Change Coming For Ohio State, Tressel

From last week’s blog:

(Todd Boeckman) is most definitely staring his destiny squarely in the eye. If he cannot produce Saturday night against USC, he must know that Tressel may try to jump-start the offense with freshman Terrelle Pryor.

If that happens, the writing is on the wall for Boeckman no matter how Pryor performs. If he can’t get anything going, it probably spells defeat for the Buckeyes. If the freshman succeeds, it could mean the beginning of the end of the Boeckman era. And if you don’t think they replace senior co-captains as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, ask Greg Hare. He started for the Buckeyes in 1972 and was voted team captain in 1973 only to cede his position to sophomore Cornelius Greene.

The bottom line is this: Is Boeckman the next Craig Krenzel or the next Greg Hare? Most people think they already know the answer. We’ll see on Saturday night.

I’m not trying toot my own horn as much as I’m trying to make a point. In his seven-plus seasons as head coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel has made no secret of his affinity for upperclassmen, especially seniors who have paid their dues. He has stuck with several of them over the years when it seemed the more prudent thing to do – at least in terms of winning ballgames – was to replace those seniors with a more talented underclassman.

Now comes the all-too-clear indication that Tressel is not only thinking about supplanting Boeckman as his starting quarterback, he is sharing those thoughts with the media.

Earlier this week, when asked about the starting quarterback situation, the coach first reverted to his tried-and-true mumbo jumbo known in most circles as Tresselspeak: “The nice thing about football,” he said, “is you probably need to think that the only thing that’s important is what I need to do better. But the reality is what we all need to do better is going to make the difference and all of that will help Todd, all of that will help Ohio State, all of that will help our defense and on and on.”

Later, he stripped away a little of the varnish.

“If we had a game last (Monday) night with what we were planning to do,” Tressel said, “we envisioned that it would be 50/50 (playing time between Boeckman and Pryor). But it will be affected by what we do in practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and obviously what occurs during the course of the game.”

Then Tressel became even more to the point, praising Pryor’s play last weekend against USC and underlining Boeckman’s mistakes.

“Terrelle has progressed with the lack of snaps in practice and the game more than you think he would,” the OSU head coach said. “I’ve seen a freshman get thrown into the fire and grow every practice and grow every game because he got so much experience. (But) I’ve seen (Terrelle) grow with a little bit less experience, which means he’s done a good job of learning by observing, which is the hardest thing for a player to do. … That’s been impressive to me about Terrelle – he’s had limited snaps yet considerable improvement.”

As for his senior co-captain, Tressel mentioned the sack that caused Boeckman’s fumble in the third quarter. While some offered the opinion that left tackle Alex Boone missed a block or tailback Dan Herron blew a blitz read, Tressel confirmed the mistake was made by Boeckman.

“It was the quarterback’s hot read, and unfortunately the play before they had brought a similar look, but they peeled off on the back,” Tressel explained. “Todd incorrectly assumed that they were coming with the same one, and so as he peeked at his hot read, he thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to peel off on the back again,’ and he thought, ‘OK, I’m safe back there.’ He took his eyes off of it, and he erred.”

Finally, we got as close to public criticism of a player that we have ever gotten from Tressel. When asked if he was surprised at how the quarterback situation between Boeckman and Pryor has evolved so quickly, he replied, “I don’t think at the outset I thought, ‘OK, now this might happen because what you practice and what you talk about and so forth is not having interceptions and is not missing a read, a hot throw or whatever.”

There is no doubt that Tressel is still in firm control of the Ohio State football program. Those who opined in the aftermath of the USC loss that he would be forced to make changes in his approach or coaching staff were either talking out of their hats or guilty of wishful thinking. While losses in the last two national championship games and the big nonconference battle at USC are troublesome for the national perception of OSU football, the fact remains that Tressel’s team remains positioned for a fourth straight Big Ten championship and a seventh victory in eight years over archrival Michigan.

