Another Final Four Proves Ohio State Not Just A Football School

What do UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have in common with Ohio State?

The answer is obviously not football. The Buckeyes have celebrated five consensus national championships in that sport, five more than the Bruins, Tar Heels, Wildcats, Blue Devils and Jayhawks have won combined.

When the conversation turns to basketball, however, the overriding conjecture is that the Buckeyes do not belong in that group of elite programs. And that is where the overriding conjecture is dead wrong.

I mentioned this in a previous column a couple of years ago, but in light of the Ohio State basketball team making its 11th trip to the Final Four, it bears repeating.

Back in 1989 when Gary Williams was head coach of the Buckeyes, the two of us were visiting in the coach’s office at St. John Arena. At one point during the interview, Williams wheeled around in his chair, looked outside his second-story window and said something to the effect of “I’ll never understand why this school doesn’t support basketball the way it does football.”

Without much thought about how it would sound, I immediately replied, “Well, Coach, there’s a simple explanation and part of it is why your office is located on Woody Hayes Drive and not Fred Taylor Drive.”

Williams didn’t like it, but the implication was clear. Ohio State was then, is now and always has been a football school. That has to do with any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the football program generates many, many more dollars than the basketball team.

Football is also the sport where most Buckeye fans get their identity. Ask 100 fans to name their favorite Ohio State sports memory and chances are 95 of them will have to do with football.

In terms of championships, however – or at least in terms of playing for championships – the basketball Buckeyes are very much on par with their football brethren.

Ohio State celebrates those five consensus national championships in football (1942, 1954, 1957, 1968 and 2002) and several more if you count the National Championship Foundation title in 1944, the championship awarded by the Football Writers Association of America in 1961 and the trophy handed out in 1970 by the National Football Foundation.

Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has only the 1960 national title banner hanging in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center.

But with the basketball Buckeyes making their 11th trip to the Final Four, the program has cemented its claim to join elite status with the aforementioned cage powerhouses. Only UCLA (18), North Carolina (18), Kentucky (15), Duke (15) and Kansas (14) have made more trips to the Final Four than Ohio State.

The perception of Ohio State as a football school was steeped mightily by the Woody Hayes era that began in 1951, produced its first national championship in 1954 and became an all-encompassing behemoth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was Taylor’s unfortunate fate to serve as basketball coach of the Buckeyes during the same era as Hayes. Taylor’s persona of mild-mannered tactician made far fewer headlines than his football counterpart’s bombastic personality. But the truth of the matter is that Taylor’s best years were more successful than any comparable stretch Hayes put together.

From 1960-63, the basketball team posted a 98-10 record (a .907 winning percentage) with four straight Big Ten titles, three trips to the Final Four and one national championship. Hayes’ best four-year span came between 1972 and ’75 when the football team went 40-5-1, good for an .880 winning percentage, won the Big Ten championship each year and appeared in a record-setting four straight Rose Bowls.

Still, Ohio State football has generally always trumped Ohio State basketball in the minds of most fans. Not that it should be that way. There should be room to embrace both programs by the majority of Buckeye Nation.

And why not? Florida proved in 2007 that national championships can be won both in football and basketball (victimizing Ohio State in the process of capturing both). Now, with Urban Meyer patrolling the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and Thad Matta marking his second trip to the Final Four in the past six seasons, why can’t the Buckeyes be national championship contenders in both sports?

History dictates they always have been.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS

** Did anyone notice that Syracuse began to leave William Buford alone on the offensive end during the final minutes of the regional final game? The OSU senior’s late-season shooting slump became more pronounced in the NCAA Tournament. After scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting in the tourney opener against Loyola, Buford went 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) in the next three games vs. Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse.

Look, the last thing I would ever want to do is dump on a kid who has played his guts out for Ohio State these past four years. Likewise, I know Matta feels he owes Buford a huge debt of gratitude for his years of service. But doesn’t the coach also owe his only senior the chance to win a championship ring even if it means some Final Four bench time?

** Imagine one game with this scenario: Jared Sullinger gets his normal double-double, Aaron Craft has an overall game like he did against Gonzaga, Deshaun Thomas lights up the scoreboard as he did against Loyola, Lenzelle Smith Jr. rains in threes the way he did against Cincinnati and Syracuse and Buford shakes off his lengthy slump and finally plays the way we know he’s capable of playing.

No opponent – not even heavy favorite Kentucky – could match that kind of firepower.

** How do you like this starting five for next season: Craft at the point, Smith at shooting guard, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson at forward and Amir Williams at center.

Craft is already a star and Smith only needs consistency to become one. Ross has an impressive skill set, Thompson can literally jump out of any gym and Williams will become better and better the more experience he gets.

Of course, that starting five is minus Sullinger and Thomas. This year was a gift from Sullinger, who could have gone to the NBA last year and been a lottery pick. As for Thomas, continued success through the Final Four will likely mean he’s gone next year as well.

TOURNAMENT TRIVIA

** Did you know the NCAA Tournament is the brainchild of a former Ohio State basketball coach? In 1938, OSU head coach Harold Olsen, also a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, proposed the concept of a national championship tournament. The first tourney was held the following season at Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., with Olsen’s Buckeyes losing to Oregon in the title game. Olsen remained tournament chairman from its inception until 1946.

** Did you further know the term “Final Four” also has Ohio roots? It first appeared that year in an article for “The Official Collegiate Basketball Guide” and was coined by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Chay. In the story, Chay simply mentioned that “outspoken coach Al McGuire’s (Marquette) team was one of the final four” during the previous season’s tournament. Someone at the NCAA liked the phrase and the governing body of college sports later trademarked it.

** McGuire is credited with first referring to the NCAA Tournament as “The Big Dance.” During his team’s run to the 1977 championship, the coach wore the same blue blazer for each regular-season game. When asked if he would continue to wear the blazer in the NCAA Tournament, McGuire replied, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.”

Buckeyes Have Made Sixth Most Final Four Trips

Ohio State has a rich NCAA Tournament tradition through the years including appearing in four of the first eight Final Fours. The Buckeyes return this season to college basketball’s version of the Promised Land, taking on Kansas on March 31 in the national semifinals at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

It will mark the program’s 11th trip to the Final Four, the sixth most in tournament history.

North Carolina and UCLA are tied for the most Final Four appearances with 18 each. Next is Kentucky, which this season makes a 15th trip to the Final Four to tie Duke for third most, while Kansas will be making trip No. 14 this year.

Ohio State began making Final Four treks in 1939 – the NCAA Tournament’s inaugural year – and has appeared in three consecutive Final Fours on two occasions. The Buckeyes were among the tournament’s final four teams from 1944 through 1946 and made three straight trips again in 1960-62.

The 1960 appearance resulted in the program’s only national title, including a 75-55 blowout of defending champion California in the championship game.

