Ranking OSU’s Best Tailbacks Redux

In the nearly 14 months since I listed my top 10 Ohio State tailbacks of all-time, I have received a steady stream of e-mails critical of the list. Most of what I have heard has to do with the omission of Chris “Beanie” Wells although most of my electronic pen pals don’t seem to realize I formulated my list before the 2008 season – which would be Wells’ final one as a Buckeye.

It seems like as good a time as any to go back and take a second look at my list with the first question being: Does Wells belong on it?

Of course he does. Wells finished his career with the fourth highest rushing total in Ohio State history. But I have to be honest. I can’t remember a player in recent history whose career in which I have been more disappointed.

You may think it sound ridiculous to criticize Wells, especially when you look at the raw numbers. Only Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Tim Spencer ever rushed for more yards in scarlet and gray. Wells put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, only the sixth OSU running back ever to accomplish that feat. His 222-yard effort at Michigan in 2007 is the most yards ever gained by an Ohio State runner in the long history of that series.

And still there is this nagging feeling in my mind that there could have been even more. In my mind, Wells could have gone down in history as one of the all-time greatest running backs in college football. He had the talent, the size, the speed. Somewhere along the line, it just didn’t happen.

First of all, there were the nagging injuries. Even so, you are never going to hear me say Wells was soft. Sometimes, injuries cling to a player like white on a baseball. Wells was one of those players. In only three seasons with the Buckeyes, he had hand, leg and wrist problems not to mention the toe injury he suffered in last season’s opener that cost him three games and parts of two others. Wells played with most of those injuries when lesser players would have not.

Still, the 6-1, 237-pounder was sort of a walking contradiction. He had some of the longest touchdown runs in recent memory, yet seemed strangely unable to pick up needed yardage on third-and-short. He had some three inches and nearly 40 pounds on teammate Maurice Wells, yet it was the latter that was often called upon in obvious passing situations because he provided the better pass protection.

Maybe Beanie is another one of the cautionary tales of recruiting. He was ranked second nationally by Scout.com in 2006 (behind only current USC quarterback Mitch Mustain) but ahead of such players as quarterback Matthew Stafford of Georgia, receiver Percy Harvin of Florida and quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida.

There is no doubt Wells had an excellent career at Ohio State. I guess maybe I was just expecting a little more.

With that, I have taken another look at my all-time top 10 Ohio State running backs and jumbled the list somewhat. See how it stacks up to yours.

1. Eddie George (1992-95) – I moved Eddie to the top of the list because he was a workhorse and always answered the bell. I wrote this the last time and it bears repeating: Watching George break through the line was like watching Secretariat break from the gate. The fact that he went on to such a productive NFL career was no surprise. His senior season in 1995, when he rushed for 1,927 yards and won the Heisman, is the gold standard for all Buckeyes who follow. Perhaps the most astounding thing about that season – every opposing defensive coordinator knew George was coming and was powerless to stop him. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and 25.2 carries per game.

2. Archie Griffin (1972-75) – How do you measure heart? Archie was never going to be the biggest or the fastest running back on the roster, but you knew when you gave him the football that he was going to figure out a way to pick up the yards he needed. He maximized his talents through hard work and determination, and it didn’t hurt that he played behind a massive offensive line and one of the best blocking fullbacks (Pete Johnson) in college football history. Griffin’s career mark of 5,589 rushing yards still stands nearly 35 years after he played his last game at OSU – and no one has come within 1,800 yards of that record. Oh, yeah. He’s still the only guy ever with two Heismans.

3. Keith Byars (1982-85) – Byars was the top guy on last year’s list, but I took a second look and decided that he didn’t quite measure up to George or Griffin. IMHO, the senior season lost because of a foot injury costs him in the all-time rankings. Still, his 1984 season should never be diminished. He rushed for 1,764 yards and scored 22 touchdowns on 336 carries, a single-season workload that has never been equaled. Byars was also a dangerous weapon in the passing game, and he went on to catch 610 passes during a 14-year NFL career.

4. Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (1952-55) – Cassady has become a larger-than-life figure over the past 50 years, but many of today’s fans don’t know that he was a little guy by today’s standards. The freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Columbus Central High School was only 5-10 and about 170 pounds, but he could fly. He scored three touchdowns in his first college game and went on to become one of the greats in college football history. In 1955, he won one of the most lopsided Heisman votes in history, polling 2,219 points, nearly three times the total of the second-place finisher. Cassady was also the consummate teammate, leading Woody Hayes to say, “Hop is the most inspirational player I have ever seen.” Good enough for me.

5. Vic Janowicz (1949-51) – On sheer athletic ability alone, Janowicz had few equals. He could run, throw and kick a football with the best of them and had enough talent to become one of the few players to enjoy professional careers in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. The coaching change from Wes Fesler to Hayes in 1951 – and the philosophy change that went with it – robbed Janowicz of possibly becoming the first two-time Heisman winner. But those who remember his 1950 season remember a blur who ran past opponents and scored touchdowns in bunches. Oldtimers still talk in hushed tones about his performance in an 81-23 win over Iowa – he scored three touchdowns – two rushing and a 61-yard punt return – threw for four scores, recovered two fumbles on defense and kicked 10 extra points. Not a bad day’s work.

6. Tim Spencer (1979-82) – Spencer would likely have been higher on this list had he not served as a fullback for his first two seasons. And he was an excellent fullback, too, blocking for Calvin Murray and also carrying the ball with authority (back when OSU allowed the fullback to carry in tandem with the tailback.) Once Spence got the tailback spot to himself, though, he blossomed with a combination of speed and upper-body strength that blew through would-be tacklers. He totaled 1,217 yards in his first year as a starter and then upped that total to 1,538 in his senior year of 1982. That figure is still the fifth-best single-season total in school history.

7. Antonio Pittman (2004-06) – Largely the forgotten man in an offense that featured Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., Pittman’s workmanlike approach to the tailback position allowed the Buckeyes to become a more multifaceted offense in 2005 and ’06. He was remarkably consistent during his two seasons as the starter – 1,331 yards as a sophomore and 1,233 as a junior – and turned himself into a pretty good receiver as well. Pittman would likely be higher on this list had he returned in 2007 for his senior season.

8. Chris “Beanie” Wells (2006-08) – And Wells would likely be higher, too, had he returned in 2009 for his senior season. Unfortunately, we never got to see him play an entire season injury-free. What we did get to see, however, was a guy who finished among the top five in nearly every career rushing category on the Ohio State record books.

9. Chic Harley (1916-17, 1919) – Simply put, Harley was the catalyst for what eventually became Ohio State football as we know it today. I could list his statistics, some of which would pale in comparison to the numbers average players put up these days. Rather, I’ll list just a handful for Harley’s accomplishments – Ohio State’s first three-time All-American, the first man ever to lead the Buckeyes to a victory over Michigan, the first to lead them to an undefeated season and the first to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a conference championship.

10. Robert Smith (1990, 1992) – Smith is another guy whose star would have burned much brighter if not for missed opportunities. He was an extremely gifted running back whose seemingly effortless strides allowed him to set the OSU freshman record in 1990 with 1,126 yards. Unfortunately, his college career got off-track for a variety of reasons – some of Smith’s own creation – and he never fully realized his great potential. Nevertheless, the all-too-brief flashes he showed in scarlet and gray make him deserving to be in my top 10.

One final note: There are those who are going to make the argument that players such as Cassady, Janowicz and Harley have no place on a list like this because of the advances football has made since they played the game. That is utter nonsense. Star power is star power, and those guys had it. Anyone who thinks they aren’t among the top 10 running backs in Ohio State football history simply doesn’t know much about Ohio State football history.