While it is the order of the day to level criticism at the program, it is doubtful that many in the Buckeye Nation ever want the day to come when winning the Big Ten title and beating Michigan every year isn’t good enough.

But make no mistake here: We may be seeing a significant change in the Jim Tressel we think we’ve come to know. He has had talented freshmen on his roster before and been reluctant to use them in place of more veteran players. That philosophy may have gone out the window at USC.

As interesting as watching a potential national championship season unfold would have been, it may be even more intriguing to watch the transformation of a veteran head coach who appears ready to get the future of the Ohio State football program started immediately.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Luminaries celebrating birthdays this Sept. 19 include baseball writer Roger Angell; “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton; Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider; Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN analyst Joe Morgan; former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott; TV actor David McCallum (Illya Kurakin on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in the Sixties and currently forensics specialist Dr. Ducky Mallard in “NCIS”); singer Bill Medley (the bass half of The Righteous Brothers); composer Paul Williams (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song,” and the theme to the TV show “The Love Boat”); Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons; eponymous model Twiggy (born Lesley Hornby); TV hostess Joan Lunden; former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri; fellow former SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon; musician/composer/producer Nile Rodgers; country singer Trisha Yearwood (also Mrs. Garth Brooks); CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien; Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell; and actor Adam West, the one and only original Batman.

AND FINALLY

** When third-ranked Georgia travels to Arizona State this weekend, it will mark the Bulldogs’ first regular-season trip west of the Central Time Zone in nearly 50 years. UGA last traveled west during the regular season in 1960 when the Bulldogs fell 10-3 to Southern Cal in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

** Former Arizona State and Ohio State head coach John Cooper will be honored during that contest in recognition of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes from 1988-2000, was head of the Sun Devils’ program from 1985-87.

** Despite almost constant national criticism, the Big Ten features six of the remaining 39 undefeated teams at Division I-A. Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin are each 3-0 while Indiana is 2-0. The Big 12 and SEC lead the way nationally, each with eight undefeated teams.

** Think there might be something to this SEC media bias thing? Five conference teams are ranked in the AP top 10 this week – No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 9 Alabama and No. 10 Auburn. That marks the first time in history that’s ever happened for the SEC.

** Care to hazard a guess as to the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation so far? That would be Iowa, which has given up only eight points so far in three games.

** Is it time to begin a Heisman Trophy campaign on behalf of Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer? After rolling up a career-high 282 yards last week against Florida International, Ringer has 498 yards in three games and ranks third in the nation in rushing with an average of 166.0 yards per contest. He is also the nation’s top scorer after three weeks with nine touchdowns. Another big performance this week against a still-suspect Notre Dame defense should begin to get Ringer some notice.

** Last week’s victory over Washington gave Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops his 100th career win with the Sooners. Only three other OU coaches have ever eclipsed the century mark in victories – Barry Switzer (157, 1974-88), Bud Wilkinson (145, 1947-63), and Bennie Owen (122, 1905-26). Switzer, Wilkinson and Owen are all College Football Hall of Fame members.

** A record Jones Stadium crowd of 53,383 turned out in Lubbock last Saturday to watch Texas Tech roll to a 43-7 win over SMU. The fact that the game was played at all was a minor miracle. Crews from the Lubbock Fire Department assisted school officials in pumping out over 300,000 gallons of water from the playing surface after torrential rains from Hurricane Ike overwhelmed the stadium’s drainage system.

** Air Force had 380 yards of total offense – all of it on the ground – last Saturday in a 31-28 win over Houston. Because of windy and rainy conditions caused by Hurricane Ike, the Cadets ran the ball 71 times in the game and failed to complete any of their seven pass attempts.

** Boise State has evidently started a trend with its blue “Smurf Turf” playing surface in Bronco Stadium. In preparation for resurrecting its football program in 2009, the University of New Haven, a Division II school whose alumni include Dallas Cowboys head coach Tony Sparano, recently installed the blue Sprinturf surface in its Ralph F. DellaCamera Stadium.

