired Saban, too.
I will never forget standing in the hallway outside the football offices in St. John Arena, as Saban stormed out carrying a box of his possessions.
Many years later, I once asked Saban about that day.
Well, I have learned so much about being a head coach all these years later,” he said. “He had every right to do what he did that day and I should have handled it much better. I wasn’t the head coach. He was. And I didn’t handle it very well at all. I would have probably done the same thing if one of my assistants ever reacted that way. And when I look back at the mistakes I have made over the years and that was one of them.
But it set a new course for Saban’s career.
He then headed to Navy, the team the Buckeyes had just defeated the previous week, where a Midshipmen defensive assistant coach by the name of Steve Belichick had pushed for him to be hired as the secondary coach. There, he befriended Steve’s son Bill. One year later, George Perles hired Saban at Michigan State as defensive coordinator. He then tried the NFL as secondary coach of the Houston Oilers for one season and accepted the head coaching job of the Toledo Rockets. After one successful season, he then made what many believed was a strange move, back to being a defensive coordinator, but this time in the NFL as Cleveland Browns’ head coach Bill Belichick hired him. It was a friendship that often would pay dividends throughout Saban’s career.
He then coached the Browns to become the NFL’s top defense statistically before his biggest break yet, becoming Michigan State’s head coach in 1995.
Three years later, his Spartans upset No. 1 Ohio State 28-24 at Ohio Stadium, preventing John Cooper from winning what surely appeared would be his most likely national championship.
Saban then moved on to LSU, where he won his first national championship in 2003. Then he tried the NFL, coaching the Miami Dolphins to a 15-17 record in two seasons, before finally deciding college football suited him better. Then, after one week of denying the rumors, he took the head coaching job at tradition-rich Alabama, where he accepted the job as head coach of the Crimson Tide on Jan. 3, 2007.
The rest is nothing but championship history.
Fryzel, who remained one of Saban’s close friends in the decades following their dismissals, died of cancer in 2009. Bruce, too, was fired by Ohio State. Then-president Ed Jennings dismissed him with one game remaining in the 1987 season. Of course, he never won that elusive national title during his coaching career and died almost three years ago. To the end, he remained loyal to Ohio State. Szabo is now 77 years old.
And today, some 39 years after being fired for the one and only time in his career, Saban is entrenched as a living legend. He will turn 70 years old this coming Halloween. He has had a statue erected in his honor outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. He is a certain Hall-of-Fame coach. His teams have won 255 games. He has won six national championships, including five at Alabama.
And what team now stands in the way of his seventh title?
Twenty-two seasons ago, while at Michigan State, one of Nick Saban’s sweetest-ever victories came in storied Ohio Stadium. It was a revenge win of sorts, even though he would never admit that publicly.
Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium, with everything on the line this time, he surely wouldn’t mind enjoying a second dose of it.
Jeff Snook, a 1982 graduate from the Ohio State School of Journalism, has written 14 books about college football.