Here are brief recaps of Ohio State’s previous 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

1939 – The first-ever NCAA Tournament featured an eight-team field consisting of seven conference champions and one independent. East region teams were Brown, Ohio State, Villanova and Wake Forest, while Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah State represented the West.

Quarterfinal matches weren’t close with each advancing team winning by double digits. The same held true in the semifinals as OSU rolled to a 53-36 victory over Villanova while Oregon easily dispatched Oklahoma by a 55-37 final.

In the title game, held in Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill., the Howard Hobson-coached Ducks scored a 46-33 win over the Buckeyes to capture the title. Ohio State took a measure of solace when All-America forward Jimmy Hull was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

1944 – Ohio State made a return trip to the tournament as part of an eight-team field that also featured Catholic, Temple and Dartmouth in the East region as well as Iowa State, Missouri, Pepperdine and Utah from the West.

The Buckeyes drew Temple in the quarterfinal round and dealt the Owls a 57-47 loss at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Back at the Garden for the semifinals, OSU wasn’t quite as fortunate, falling to Dartmouth by a 60-53 final.

The Big Green went on to lose a 42-40 decision to Utah in the championship game. The Utes were led by freshman Arnie Ferrin, who was named the tournament MVP. Ferrin went on to become the only four-time All-American in Utah history and led the team to the 1947 NIT title as a senior.

1945 – The 1945 tournament was filled with legendary coaches including Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, Henry Iba of Oklahoma A&M, Howard Cann of NYU and Harold Olsen of Ohio State. Each would later be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Buckeyes were joined in the East region by Kentucky, NYU and upstart Tufts University while the West was represented by Arkansas, Oklahoma A&M, Oregon and Utah.

OSU got past Kentucky in the quarterfinals by a 45-37 score, but the Buckeyes dropped a 70-65 overtime thriller to NYU in the semifinals. The Violets advanced to the championship final, where they lost a 49-45 final to Oklahoma A&M. The Cowboys’ 7-foot center Bob Kurland, who won Olympic gold medals with the U.S. basketball team in 1948 and 1952, was the tournament MVP.

1946 – The Cowboys and Kurland were back to defend their title in ’46 and were joined in the West region by Baylor, California and Colorado. Meanwhile, Ohio State was making its third straight tournament appearance and was part of an East region that included NYU, North Carolina and Harvard.

The Buckeyes rolled to a 46-38 win in their quarterfinal match with Harvard but came up short again in overtime in the semis, losing a hard-fought 60-57 decision to North Carolina. Meanwhile, A&M (now known as Oklahoma State), sailed through Baylor and Cal before notching a 43-40 win over the Tar Heels in the championship final.

Kurland repeated as tournament MVP and Iba claimed his second straight national championship. That was a first-ever feat in the NCAA Tournament and would not be repeated until a Bill Russell-led San Francisco won back-to-back titles in 1955 and ’56.

The 1946 tournament marked the first time that losers of the national semifinal games played one another for a third-place trophy. Ohio State captured that honor with a 63-45 victory over Cal, thanks in part to 19 points from junior center Jack Underman. The third-place game would continue through the 1981 tournament.

1960 – Thanks to a strong class of high school stars signed in 1958, Ohio State made the first of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament championship game.

By 1960, the tournament had expanded to include 25 teams playing in four regions. The Buckeyes were included in the six-team Mideast region along with Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Ohio University and Western Kentucky.

Tournament teams were not seeded in those days, but OSU received an opening-round bye before facing high-scoring Western Kentucky, which was coming off a 107-84 pasting of Miami in the regional quarterfinals. But the Hilltoppers had no answer for Ohio State sophomore center Jerry Lucas, who totaled 36 points and 25 rebounds during a 98-79 victory. Lucas’ point total remains an OSU record for an NCAA Tournament game.

The Buckeyes went on to coast to an 86-69 victory over Georgia Tech in the regional finals, giving the team its first trip to the Final Four in 14 years. OSU then proceeded to run roughshod over its opponents, first taking a 76-54 decision over NYU before blowing away defending national champion California by the 75-55 score in the title game.

Lucas was named tournament MVP after averaging 24.0 points and 16.0 rebounds in four games.

1961 – With Lucas returning along with junior classmate John Havlicek and senior captain Larry Siegfried, Ohio State was a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion. The Buckeyes, who entered the tournament with a perfect 24-0 record, were placed in a Mideast region that included such perennial heavyweights as Kentucky and Louisville as well as such underdogs as Morehead State, Ohio University and Xavier.

Following a first-round bye, OSU had some difficulty with Louisville before scoring a 56-55 squeaker over the Cardinals. The regional final was a much more comfortable affair as the Buckeyes got 33 points and 30 rebounds from Lucas during an 87-74 win over Kentucky. The rebound mark established another OSU record in an NCAA Tournament game for Lucas.

In the national semifinal game against St. Joseph’s, coached by the famed Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Buckeyes ran away with a 95-69 victory. But two days later, they were denied a second straight title when Cincinnati landed four players in double figures and scored a 70-65 upset win.

Lucas was again named the tournament’s most valuable player after averaging 24.5 points and 18.3 rebounds during his four games.

St. Joseph’s won the third-place game with a 127-120 win in four overtimes over Utah. No NCAA Tournament game has since gone to four overtimes. The victory was later vacated when St. Joseph’s was rocked by a gambling scandal.

1962 – The Buckeyes were determined to avenge their only loss from the year before and sailed into the 1962 tournament fresh off a third straight Big Ten title and a 23-1 regular-season record.

OSU found some familiar faces in the Mideast region as Western Kentucky and Kentucky again qualified for tournament play. But neither team from the Bluegrass State could get past the Buckeyes as the Hilltoppers dropped a 93-73 decision in the semifinals before the Wildcats were victimized in the regional finals by a 74-64 decision.

Those victories sent Ohio State back to the Final Four, and the team sailed through Wake Forest, 84-68, in the semifinals. But Lucas sustained an injury in that contest and wasn’t his normal self for the championship game rematch with Cincinnati. The OSU star still accounted for 11 points and 16 rebounds, but the Bearcats got 22 points and 19 boards from center Paul Hogue to win a surprisingly easy 71-59 decision.

Despite the fact he averaged 18.0 points and 15.0 rebounds during the tournament, Lucas was denied a third straight MVP trophy as the award went to Hogue, who had averaged 29.0 points and 19.0 rebounds in the Final Four.

1968 – Legendary head coach Fred Taylor appeared in his fourth and final Final Four, guiding an overachieving team to a tie for the Big Ten championship.

The Buckeyes were back in the Mideast region, joined by the likes of Bowling Green, East Tennessee State, Kentucky, Marquette and Florida State. OSU received a first-round bye despite going only 18-7 during the regular season. Its first tournament action came in the regional semifinals and resulted in a 79-72 win over East Tennessee State.