** Nine years ago yesterday, Cincinnati engineered one of the biggest upsets in program history. On Sept. 18, 1999, the Bearcats stunned ninth-ranked Wisconsin at Nippert Stadium, stopping the Badgers and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne by a 17-12 score. It marked the first victory in UC program history over a ranked opponent. Wisconsin went on to finish No. 4 in the final rankings while the Bearcats wound up with a 3-8 record.

** Also occurring this week in college football history: On Sept. 15, 1973, Northwestern snapped a six-game losing streak in season openers with a 14-10 win over Michigan State in Evanston; on Sept. 20, 1997, Florida State receiver Peter Warrick rolled up 372 all-purpose yards during a 35-28 win over Clemson, giving head coach Bobby Bowden his 200th win at FSU; and on Sept. 17, 1994, UNLV receiver Randy Gatewood set new NCAA single-game records with 23 receptions for 363 yards. The Rebels established six other national or conference records for offense in the game, but they somehow lost a 48-38 decision to Idaho.

Great Stories From ’68 Buckeye

One of the perks of my job is to play in the annual Buckeye Boosters golf tournament held each year at the Scarlet course. The tournament is the group’s largest fundraiser of the year and attracts nearly 200 golfers who get to rub elbows with Jim Tressel, members of his staff and Buckeye greats from the past.

In the past, I have played with Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz, former running back Jeff Logan and associate athletic director Miechelle Willis, and the golf course setting always seems to be perfect for entertaining stories.

Yesterday, the celebrity in our group was former All-American defensive back Ted “The Tree” Provost. He was a member of the 1968 national championship team and is one of only eight players in Ohio State football history to record three interceptions in a single game.

But Provost is probably most well-known for his interception return for a touchdown in the Purdue game during the national championship season. On the first tee, I asked Provost how many times over the past 40 years he had been asked about that interception and he smiled. “What is 365 times 40?” he said with a grin. “That’s about how many times – and I never get tired of being asked about it. It just means they remember you.”

In case you don’t remember, Woody Hayes was seething after the 1967 game against Purdue. The Boilermakers had several star players including quarterback Mike Phipps and running back Leroy Keyes, and they had taken the Buckeyes to the woodshed in ’67. The lopsided 41-6 verdict was – and still is – the largest defeat to Purdue in Ohio State program history.

“They could have beaten us 60-0 that day,” Ted said. “We just got humiliated in the secondary. They wiped us out. And it made Woody point to that game for the whole next year. Usually it was Michigan that we thought about all summer. That year, it was Purdue. We had those guys’ (jersey) numbers taped up on our lockers, we had their faces taped on the mirrors in the locker room. We saw those guys in our sleep.”

The teams played to a scoreless draw at halftime but the Buckeyes finally drew blood in the third quarter. OSU was trying to disguise its coverages and finally confused Phipps. The Purdue quarterback saw safety Jack Tatum playing up and figured Provost was covering the deep zone. Instead, however, Provost was also playing up and picked off a pass, returning it 35 yards for a touchdown.

And then he did something completely out of character. Known as one of the quietest guys on the team, Provost heaved the football into the stands.

When asked if he incurred Woody’s wrath for that show of emotion, Provost shook his head. “No,” he said. “(Defensive backfield coach Lou) Holtz told us that if we scored, we could do it. I just got caught up in the emotion, I guess. The whole weekend was like that. The day of the game, I drove my car down to campus and then walked home after the game. I woke up the next day, looked outside and wondered, ‘Where’s my car?’”

The Buckeyes scored another touchdown when backup quarterback Billy Long, subbing for an injured Rex Kern, scrambled for a score to account for the 13-0 final score. Ohio State had knocked off the top-ranked in the country and rose from No. 4 to No. 2 in the national polls. The Buckeyes would remain in the No. 2 spot for the remainder of the 1968 regular season and wouldn’t secure the No. 1 ranking until upsetting Southern Cal in the 1969 Rose Bowl.