If you would like to take a look at my top 10 players at other positions, here are the links:

OSU’s Top 10 Quarterbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Fullbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Wide Receivers

OSU’s Top 10 Tight Ends

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Guards

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Tackles

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this 6th day of August: Seventies TV actor Peter Bonerz (wisecracking dentist Dr. Jerry Robinson on “The Bob Newhart Show”) is 71; professional poker player Lyle Berman is 68; former MLB pitcher Andy Messersmith is 64; former MLB slugger Bob Horner is 52; former NBA star Dale Ellis is 49; actress Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu-lien in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is 47; Basketball Hall of Fame center David Robinson is 44; ESPN Radio personality Mike Greenberg is 42; film director M. Night Shyamalan is 39; ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell is 37; HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman is 36; Eighties TV actress Soleil Moon Frye (“Punky Brewster”) is 33; and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Marisa Miller is 31.

AND FINALLY …

** You are no doubt aware that former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett has withdrawn his petition for early release from prison so that he could resurrect his NFL career. Clarett sent a letter Monday to the Ohio Parole Board explaining his decision, and while letters of those nature are not made public, speculation is that prosecutors in the case opposed the move, there was no chance Clarett was going to receive clemency at this time. The ex-Buckeye began in September 2006 serving a 7½-year sentence for a holdup outside a Columbus bar and a separate highway chase that ended with police finding loaded guns in his SUV. As part of a sentence agreement, he must serve at least 3½ years, which would keep him incarcerated until at least March 2010. “I’m a man and I struggle,” Clarett wrote Monday on his blog. “I’m not speaking of anything specific. I’m just talking in general. Depression comes and depression goes. … I personally believe that I’ve been aiming too low. A body and mind full of endless possibilities that I cannot and will not waste it back here.”

** The Big Ten has only two teams in the Sporting News’ preseason top 25 but five more in SN’s rankings of 26-50. Ohio State is the top conference team in the rankings, coming in at No. 9, while Penn State sits at No. 12. Then it’s a long way down to Iowa at No. 26 and Michigan State at No. 31. The head-scratcher is Michigan at No. 38 (because I don’t think the Wolverines will have a winning record in 2009). Wisconsin is at No. 47 and Minnesota is No. 50.

** When contacted about his team’s ranking, Minnesota defensive lineman Garrett Brown was more than a little miffed. “Everyone knows the Gophers should be ranked in the top 25,” he said. “Don’t make the Gophers angry. You all know the gopher as a happy, smiling little critter. But wait until that critter turns on his critics. He won’t be so happy then.” Sorry, Garrett, but I don’t think your team is going to finish above .500.

** College football kicks off its 2009 season later this month, and that means college basketball is also just around the corner. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has released his preseason top 40 with Kansas leading the parade. Three Big Ten schools – Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois – are in the top 10 and Ohio State makes an appearance at No. 24. Vitale writes, “If B.J. Mullens had returned, the Buckeyes would have probably been in the top 15. They do have Evan Turner, though, who is one of the best players in the Big Ten.”

** ESPN analyst Andy Katz has also released his preseason top 25 and Katz thinks a little more of the Buckeyes than Vitale, ranking them at No. 16.

** As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, it is with a great deal of trepidation that I await the Aug. 12 premiere of HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.” I figure the series will be somewhere between a Jerry Springer episode and those other insipid reality shows that currently litter the airwaves. Let the train wreck begin.

Do You Know Who Harry Strobel Was?

Do you know how Harry Strobel was? You should – at least you should if you consider yourself an Ohio State football fan – since Strobel very nearly became head coach of the Buckeyes in the early 1950s.

Strobel was a native of Massillon, Ohio, and earned six varsity letters – three in football, two in baseball and one in basketball – at Miami University before his graduation in 1932.