That set up a regional final vs. Kentucky, and the Buckeyes squeezed out an 82-81 victory thanks to a combined 45 points and 19 rebounds from senior forward Bill Hosket and sophomore center Dave Sorenson.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, it ran into a North Carolina buzz saw in the national semifinals and bowed with an 80-66 loss. The Tar Heels went on to lose a 78-55 decision to UCLA in the title game, giving the Bruins their fourth national championship in five years. Lew Alcindor (who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was named tourney MVP.

The Buckeyes took home the third-place trophy following an 89-85 win over an Elvin Hayes-led Houston team. Junior forward John Howell scored 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in that game for OSU while Hosket added 19 points and 17 boards. Hayes had game-high totals of 34 points and 16 rebounds for the Cougars.

1999 – Ohio State ended a 31-year Final Four drought with an improbable postseason run by a team that had finished with an 8-22 record the year before.

The NCAA Tournament had undergone lots of changes since the Buckeyes had been away, including an expansion to include 64 teams. OSU entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the South region and opened with double-digit victories over Murray State (72-58) and Detroit (75-44) before bouncing No. 1 seed Auburn by a 72-63 final.

That set up a regional final vs. third-seeded St. John’s, and the Buckeyes scored a 77-74 victory over the Red Storm to earn a trip to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The magical postseason run ended there, however, with a 64-58 loss to eventual champion Connecticut. The Buckeyes were victimized by a cold second half from the floor as they made only 8 of 33 attempts (24.2 percent). Ohio State guards Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn totaled 15 and 11 points, respectively, in the title game but shot a collective 10 for 31 (32.2 percent) for the contest.

Five years later, Ohio State’s feel-good march to the Final Four as well as most of the team’s victories from 1999 through 2002 were vacated due to NCAA violations committed during head coach Jim O’Brien’s tenure.  

2007 – Third-year head coach Thad Matta put together a team that featured several veterans and a mix of talented freshmen, and that formula propelled the Buckeyes all the way to the national championship game.

Ohio State carried a 30-3 record into the tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the South region. An opening-round 78-57 rout of Central Connecticut preceded a pair of heart-pounding victories – a 78-71 overtime win over Xavier followed by an 85-84 victory over Tennessee to get to the regional finals.

There, the battle-tested Buckeyes took out second-seeded Memphis, getting 22 points from senior guard Ron Lewis during a 92-76 decision to advance to the Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

During the national semifinals, Ohio State scored a 67-60 win over Georgetown before the postseason ride ended with an 84-75 loss to defending national champion Florida in the title game. Freshman center Greg Oden totaled 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Buckeyes while freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. added 20 points, six assists and four steals.

The loss was especially bitter because the Gators had defeated the OSU football team three months earlier to capture the national title in that sport.

Where Have You Gone, Jonny Diebler?

With the sincerest of apologies to Paul Simon, this musical question begs an answer as Ohio State enters March Madness: “Where have you gone, Jonny Diebler? Buckeye Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

I left out the “woo woo woo” part, but you get the idea.

Diebler, like Joe DiMaggio in Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson,” has left and gone away, taking his talents to Greece where he is averaging 10.1 points per game and connecting on 52.8 percent of his three-point shots in his first season for the Panionios BC team.

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Diebler seems to have also taken most of his former team’s outside shooting prowess with him overseas.

For much of the season – or at least since mid-February when the Buckeyes began losing games at an alarming pace – many observers have been of the opinion that the team lacks the floor leadership provided last season by David Lightly. Me? I think leadership is overrated especially when you can’t find the bottom of the basket, and that has been the Achilles’ heel for Ohio State this season.

To put it bluntly, there are nights when the Buckeyes couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. They simply have no outside shooter on whom they can rely on a consistent basis. The team’s best three-point marksman is none other than Jared Sullinger at 39.4 percent, but I doubt very seriously OSU can hang its NCAA hat on the long-range shooting of a player who needs to spend 90 percent of his time in the paint.

Ohio State could be one of the streakiest shooting teams I have ever witnessed over the course of an entire season. It’s not just that the Buckeyes’ touch comes and goes on a game-to-game basis; it ebbs and flows by the minute.

A perfect example came in the second half of the Big Ten tournament championship final against Michigan State. The Buckeyes made seven of their first nine shots after the break to turn a two-point halftime deficit into a 52-45 lead at the 14:06 mark of the second half.

Then they proceeded to miss 11 of their next 13 attempts from the floor, falling back into a 62-57 hole with 5:48 remaining. OSU followed that cold spell by making two of its next three shots to climb back within two at 64-62 at the 3:27 mark, but the Buckeyes finished the game with misfires on eight of their final nine attempts and dropped a 68-64 decision to the Spartans.

That second-half performance (12 for 34, 35.3 percent) knocked their shooting percentage down to 39.7 for the game. That from the same Ohio State team that shot 60.7 percent two days earlier on the same floor during an 88-71 victory over Purdue.

Unfortunately, you never know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis from this year’s Ohio State team. The Buckeyes played like world-beaters back in late November when they chewed up and spit out a Duke team that finished 27-6 this season. And OSU played inspired basketball at Michigan State on March 4, going into the Breslin Center and erasing an early 15-point deficit before securing a 72-70 victory and the piece of the Big Ten regular-season championship that went with it.

Then there were the lackluster performances that resulted in three losses – two of them at home – during a six-game span in February. There were times during that stretch when passes became lazier, help defense disappeared and the Buckeyes looked a step slow and largely uninterested.

There was also one other constant in those defeats – lousy shooting.

Ohio State finished second in the Big Ten this season in shooting percentage, its 48.3 mark just a tick below Indiana’s 48.7. But in their seven losses, the Buckeyes shot barely better than 40.0 percent – 160 for 391, which equals 40.9 percent. In four of those games, the team shot less than 40 percent, and in the first loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11, the Buckeyes turned in a season-low performance of 26.4 percent during a 58-48 loss.

The poor shooting cannot be traced to just one player. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, for example, missed a pair of layups in the second half of the Big Ten tournament title game against the Spartans, and he was a 50.5-percent shooter for the season.

But senior guard William Buford is a lightning rod for most of the team’s critics, and the numbers don’t lie. During the team’s 27 victories this season, Buford shot 45.6 percent (155 for 340) from the field and 38.7 percent (48 for 124) from three-point territory. During the team’s seven losses, Buford’s percentages went off a cliff – 32.6 overall (31 for 95) and 17.4 from behind the arc (4 for 23).

To be sure, Buford is just one player out of five on the floor. But more often than not, the rest of the team takes its shooting cues from its only senior. During the conference tournament final loss to Michigan State, Buford made three of his first four attempts and then missed seven of his final eight, including two three-pointers in the final 33 seconds while the Buckeyes were trailing by five.

I’m not trying to suggest that Buford is the sole reason Ohio State lost seven games this season. The Buckeyes lost seven games this season – including four of their last 10 – because they do not have anyone who can be relied upon to consistently knock down an outside shot.