The following year, OSU returned a power-laden squad that everyone expected to successfully defend its national championship. But the Buckeyes were upset by Michigan in the final regular-season game and finished the season a disappointing 8-1. It is a game that continues to haunt Provost and his teammates nearly 40 years later.

“We had a letdown against Michigan and I don’t know why,” he said. “That was my final game. I never got a chance to come back and redeem myself. I know that if we’d have won that game, we would have been considered one of the best teams in college football history. But we didn’t and that’s why we still have reunions for the ’68 team but not for the ’69 team.”

By the way, I always figured that Provost’s nickname came from his lanky 6-3, 185-pound frame. Not so. He explained that Woody first began calling him “The Tree” after he had collected so many Buckeye leaf stickers, he couldn’t fit them all on his helmet.

After a couple of years in the NFL with the Vikings and Cardinals, Provost played five seasons with Saskatchewan in the CFL. After his retirement from pro football, he started his own construction company in Hilliard, a successful company he continues to run today.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Happy 26th birthday today to former Ohio State defensive back Will Allen. Born June 17, 1982, in Dayton, Allen was a three-sport star at Wayne High School in Huber Heights before joining the Buckeyes in 2000. His OSU career is best defined by game-clinching interceptions against Cincinnati and Michigan during the 2002 national championship run. Allen was also the one who put a devastating tackle on Miami (Fla.) running back Willis McGahee in the title game, sideling McGahee for the remainder of the game. Allen was Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in the 2004 NFL draft and continues to play safety for the Buccaneers.

Also celebrating birthdays around the world today are former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, singer Barry Manilow, retired U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, former Saturday Night Live comic Joe Piscopo, current SNL member Will Forte, actors Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”), Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Gross, former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, and women’s tennis star Venus Williams.

TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO TODAY

On June 17, 1986, iconic singer Kate Smith died in Raleigh, N.C., at the age of 79.

Smith rose to fame in the 1930s on radio and had a string of hit records through the 1940s, singing such standards as “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Seems Like Old Times.”

Perhaps Smith’s most enduring legacy is her rendition of “God Bless America” which she sang countless times, including December 1969 before a Philadelphia Flyers home game. The NHL team recorded the song and continued to play it before important home contests. Smith appeared in person to sing the song again several times, including before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals against Boston. The Flyers went on to win the game and clinch the first of their back-to-back Stanley Cups.

In all, the Flyers are an amazing 75-20-4 in games in which the song has been played. The team thought so much of Smith that it erected a statue in her honor outside the Spectrum in 1987.

It’s difficult to characterize the kind of electricity Smith’s singing of “God Bless America” meant to the Flyers. Luckily, you can relive it by clicking on this link: Kate Smith Sings God Bless America. If it doesn’t give you at least a little tingle, better check your pulse.

AND FINALLY

** What exactly was Columbus Destroyers head coach Doug Kay thinking Saturday night? Playing out the string of a 2-13 season just one year after going to the Arena Football League championship game, the team heavily marketed its final home contest by indicating former Ohio State quarterback Justin Zwick would finally get a chance to play. Zwick did get into the game for the first time this season – for exactly one play. He threw a 47-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and then rode the bench for the remainder of the game. Chants of “We Want Zwick!” fell on deaf ears as the Destroyers went down to a 63-60 defeat to Grand Rapids.

** Funny how the NFL meshes together players from college fan bases that hate one another. Case in point: New Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh may field a starting backfield that includes quarterback Troy Smith (Ohio State) and Willis McGahee (Miami-FL). In case you’re thinking Harbaugh went to Michigan to further mix things up, he didn’t. His brother Jim went there, of course, and his father Jack was an assistant at U-M under Bo Schembechler. But John is a graduate of Miami (Ohio). And in case you care, his brother-in-law is Tom Crean, new men’s basketball coach at Indiana.

** I guess New York City really is the city that never sleeps. The Mets announced that they had fired manager Willie Randolph at 3:15 a.m. this morning.