He first made a name for himself in high school coaching, leading Bellevue to the Class AA state basketball championship in 1945, and then two years later piloting Barberton to the 1947 state football title. One of Strobel’s star players on that Barberton team was a lineman named Glenn Schembechler.

In 1949, Strobel moved to the college ranks and joined Wes Fesler’s staff at Ohio State as freshman coach. At the same time, Strobel also served as an assistant for basketball coach Floyd Stahl.

Following the 1950 season, and after a third consecutive loss to Michigan, Fesler resigned amid mounting pressure from local businessmen, donors and alumni. Several prominent candidates were mentioned for the opening, most notably longtime Missouri head man Don Faurot. He accepted the job in Columbus on a Friday and went home to clean out his office. Less than 48 hours later, however, Faurot changed his mind and remained at Missouri.

With spring football only a few weeks away, Ohio State officials quickly reorganized and settled on a field of seven candidates – one professional coach, four coaches from the college ranks and two Ohio high school coaches.

The pro coach was Paul Brown, who had previously coached the Buckeyes from 1941-43 and produced the school’s first national championship in 1942. Brown had already flirted with returning to Ohio State following World War II but instead took a job as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. The coach had led the Browns to championships in each of his first five seasons in Cleveland – four in the All-America Football Conference and the 1950 crown in the NFL.

Brown was the hands-down favorite of Ohio State fans and students to replace Fesler. Approximately 1,500 fans cheered his arrival in Columbus for a meeting with the search committee in late January, a meeting during which Brown reportedly told OSU athletic director Richard Larkins that he was “anxious to leave professional football.”

Larkins was not swayed, however. The AD later revealed that a number of influential Columbus businessmen did not want Brown to return. They felt he had reneged on a deal to return to Ohio State after the war, and that he signed with Cleveland without notifying the university.

Nevertheless, newspaper reports continued to trumpet Brown as the front-runner for the vacancy. Also receiving formal interviews were Cincinnati head coach Sid Gillman, Warren Gaer of Drake, Woody Hayes of Miami and Strobel as well as high school coaches Chuck Mather of Massillon and Jim McDonald of Springfield.

In early February, the field had reportedly been pared to three: Brown, Mather and Hayes with Strobel remaining as a possible dark horse candidate. Brown was the choice of the fans and Mather was backed by the Ohio High School Coaches Association. Meanwhile, Strobel was the original choice of the athletic department, but Hayes had supplanted him after a stellar interview.

An announcement was to be made around Feb. 14 – Hayes’ 38th birthday – but all seven members of the Ohio State Board of Trustees had to agree on the new coach and the university couldn’t seem to get the entire panel together at the same time. In the mean time, the six-man search committee and 12-member athletic board had settled on Hayes.

The official decision was postponed for another week as speculation ran rampant. What if Hayes was rejected by the trustees? Would the athletic board then throw its support behind Strobel, or would some back-room maneuvering pave the way for Brown to return to Columbus after all?

The OSU Board of Trustees finally got together to end the speculation on Sunday, Feb. 18. Thanks to an impassioned speech from Sen. John W. Bricker, the board formally hired Hayes as the university’s 19th head football coach. Hayes received a one-year, $12,500 contract in accordance with university policy, but received a five-year “gentleman’s agreement” from university president Howard L. Bevis.

Before its Sunday meeting, the board reportedly remained split between Hayes and Brown. That was until Bricker made a 10-minute speech to his fellow trustees opposing Brown and boosting Hayes.

Despite the days and weeks of wrangling before being offered the job, Hayes didn’t seem the least bit dismayed by the decision.

“I have wanted this job very much,” he told reporters. “It’s the greatest coaching opportunity in the country.”

When Hayes moved to Columbus and formed his new staff, he promoted Strobel from freshman coach to a varsity position overseeing interior offensive linemen.