That is the major reason that Ohio State misses Diebler so much. It’s also how the Buckeyes have gone from a lead-pipe Final Four lock to a team whose NCAA Tournament fortunes are now anyone’s guess.

Will Turner Really Tell NBA To Wait?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Johnny All-Star drops hints during the season that he’s thinking seriously about returning to State U for another year only to seize the first available opportunity to jump to the professional ranks.

It happens all the time at almost every school. Jim Jackson, Chris Gamble, Mike Conley Jr. and Beanie Wells are just a handful of the Ohio State examples of former players who decided million-dollar pro contracts trumped another season of college life.

As with every rule, however, there are exceptions. Mike Doss, A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis are OSU football players who decided to forgo NFL riches in lieu of one more year of college ball. When it comes to basketball Buckeyes, though, the ones who chose staying over leaving are few and far between.

Evan Turner may be different. When the junior star indicated Feb. 26 that he was open to returning to Ohio State for his senior season, I got the impression that it wasn’t merely a throwaway line for the media as the Buckeyes tried to focus on a third Big Ten championship in five seasons.

It seemed Turner was genuinely interested in returning to OSU next season.

Turner seems to walk to a little different drumbeat than most of college basketball’s elite players. While there is little doubt he dreams of being an NBA star one day, he has no illusions about his current game and how much he will have to elevate his performance when he enters the league.

There is also something a little more cerebral about Turner than your garden variety college athlete. Not only is he a student of his game, he is a perfectionist. Many players will claim they have a similar goal but spend very little time trying to achieve that perfection. Not Turner. He appears to realize he remains a work in progress. To that end, he is constantly tweaking his game and therefore is able to consistently show improvement – not only from year to year but often within the course of a single season.

A prime example is Turner’s freshman season with the Buckeyes. He averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds while starting 30 of 37 games – pretty good stats for any first-year player. But while many freshmen hit the proverbial wall late in the season, Turner peaked down the stretch, and scored a combined 37 points against Mississippi and Massachusetts as Ohio State won the NIT championship.

Despite that performance, Turner worked hard during the offseason to improve his rebounding and that helped result in a sophomore season that included game averages of 17.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists while starting all 33 games for the Buckeyes.

In the middle of that season, OSU head coach Thad Matta became dissatisfied with the play of his point guards and asked Turner if would be willing to man the position. You don’t have to be John Wooden to know the difference between being a wing player and a point guard, not to mention the discipline it takes to be the on-the-floor quarterback of a basketball team.

You also don’t need to be the Wizard of Westwood to realize how much practice time Turner has invested to reach his comfort level as the Buckeyes’ point guard. During this past offseason, he worked on his ball-handling skills, something he has been doing since he was growing up in the Chicago suburbs. He also spent time – a lot of it – on perfecting his jump shot because he realized few opposing teams have defensive answers for a 6-7 point guard who can consistently make pull-up jumpers.

The result? Turner has improved on last year’s numbers that nearly won him Big Ten Player of the Year honors. With one game remaining in the regular season, he was averaging 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. He had also raised his shooting percentage from 50.3 percent last season to 54.3 this year, and cut his assists-to-turnovers ratio by more than 20 percent.

Best of all, Turner gets it. As Matta put it recently, his star player is not playing with one foot out the door, understanding that while the NBA will make him a rich young man, the mere realization of a lifelong dream doesn’t translate into instant success.

“I don’t want to go to the league and sit on the bench,” Turner told reporters Feb. 26. “I want to go to the league and play right away and be an impact player. I want to make sure I’m fully ready. I don’t want to go into a situation where I’m not ready and not be the best I can right away.”

At the risk of overstating the obvious, it would mean a lot to Ohio State basketball should Turner truly return next season. In fact, it could be the kind of thing that finally elevates Matta’s program to elite national status.

Turner’s return for 2010-11 would likely entice David Lighty and William Buford to stay another season as well (if either player is truly thinking about leaving), and with all five starters back the Buckeyes would be overwhelming preseason favorites to win another Big Ten championship. Add to that another sterling recruiting class signed by Matta, and the conference title would be only the beginning.

Success breeds success, and that kind of team would not only put more fannies in the seats at Value City Arena, it would also help Matta continue to restock his roster with the best high school talent the nation has to offer. Additionally, another league championship and possible Final Four run couldn’t help but pump a few extra bucks into the Ohio State athletic department bank account, another facet of success that cannot be discounted.

Turner is no dummy. If he thinks he can make it in the NBA next year, he’s gone. After all, why does one attend college in the first place? Isn’t it simply a means to increase your future earning power? How many business school students would choose to finish their degree work if a Fortune 500 company came calling with a multimillion-dollar contract following their junior years? Not many.

Still, there is always something to be said for college life. For professional athletes, the money is going to be there. But for all those zeroes on that contract, your senior year on campus is something you can never get back.

Turner is one of those increasingly-rare players who seems to understand that. Like Doss, Hawk and Laurinaitis before him, he seems to embrace college life and it would appear to embrace him back. Turner is one of the most popular figures on the Ohio State campus – and that’s saying something at a traditional football school – and he has forged relationships and friendships he admittedly enjoys.

Of course, it’s his decision whether or not to return for one more season as a Buckeye and millions of dollars would turn the head of any young man. Turner is not just any young man, however, and that’s why the answer may be different this time.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today is a big day for birthdays in the Buckeye Nation with former basketball coach Gary Williams and former football players Lenny Willis, Doug Plank and Robert Smith celebrating.

Gary B. Williams was born March 4, 1945, in Collinswood, N.J., and was a starting point guard at Maryland in the mid-1960s. He began his coaching career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., and won a state championship there. Williams joined the college ranks in 1972 as an assistant at Lafayette where he was also the school’s head soccer coach. Williams spent two seasons at Lafayette and two more at Boston College before landing his first head coaching job in 1978 at American University. He went on to head the programs at Boston College and Ohio State before returning to Maryland. Williams, who won the 2002 NCAA championship with the Terrapins, was 59-41 in three seasons with the Buckeyes from 1987-89, and his 1988 team was NIT runner-up.

Douglas Walter Plank was born March 4, 1953, in Greensburg, Pa., and was a three-year letterman defensive back for the Buckeyes from 1972-74. He was a 12th-round draft choice by Chicago in the 1975 NFL draft, and wound up becoming the first rookie to lead the Bears in tackles. Plank wound up playing eight seasons with the Bears and he became such a favorite of Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan that Ryan named his famed “46 defense” after Plank’s jersey number. After his playing days were over, Plank went into coaching – first in the Arena Football League and later in the NFL. This past season, he served as assistant defensive backfield coach for the New York Jets.