** If you ever have the opportunity to play golf with Ellen Tressel, take it. She was playing in the group ahead of us yesterday and was pounding the ball off the tee. I have often heard that she was an excellent golfer and I got to see that for myself yesterday. Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t even attempt the game. “It takes too much time,” he said, “and besides I’m not any good at it.”

Jack Knows How Rocco Feels

When Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate tee it up at 9 a.m. today West Coast time at Torrey Pines near San Diego, it will mark the 33rd playoff in U.S. Open history and the first since 2001 when Retief Goosen beat Mark Brooks at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.

It will be the classic David and Goliath story, of course. Woods is the No. 1 ranked player in the world chasing his 14th major PGA championship, while Mediate is ranked 157th in the world and is looking for the first major of his career. If he wins, he would also become the oldest winner in the 108-year history of the U.S. Open.

Mediate’s underdog status hearkens back to another U.S. Open playoff, this one nearly a half-century ago when another long-shot prepared to do battle against golf’s current king of the hill. It is perhaps coincidence that the long shot that day was Jack Nicklaus, the man whose major championship total of 18 is the record Tiger is chasing.

In the 1962 Open, played at the famed Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, it was a foregone conclusion that Arnold Palmer – who had grown up less than 40 miles from Oakmont – would be the sentimental favorite. At the time, Palmer was 32 years old (same age as Tiger is now), the reigning PGA king, and in his prime. He already had won six tournaments that year, including the Masters, and one of his victories was by 12 shots over runner-up Nicklaus at the Phoenix Open Invitational.

Nicklaus, who was then 22, has his first brush with U.S. Open destiny (and Palmer) two years earlier at Cherry Hills in Denver. He shot a 72-hole score of 282, still the lowest score ever by an amateur in the Open. But it wasn’t quite good enough as Palmer shot a final-round 65 to take the title by two strokes over Nicklaus.

Two years later, Nicklaus had turned pro and was looking for his first major championship. Heading into the final round, Palmer had the upper hand again and held a three-shot advantage with just 10 holes to play. However, Palmer fought a balky putter down the stretch and Nicklaus overcame the three-shot deficit – and well as a hostile pro-Palmer crowd – to force an 18-hole playoff. There was at least one friendly face in the gallery for Nicklaus. Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes reportedly walked all 18 holes with the youngster on Sunday.

The always-focused Nicklaus has always maintained that he never heard the crowd’s jeers. Years later, though, he admitted, “Woody would get very upset with people in the gallery. People would say something, and Woody wasn’t going to exactly back off.”

On Monday, Palmer fought his putter again and fell as many as four strokes behind Nicklaus on the front nine. But he righted himself and cut the deficit to just one as the two headed to the 13th hole, a 183-yard par-3 with a narrow hourglass-shaped green. Palmer three-putted for a bogey while Nicklaus made a par. Palmer never got any closer and Nicklaus closed him out with an even-par score of 71. Palmer shot a 74.

It not only was Nicklaus’ first major victory but his first professional title on the PGA Tour. It also signaled the beginning of a new era in golf. The victory signaled the changing of the guard – the moment the kid from Ohio State replaced Palmer as the dominating figure in golf.

An era that has not been challenged – until now.

MORE OPEN MAGIC FROM JACK

Nicklaus was truly remarkable when it came to the U.S. Open. During the six-year period between 1967 and 1972, he won the tournament twice and finished second twice – both times to Lee Trevino, including a playoff in ’72.

Here are some of Jack’s Open records:

Starts: 44

Wins: 4

Top 3 Finishes: 9

Top 5 Finishes: 11

Top 10 Finishes: 18

Top 25 Finishes: 22

Average Score: 72.59

Nicklaus is one of only three professional golfers ever to win the championship four times. The others are Willie Anderson (1901, 1903-05) and Ben Hogan (1948, 1950-51, 1953). Bobby Jones also won the title four times as an amateur (1923, 1926, 1929-30).