Other members of Hayes’ first OSU staff reads like a who’s who of coaching. The new coach retained former Buckeye fullback Gene Fekete and longtime kicking coach Ernie Godfrey as well as Strobel and former Ohio State All-America lineman Esco Sarkkinen from Fesler’s staff, and hired Upper Arlington High School coach Doyt Perry while bringing offensive line coach Bill Arnsparger with him from Miami. Perry, of course, went on to a College Football Hall of Fame career as head coach at Bowling Green while Arnsparger enjoyed a long career as a college and NFL assistant, most notably as Don Shula’s defensive coordinator in Miami.

Strobel remained in charge of guards and centers for Hayes until poor health caused by diabetes forced his retirement following the 1967 season. His 17 years with Hayes ranked him second only to Sarkkinen for longest tenure with the legendary head coach. Sarkkinen, who began his Ohio State coaching career in 1946 under Paul Bixler, served Hayes for 27 seasons from 1951-77.

During his time with the Buckeyes, Strobel coached such All-Americans as Mike Takacs, Jim Reichenbach, Aurealius Thomas, Doug Van Horn and Ray Pryor. He was also in charge of the development of Jim Parker, who was Ohio State’s first Outland Trophy winner, taking home the trophy in 1956.

After his retirement, Strobel became assistant director of intramurals at Ohio State. He remained in that position until his death of a heart attack on Nov. 28, 1971. He was 63.

In his book “You Win With People!” published two years after Strobel’s death, Hayes praised his longtime assistant, characterizing him as a much-needed calming influence whenever things got tense.

“Harry has been considered seriously for the head coaching position in 1951, and it was a rather awkward situation for both of us,” Hayes wrote. “(But) Harry became an extremely efficient guard and center coach. Most important, he understood me better than any coach on our staff. When I’d be uptight about something, he’d come up and put his hand on my arm and say, ‘C’mon, Coach, now it really isn’t that important, is it?’ and we’d go on from there. He could quiet me down and understand my moods and tensions better than anyone else.

“When he passed away in 1971, his widow, Marge, honored me by inviting me to give the eulogy to my friend. Bo Schembechler, who had played for Harry at Barberton High School, and Jim Parker were among many from Ohio State who came to pay their respects.”

Two years later, when Parker was to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame following an illustrious career with the Baltimore Colts, he asked Hayes to formally introduce him during induction ceremonies in Canton.

Hayes accepted, but told Parker, “Jim, I know I’m second choice. If Coach Harry were alive, I know you’d want him to do the honors.”

Parker laughed for a few seconds before nodding his head. “You’re right, Coach,” the former Buckeye said. “If it wasn’t for Harry Strobel, nobody would have ever heard of Jim Parker.”

BIG TEN EXPANSION?

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany addressed a number of topics during his annual “State of the Conference” talk with media members at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. One topic leftover from last year (and the year before, and the year before that) was expansion of the conference to 12 teams.

Whenever the subject has been broached in the past, conference coaches have given it lukewarm attention. That is, until this year when Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster told reporters, “I look forward to the day when we add a team, split the divisions and play for a championship on national TV on a Saturday night in December.”

It is unclear whether Brewster voiced a consensus among most Big Ten coaches since many of them, including OSU head coach Jim Tressel, seem to remain skeptical of just how expansion would benefit the conference.

“I’m certainly not opposed to it,” Tressel said, “but it would have to add value to the conference. When I coached at Ohio State in the mid-1980s, we had 10 teams and when I returned in 2001, the number was 11. The conference had added Penn State and that added value to the conference and I think it also added value to Penn State. If we can find a way to do that again, I would certainly be in favor of it.”

Delany said that he has heard the coaches discuss the idea of expansion but doesn’t see it on his immediate horizon.

“A positive would have to be associated with expansion if you felt expansion on its own merits was the right thing to do,” the commissioner said. “But I wouldn’t think you would expand unless you had a whole other series of reasons to do so. I understand we’re out of the mainstream (after the end of the regular season) for a week to 10 days, and I don’t think that’s good. But I don’t think it by itself is the reason why you would go forward (with expansion.)”