Leonard Leroy Willis was born March 4, 1953, in Washington, D.C., and was a three-sport star in high school before becoming an All-American at JUCO. Willis transferred to Ohio State in 1974 and became a football and track star for the Buckeyes. He led the Big Ten in kickoff returns in ’74 and ’75, and established a school record that still stands when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Oregon State in 1974. Willis was Minnesota’s fourth-round selection in the 1976 NFL draft, and he played four seasons as a kick returner for the Vikings, Saints and Bills. He later played several seasons in the old USFL before beginning a coaching career in 1985 on Earle Bruce’s staff at Ohio State. Since 2002, Willis has been director of facilities at the University of Illinois.

Robert Scott Smith was born March 4, 1972, in Euclid, Ohio, and came to Ohio State after an All-America prep career at his hometown high school. Smith broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record with 1,126 yards in 1990 but then sat out the 1991 season in a dispute over academics with then offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac. Smith returned in 1992 and led the Buckeyes in rushing with 819 yards before making himself eligible for the NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 21st pick of the first round, and Smith finished his eight-year career as the team’s all-time leading rusher. He also earned two Pro Bowl selections. Smith is currently a college football analyst for ESPN.

Also celebrating birthdays this 4th day of March: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is 60; Philadelphia Phillies third base coach Sam Perlozzo is 59; pro golfer Peter Jacobsen is 56; actress Catherine O’Hara is 56; actress Patricia Heaton (Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is 52; actor Mykelti Williamson (Pvt. Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue in “Forrest Gump”) is 50; former lightweight boxing champion Ray Mancini is 49; former NBA all-star guard and current Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson is 44; gay rights activist Chaz (born Chastity) Bono is 41; and Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe is 25.

FINAL THOUGHTS

** Ohio State isn’t the only school to monkey with the early part of its 2010 football schedule. Utah has moved its opener against Pittsburgh to Sept. 2, most likely the second game of a primetime doubleheader that begins with the Buckeyes hosting Marshall. Meanwhile, Toledo will host Arizona the following evening for a Friday night affair televised by ESPN, and the season-opening weekend culminates Labor Day night when Boise State and Virginia Tech square off in primetime at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

** Here is some trivia for you: Name the first football coach ever to win 100 or more games both at the collegiate and professional levels. The answer comes later.

** Ohio State vs. defending national champion Alabama in next year’s BCS National Championship Game? That’s how ESPN.com writer Mark Schlabach envisions the end of the 2010 college football season. He ranks the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes atop his preseason top 25 with Boise State, Oregon and Virginia Tech rounding out the top five. Schlabach also has three other Big Ten schools in his rankings – Wisconsin at No. 9, Iowa at No. 12 and Penn State at No. 22.

** If you like the blue turf at Boise State, you’re really going to love this. Division I-AA Eastern Washington has announced plans to install a red playing surface at its Woodward Field facility in Cheney, Wash. How long before Nike suggests installation of a yellow field at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium?

** The trivia answer is Don Coryell, who went 104-19-2 from in 12 seasons at San Diego State from 1961-72 and then posted a 111-83-1 mark in the NFL as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) and San Diego Chargers (1978-86). If you guessed former Ohio State All-American end Sid Gillman, you were close. The innovative Gillman posted a 122-99-7 record in the pro ranks with the Chargers, Rams and Oilers, and was 81-19-2 in 10 college seasons at Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati. Interestingly, Coryell has always maintained that he was heavily influenced by Gillman and routinely took his entire San Diego State team to Chargers workouts to observe how Gillman ran his practice sessions.

The ‘Other’ Bill Hosket

Most Ohio State basketball fans know Bill Hosket from his all-conference playing days in the late 1960s to a broadcast career that has spanned four decades and continues to this day.

But did you know that Hosket’s father, known as Bill Sr., was also an All-Big Ten performer at Ohio State and that today would have been his 98th birthday?

Wilmer Clemons Hosket was born Feb. 19, 1911, in Dayton, Ohio, and became a championship basketball player at almost every level. Hosket, who eventually grew to stand just shy of 6-5, starred at Stivers High School in Dayton for head coach Floyd Stahl. Stahl would later serve eight seasons from 1951-58 as head coach at Ohio State.

With Hosket at the pivot, the Tigers won three consecutive state championships from 1928 to 1930, posting an 80-7 record during that span. Six of those losses occurred during Hosket’s sophomore season. At the time he was a high school player, Hosket was considered the finest basketball prospect ever produced by the state of Ohio.

After his graduation from Stivers, Hosket joined Ohio State head coach Harold “Tubby” Olsen’s program. Olsen, who at 24 seasons coached longer than any other basketball coach in school history, was looking to snap a string of second-division finishes in the Western Conference after leading the Buckeyes to their first league championship in 1925.

Hosket played mostly in a reserve role during his first couple of seasons at Ohio State. Those years featured lineups that included such standouts as Wes Fesler and Lew Hinchman – both of which were three-time football All-Americans – as well as Richard Larkins, captain of the 1931 team who went to become director of athletics at Ohio State from 1947-70.

Unfortunately, the OSU basketball teams during that time were not very competitive. The Buckeyes finished no higher than a tie for fifth place in the conference between 1926 and 1932, and had back-to-back ninth-place finishes in ’30 and ’31.

Hosket finally cracked the starting lineup at the beginning of the 1932-33 season and immediately paid dividends for Olsen. With a supporting cast that included captain Howard Mattison, former Stivers teammate Bob Colburn and Hinchman, Hosket became a dominating inside force. He was an excellent passer, could shoot the ball with either hand and became one of the premier post players in college basketball. As a result, Ohio State won 15 of their first 16 games during that season and went on to capture the school’s first Western Conference title in eight years.

The Buckeyes finished with a 17-3 record that season with Mattison earning first-team all-conference merit at guard and Hosket receiving first-time honors at center.

After the 1932-33 season, Hosket left Ohio State and played in the Midwest League and upstart National Basketball League as a member of the Dayton Metropolitans. After two seasons with the Metros, he played semipro ball before joining the famed Waterloo Wonders in 1940. The Wonders went from a high school team that won back-to-back Ohio state championships in the mid-1930s to a professional barnstorming squad that toured the country. Hosket played for the Wonders in 1940, a team that defeated both the original Boston Celtics as well as the Harlem Globetrotters.

Hosket returned to his hometown in 1941 and played for the Dayton Suchers, named for the Sucher Meat Packing Co. in the Gem City.

When his playing days were over, Hosket became a basketball official and refereed on both the high school and college levels.

Unfortunately, Hosket did not live to see his son become a basketball star. After a battle against leukemia, he died Dec. 29, 1956, at the age of 45. It was just nine days after Bill Jr. had celebrated his 10th birthday.

The younger Hosket – who technically is not Bill Jr. because his middle name is Frederick – went on to win a high school state championship at Dayton Belmont, a Big Ten championship with Ohio State in 1968, an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. basketball team at the ’68 Summer Games in Mexico City and an NBA title as member of the New York Knicks in 1970.

He led the Buckeyes in scoring and rebounding during each of his three varsity seasons and became the first OSU Academic All-American in basketball, an honor Hosket went on to win three times.

Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, came when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1968. That made the Hoskets the first father-son combination ever named first-team All-Big Ten in the history of the conference, and they remain the only ones to hold that distinction.

In 2006, the Hoskets received another joint honor when they were included in the inaugural class of inductees to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. Also in that inaugural class was the Dayton Stivers teams on which the elder Hosket played.

Bill Sr. received one more posthumous award in 2006 when he was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Stivers High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s other Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State cornerback William White. William Eugene White was born Feb. 19, 1966, in Lima, Ohio, and was a star tailback and punt returner for Lima Senior High School before concentrating on defense when he signed with the Buckeyes in 1984. White became a four-year starter at cornerback at OSU and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 1987. He finished his career tied for third on the career interceptions list with 16 and is one of only nine Buckeyes ever to record three interceptions in a single game. White was a fourth-round selection by Detroit in the 1988 NFL draft, and he played 11 pro seasons with the Lions, Chiefs and Falcons. When he retired after the 1998 season, White had 20 career interceptions, averaging 15.5 yards per return, and recovered three fumbles, returning two of those for touchdowns.

Other luminaries sharing birthdays this 19th day of February: Motown legend William “Smokey” Robinson is 69; Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Paul Krause is 67; Sixties pop singer Lou Christie (“Lightnin’ Strikes”) is 66; Loverboy lead guitarist Paul Dean is 63; Black Sabbath guitarist and founding member Tony Iommi is 61; novelist Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) is 57; Argentina president Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner is 56; actor Jeff Daniels is 54; English author Helen Fielding (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) is 51; Prince Andrew, Duke of York, is 49; retired four-time Grand Slam champion tennis player Hana Mandlíková is 47; Grammy winning singer Seal (born Seal Henry Olusegun Kwassi Olumide Adelo Samuel) is 46; Eighties television actress Justine Bateman is 43; Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro (“Traffic”) is 42; Memphis Grizzlies forward Mike Miller is 29; and singer/actress Haylie Duff is 24.

An eclectic group of celebrities also died on this day in history. They include military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell, actress Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet on the “Batman” television series); original AC/DC frontman Bon Scott; Italian actor Adolfo Celi (Bond villain Emilio Largo in “You Only Live Twice”); Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley; Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping; county music legend Grandpa Jones; and prolific film director Stanley Kramer, who directed such dramatic classics as “The Defiant Ones,” “Inherit The Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” as well as broad comedies like “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Many of Kramer’s films won technical and acting Academy Awards, but he never took home an Oscar for direction.

AND FINALLY

** NFL draft expert Mel Kiper has some words of wisdom for former Ohio State players prepping for this weekend’s NFL Combine: Do well or don’t bother to stay by the phone on the first day of the draft. “Malcolm Jenkins, if he’s runs a great 40 time, could be a top 10 pick,” Kiper said recently. “If not, he could be viewed as a safety (and his draft status will drop). I think this combine is as important for him as anybody in this draft.” Meanwhile, Kiper was a even more blunt regarding a pair of ex-OSU linebackers when he said, “James Laurinaitis’ stock has dropped from the beginning of the year, and Marcus Freeman’s stock has dropped. They need to have good workouts.”

** With starting quarterback Steven Threet deciding to leave the team and seek a transfer, does this mean Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez has to go back to square one again with his offense? That is a scary thought for U-M fans hopeful that last year’s 3-9 record was a one-year aberration. The Wolverines ranked dead last in the Big Ten last season in pass offense, total offense and turnover margin. Tough to see how Rodriguez’s team can improve those stats while breaking in another new starting quarterback.

** From the recruiting leftover file: Wide receiver DeAngelo Benton of Bastrop, La., committed to LSU two seasons ago but was unable to satisfy academic requirements for freshman eligibility. No problem. LSU head coach Les Miles tucked the 6-2, 190-pound Benton securely away at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and then got reassurance from the receiver on the weekend before signing day that Benton would sign with the Tigers this year. Less than 24 hours before signing day, Benton was still telling everyone he would sign with LSU. The following day, Benton did indeed sign – with Auburn. Is there any wonder why so much animosity exists between SEC football coaches?

** Here’s a little quiz for you. What do guys named Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell, Rex Ryan and Raheem Morris have in common? Would you believe they are all head coaches in the National Football League? The NFL boasts 10 new head coaches, including seven who have never led teams before. Schwartz takes over in Detroit, Caldwell succeeds Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, Ryan will lead the New York Jets and Morris will be in charge in Tampa Bay. The other three newbies: Josh McDaniels in Denver, Todd Haley in Kansas City and Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis.

** Not sure what this means but IRL driver Danica Patrick’s tattoo of an American flag that adorns her lower back was airbrushed out of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Last year, Patrick’s flag tattoo was visible in her swimsuit issue photos. Discuss.

Superstar In Hoops, Baseball, Medicine

One of the finest scholar-athletes in Ohio State history celebrates his 76th birthday today and chances are most of you have never heard of Paul Ebert. That is probably because he long ago stepped away from a successful athletic career to become one of the world’s foremost cardiologists.

Born Aug. 11, 1932, in Columbus, Paul Allen Ebert was a do-everything athlete at old South High School before entering Ohio State. For the Buckeyes, he became an All-America performer in two separate sports.

The 6-4, 188-pound Ebert was one of the first OSU basketball stars on the national level, leading the Buckeyes in scoring each of the three seasons he was a varsity player. From 1952-54, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was voted MVP by his teammates all three of those seasons.

By the time he had finished his college career, Ebert had established the school career scoring record with 1,436 points. During his senior year in 1954, he also became the first Buckeye ever to top the 500-point mark in a single season when he tallied 516, and he earned a third-team All-America selection from United Press International.

As good as he was in basketball, Ebert may have been even better in baseball.

He fashioned a career record of 21-8 as a pitcher, leading the Buckeyes in victories and strikeouts in each of the years he played. A consensus first-team All-American as a senior, Ebert set new OSU records for single-season and career strikeouts, marks that stayed on the books until Steve Arlin broke them in the mid-1960s.

After college, the Milwaukee Hawks made Ebert their fifth-round selection in the 1954 NBA draft – the 38th overall pick in that draft. (That same year, the Hawks took LSU star and future Hall of Famer Bob Pettit with their first-round pick.) Meanwhile, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates offered Ebert lucrative pro baseball contracts. But the money wasn’t very good in the NBA, and under Major League Baseball rules then in force, Ebert would have been required to play for the club with which he signed for a minimum of two years. Also by that time, he had already married his wife, Louise, and began medical school at Ohio State.

He turned down the pro sports offers and concentrated on finishing his studies, embarking upon a distinguished and decorated medical career.

Ebert graduated from the Ohio State Medical School in 1958, and then interned and served his residency at prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Later, he spent two years as a senior assistant surgeon at the National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Md., where he specialized in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery and became one of the world’s top pediatric heart surgeons.

Ebert has also served as professor of surgery at Duke University Medical Center, chairman of the department of surgery at Cornell University Medical College and a similar position at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

In 1986, he became director of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago, and three years later was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Award, considered the highest honor given by the NCAA. It is awarded to a distinguished citizen of national reputation based on outstanding life accomplishment.

Ebert, who resides in the Chicago area, has returned to Ohio State several times over the years, including 1977 when he was a member of the inaugural class of the university’s athletic hall of fame. He joined an illustrious slate of first-year inductees including Chic Harley, Jerry Lucas, Jack Nicklaus, Lynn St. John and Jesse Owens.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Also celebrating a birthday today is former Ohio State quarterback Joe Germaine. Born Aug. 11, 1975, in Denver, Joe Berton Germaine moved with his family at a young age to Mesa, Ariz., where he became a high school star quarterback and defensive back. He later became a record-setting QB at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College before joining the Buckeyes in 1995. Germaine would go on to earn MVP honors for rallying Ohio State to a victory over Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl, and then have the most productive single season any Ohio State QB has ever had in 1998. As one of the team captains, he set 11 different school records on his way to throwing for 3,330 yards and 25 touchdowns. After a brief stint in the NFL, Germaine has become one of the top passers in the Arena Football League, throwing for more than 14,000 yards and 290 TDs in five seasons.

Among the worldwide celebrities marking their birthdays today: Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf; FedEx founder, chairman, president and CEO Fred Smith; country singer John Conlee (“Rose Colored Glasses”); singer, former Raspberries frontman and Cleveland native Eric Carmen; Oasis bassist Andy Bell; singer Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”); Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; video game designer Shinji Mikami (“Resident Evil”); poker player Erick Lindgren; former middleweight boxing champion Jermain Taylor; reality show maven Amber Brkich; Fear Factor host Joe Rogan; New York Yankees outfielder Melky Cabrera; and professional wrestler Terry Bollea. You probably know him a little better as Hulk Hogan.

Also on this date in 1929, Babe Ruth became the first major leaguer to hit 500 career home runs. Ruth connected off Cleveland Indians righthander Willis Hudlin at League Park, the Tribe’s home park from 1901 to 1932 and their on-and-off home base until 1946. The Indians moved into cavernous Cleveland Stadium in 1932, but still played most weekday games at League Park, the last stadium used in Major League Baseball that never installed lights. League Park closed at the end of the 1946 season and stood at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street until it was torn down in 1951.

THE FINE ART OF COMEDY

My wife and I went to the historic Palace Theater in Columbus last night to catch comedian Lewis Black’s performance.

Black was his usual sardonic self – his tour is called “Let Them Eat Cake” – with riffs on the anticipation of losing one’s virginity, golf and, of course, politics and current affairs. He was his usual equal opportunity offender, too, saying things such as, “Anyone who’s still a Democrat or a Republican after the past 20 years – you’re hallucinating without the drugs.”

The entire 90-minute set – along with a 20-minute warmup from fellow comic Lynne Koplitz – was equal parts provocative and side-splittingly funny.

But Black showed why he is so good at what he does when late in his set during some musings on the price of gas, a heckler from the balcony yelled, “I didn’t come here for the news.”

Black stopped, walked over to the side of the stage and without aid of a microphone shot back, “I give you my take on these things. If we don’t laugh at this (bleep), we’re all (bleeping) gonna end up like you.”

That line got the biggest pop of the night and rightfully so.

Later, Black admitted the exchange bothered him but that it came with the territory.

“Over the last 20 years, I have really enjoyed performing for my fans,” he said. “But then they bring their friends and, well …”

AND FINALLY

** Forgive me while I clean out some stuff that accumulated during my vacation such as the cover of my college football preview issue of Sports Illustrated. The magazine renowned for its spectacular photography gave me a hackneyed posed shot of spread-legged Todd Boeckman flanked by James Laurinaitis and Beanie Wells? I expected a little more creativity from SI, especially on one of their best-selling issues of the year. Olan Mills could have done better.

** How many more players have to be arrested before Georgia head coach Mark Richt starts feeling some heat from the national press? If you’re scoring at home, at least eight Bulldogs have run afoul of the law since the end of the 2007 season.

** Those who continue to complain about the lack of excitement in horse racing obviously didn’t see Big Brown’s come-from-behind victory Aug. 3 in the Haskell Invitational.

** Another great race occurred the day before that when undefeated Deweycheatumnhowe held off a late charge to win the prestigious Hambletonian, the top prize in harness racing. Even if you don’t like the Standardbreds, you have to root for a horse whose name pays homage to the Three Stooges.

** Watching snippets of the lengthy Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies made me wonder why Chris Berman continues to be hell-bent on continuing a shtick that got old about 10 years ago.

** Also about those Hall of Fame ceremonies: When is the committee going to wise up and enshrine NFL Films founder Ed Sabol? As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times put it, “Sabol shouldn’t just be in the Hall of Fame, there should be a whole wing devoted to him and his work.”

** If Erin Andrews doesn’t understand that the way she dresses on assignment has an impact on the way others perceive her, she’s dumber than I thought.

** Hey, Phil Mickelson. These past two Tiger-less major championships were there for your taking. Instead, Pádraig Harrington is now the toast of the golfing word with his victories at the British Open and the PGA Championship. You’re 38 now, Lefty. Just how many more legitimate chances at major championships do you think you’re going to have? Or maybe you’re content with not quite realizing your vast potential. Of course, I know you have 51 million reasons why my opinion doesn’t matter. That’s how much money you made last year alone – 47 mil of it from endorsements.

** And that attitude is precisely why I look for the Americans to get waxed again in the Ryder Cup competition, set for Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.

** Speaking of Harrington, did you know he is a distant cousin of 1995 World Series of Poker champion Dan Harrington as well as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington?

** USA Today’s website staged a reader poll to determine college football fans’ choice for the top two teams this preseason. Georgia was No. 1 and Ohio State finished No. 2. Of course, that started a whole new round of posts from the dunderheads trying to wish the Buckeyes out of a third straight appearance in the BCS title game. Several of them referred to OSU as “the Buffalo Bills of college football.” First of all, that comparison is getting stale. Secondly, it’s not even accurate. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s and came away winless. The Buckeyes may have lost back-to-back BCS games, but most of their critics have evidently forgotten the 2002 national championship.

Corn, Canned Veggies & Matta

Hoopeston sounds like the perfect place to spawn anyone aspiring to a basketball career. Trouble is, the Illinois community’s name is a bit of a misnomer.

The tiny town on the border with Indiana was named for Thomas Hoopes, one of the men who donated land for a railroad crossing that helped Hoopeston farmers get their crops to market.

The self-professed “Sweet Corn Capital of the World,” along with its huge cornstalk sculpture in McFerrin Park and the fact that the high school’s nickname is the Cornjerkers, probably tells you all you need to know about the farm community of less than 6,000 residents. In 1875, the Illinois Canning Co. was established to can locally-grown vegetables. Three years later, the Hoopeston Canning Co. was incorporated, and it later became part of Stokely-Van Camp Inc.