Delany also discussed the subject of an expanded conference schedule. Each team currently plays an eight-game conference season, annually missing two league rivals. This season, for example, Northwestern plays neither Ohio State nor Michigan. Some coaches have floated the possibility of a ninth conference game, but the commissioner warned them of being careful of what they wished for.

“The issue that it revolves around is the five-four mix – the five home games, four away,” Delany said. “For some institutions like Iowa with Iowa State and then Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue with Notre Dame and a couple of other cases where you have a long-standing home and away rivalry, those would have to be sequenced.

“In football, because of scheduling and the impact of a home gate, and some of the home gates in our conference are worth $3 million or $4 million, it has a dramatic effect. By losing a home gate and going from eight to nine (conference) games, you actually lose four home games in an eight-year period. That’s $12 million in revenue if you’re averaging $3 million a game. If you’re averaging $5 million, that’s $20 million of revenue.

“It has a profound effect on budgeting, and you’re going to have to figure out exactly how you’re going to manage that.”

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this 4th day of August are several world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, who is 48. Others blowing out candles today: longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas is 89; Iraqi religious leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani is 79; Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is 68; former New York Mets outfielder Cleon Jones is 67; actor/comedian Richard Belzer (Det. John Munch on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) is 65; Pro Football Hall of Fame running back John Riggins is 60; former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is 54; actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton is 54; distance runner Mary Decker Slaney is 51; actress Kym Karath (little Gretl Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”) is 51; Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is 49; seven-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens is 47; Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt is 44; four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon is 38; and 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch is 31.

AND FINALLY …

Here are some leftover quotes from last week’s Big Ten Media Days:

** Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald on expanding the conference schedule to nine or 10 games: “I’m a traditionalist. I like where things are. The Big Ten is already hard enough as it is.”

** Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany on teams with .500 seasons earning bowl bids: “I’m starting to think in my own mind – and I haven’t concluded one way or another – that while a 6-6 record and going to a bowl game is a good thing for some programs at some times, it’s really not a welcome development at all because they went in a year when they didn’t have a winning season. For every good news story for somebody that hasn’t been to a bowl in a while, there are also 6-6 bowl teams which I think maybe aren’t good for that school and good for the system. It’s something that we’re going to continue to discuss.”

** Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez on the pressure to improve upon last year’s 3-9 record: “There’s no more pressure now than there was a year ago. There’s pressure all the time. But that’s OK. When the pressure to perform well ends, it’ll be time for me to start looking for something else to do.”

** Rodriguez on his first taste of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry: “It was fun. It’ll be a lot more fun when we’re playing better.”

** New Purdue head coach Danny Hope when asked his favorite joke about the Purdue-Indiana rivalry: “I’m not foolish enough to say that today.”

** Fitzgerald when asked if quarterback Mike Kafka will have a chance this season to break his quarterback rushing record of 217 yards: “Well, we have 12 games and hopefully a 13th, so those are his odds.”

** Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel on having his team selected as a preseason favorite to win another Big Ten championship: “Being the favorite is an honor, of course, but it’s also a pretty good reminder of what’s expected.”

** Indiana head coach Bill Lynch, talking about a campus outreach program that had him speaking at several IU fraternities and sororities: “The sororities were a lot better than the fraternities. At the sororities, they paid attention and listened. The fraternity guys wouldn’t even look up from eating.”

** OSU tight end Jake Ballard when asked about quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s offseason improvement: “He’s improving by leaps and bounds. He’s getting better all the time.”

** Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman on conference teams playing weeknight contests: “We like having a Thursday night game to open the season. I think it gives the Big Ten an interesting position to kick off uniquely from others, and we can really get behind that kind of a launch. We’re really not looking forward to airing Thursday night games on a regular basis. Kicking off the football season, though, on a Thursday is something that I think has some merit going forward.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.