Sweet corn and canned vegetables were about the only claims to fame for Hoopeston until 41 years ago today. On July 11, 1967, Mr. and Mrs. James Matta welcomed a baby boy into the world, a newborn the couple named Thad Michael.

Thad didn’t have to go far to obtain a love for basketball. His father was a coach and athletic director, and when he took Thad and his older brother Greg to work with him, he would leave a basketball out on the court for them. The first few times, the boys played with their other toys and ignored the basketball. Later, they would pick up the ball and dribble around only after getting bored. Soon, however, they began ignoring their other toys and began perfecting their dribbling, passing and shooting.

Greg became an all-state player at Hoopeston, and Thad followed suit a few years later. He was also an outstanding quarterback and one of his high school’s top pitchers until he chipped a bone in his back during basketball season of his sophomore year. He was forced to give up football and baseball, but returned to the hardcourt the following year, leading the Cornjerkers to back-to-back Class A state tournament appearances.

But it was the way Thad approached the game that set him apart. In a 2001 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Matta’s father said, “We’d leave the gym, and he’d tell me everything that (happened) on the floor – how the guys had their shoes tied, how they were supposed to pass it one time or another. He has a knack for watching things and figuring them out.”

Thad finished high school and enrolled at Southern Illinois, but left after his sophomore year to transfer to Butler. There, he became a two-year starter and served as team captain in 1989-90, finishing his career in sixth place on the Bulldogs’ all-time free throw percentage list.

The following year saw Matta kick off his coaching career with a graduate assistant post at Indiana State. In rapid-fire succession, he followed that with a three-year stint as administrative assistant at Butler before spending one season as a fulltime assistant at Miami (Ohio), Western Carolina and then back to Miami.

In 1998, Matta returned to Butler to serve three years as head coach Barry Collier’s top assistant, then succeeded Collier as head coach of the Bulldogs in 2000-01. That year, Butler posted a 24-8 record, won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Matta left Butler after only one season as head coach to take over the program at Xavier, and he produced three consecutive 26-win seasons, a pair of Atlantic-10 championships and a trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 2004.

On July 7, 2004, Matta accepted the head coaching job at Ohio State and proceeded to take a program reeling from an NCAA investigation and self-imposed postseason ban to a 20-victory season. Two years later, he guided the Buckeyes to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament, and last year won the NIT in what was widely considered to be a rebuilding year.

In eight seasons as a college head coach, Matta has a record of 207-66 (a .758 winning percentage) that includes four conference championships and at least 20 wins each year.

Coaching basketball seems to be Matta’s calling in life. A common saying he often repeats is that he has never worked a day in his life – it’s just that basketball is what he loves to do, and he can think of no better way to spend a day.

Obviously, the passion he has for his vocation shows in the end result.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Also celebrating birthdays today: fashion designer Giorgio Armani; actress Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina in the “Austin Powers” trilogy); TV and movie actress Sela Ward; soap actress and wannabe dancer Lisa Rinna; dentally-challenged former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks; Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora (also the ex-Mr. Heather Locklear); Weezer bassist Scott Shriner; television actor Greg Grunberg (Matt Parkman on “Heroes”); Animal Planet nature guy Jeff Corwin; Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson; Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson; Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley; and Grammy-winning rapper Lil’ Kim.

It is also the 58th birthday of veteran character actor Bruce McGill. You may not know his name but you definitely know his face. McGill has played such diverse roles as D-Day in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” Jack Dalton in “McGyver,” Pedrosa in “Collateral,” Judge Harkin in “Runaway Jury,” and boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston in “Cinderella Man.”

NINETY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY

One of the Major League Baseball’s seminal figures made his debut July 11, 1914.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth stepped to the mound as a 19-year-old for the Boston Red Sox and notched a victory in his very first major league game. Ironically, the victory came when Duffy Lewis pinch-hit for Ruth in the ninth inning and scored the winning run.

Ruth would pitch in only five games for the Red Sox that season, getting sent down to the minor-league Providence Grays in mid-summer. But he was productive for the Grays, helping them to the 1914 International League pennant.

The following year, Ruth secured a spot in the Boston rotation and began what many believe was the greatest baseball career in the history of the game. In his first full season with the Red Sox, Ruth went 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA and also hit his first four home runs.

Despite winning 23 games in 1916 and 24 in 1917, Ruth’s hitting became so valuable that he became only a part-time pitcher in 1918, and he saw the mound only five times – all of them victories – after being traded to the New York Yankees in 1920. Of course, Ruth went on to become the game’s all-time home run king until Hank Aaron broke his record in 1974.

Ruth finished a 22-season career following the 1935 season with 714 homers, 2,217 RBI and a .342 batting average. As a pitcher, he compiled a 94-46 record with a 2.28 ERA.

Ruth became a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1935 and left a legacy as not only one of the game’s most prolific sluggers but one of its finest pitchers as well.

AND FINALLY

** What exactly does Troy Smith have to do to earn a fair shot with the Baltimore Ravens? The team waited until it was eliminated from the playoffs last year before playing Smith, who turned in a creditable job at the end of the season – four games, 40 for 72 (52.6 percent), 452 yards, two TDs, no INTs. (His 79.5 quarterback rating was also higher than Eli Manning’s 73.9.) In April, after complimenting Smith on his offseason work, the Ravens rewarded him by drafting QB Joe Flacco of Delaware in the first round. Now, the rumor is that Baltimore is interested in Brett Favre if the future Hall of Famer decides to come out of retirement. Why did the Ravens even bother to draft Smith if they weren’t going to give him a chance to win the quarterback job?

** Speaking of Favre, former Denver Broncos star John Elway told the NFL Network that he empathizes with the second thoughts Favre is having about retirement. Elway also said that he is of the opinion that if Favre believes he can return to the NFL with a chance at a championship, he will decide to play in 2008.

** Good news for former Ohio State offensive lineman Shane Olivea. He has had his four-game drug suspension lifted by the NFL and will reportedly sign a contract with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. According to reports, the lifting was the suspension was due to “a clerical error.” Olivea was suspended because he reportedly missed a drug test, but he appealed that decision, claiming he missed the test because he was in rehab. Olivea started 57 games in four seasons with San Diego, which drafted him out of OSU in 2004.

** Xavier seems to be the place to go if you’re a former Indiana basketball player. Several weeks ago, point guard prospect Terrell Holloway was released from his letter of intent to play at IU when the Kelvin Sampson situation exploded. Holloway decided to become a Musketeer instead, and now former Hoosier guard Jordan Crawford will join him at Xavier. Crawford, the younger brother of former Kentucky and now Los Angeles Lakers guard Joe Crawford, averaged 9.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season as an Indiana freshman.

** Remember: When you step on the brakes, your life is in your foot’s hands.

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