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this June 16th include authors Erich Segal (“Love Story”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“A Garden Of Earthly Delights”); actresses Joan Van Ark (“Knots Landing”) and Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”); former NHL star Derek “Turk” Sanderson; Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Rick Nash; former lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight boxing world champion Roberto Durán; American Idol season three runner-up Diana DeGarmo; former pro wrestler turned motivational speaker The Ultimate Warrior (born Brian James Hellwig); former major league baseball players Ron LeFlore and Wally Joyner; current Chicago Cubs closer Kerry Wood; and PGA golfer Phil Mickelson.

It is also the 67th birthday of record company executive Lamont Dozier. You may not know the name but you definitely know the man’s music. With his partners Brian and Edward Holland Jr., Dozier wrote or co-wrote dozens of hits including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “”Stop! In The Name of Love,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Reflections” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” by James Taylor, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.

THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO TODAY

Today also marks the 38th anniversary of the death of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo.

Born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Oct. 31, 1943, Piccolo was a speedy but undersized that always had to prove himself on the football field. After a stellar prep career at Central Catholic High School (now St. Thomas Aquinas) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he received scholarship offers from only two schools but went on to lead the country in rushing and scoring for Wake Forest.

He signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent and went from a taxi squad member in 1965 to starting fullback alongside tailback Gale Sayers in 1969. During the ninth game of that season, Piccolo took himself out of the lineup and was later diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He died seven months later on June 16, 1970.

Sayers later wrote a book about his friend called “I Am Third.” The book was later made into the television movie “Brian’s Song” starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers.

Beginning in 1970, the Bears began giving out the Brian Piccolo Award to the team’s top rookie who best exemplified Piccolo’s combination of courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor. In 1992, the award was expanded to include a veteran player with those qualities. Four former Ohio State players have won the award: Fred Pagac (1974), Brian Baschnagel (1976), Shaun Gayle (1984 and 1994) and Raymont Harris (1994).

AND FINALLY

** Sorry, Tiger, but as long as you’re chasing Jack’s record of 18 major championships, I’ll have to root for Rocco today.

** NBC did its obligatory Tiger genuflecting over the weekend. It’s easy to understand why, of course. Woods is the best golfer in the world right now and his sheer determination and will to win set him completely apart from the rest of the field. But I thought the coverage went a little over the top on Tiger’s recovery from knee surgery. After all, it’s been 10 weeks and he does play a rather pedestrian game. I seem to recall Ohio State defensive back Donte Whitner having arthroscopic knee surgery one week and playing against Michigan the following Saturday.

** Former Marshall defensive standout Johnathan Goddard died early Sunday morning after a motorcycle accident Saturday night in Florida. He was 27. Ohio State fans might remember Goddard as the guy who ran back a fumble recovery 27 yards during his team’s 24-21 loss to the Buckeyes in 2004. That was the game in which Mike Nugent drilled a 55-yard field goal on the final play to win it for the Buckeyes.

** The latest NBA draft projection from The Sporting News has former Ohio State center Kosta Koufos going to the Houston Rockets with the 25th pick of the upcoming draft. TSN college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy wrote that Koufos “has more and better perimeter skills than perhaps any 7-footer produced by an American high school, but he’s not quick enough to be an NBA forward and thus will need to defend big men. Koufos does not care for contact. He is too easily bumped off inside scoring moves.”

Reliving OSU Hoops Magic

Tomorrow will be “Ohio State Day” on the fledgling Big Ten Network. If you’re lucky enough to have the BTN, you can enjoy several events from a variety of Ohio State sports today along with last year’s OSU-Michigan and this year’s spring football contest.

Also on tap at 10 p.m. is the 2003 Fiesta Bowl while at 10 a.m. is the 1991 men’s basketball thriller between the Buckeyes and Indiana. Since the national championship football game is still fresh in the minds of most fans, here is a recap of the basketball game that provided one of the most exciting finishes in St. John Arena history.

In fact, here is the recap I wrote for the Feb. 23, 1991, issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin:

Simply put, it was one helluva game.

Ohio State managed to protect its No. 2 national ranking, stay on track for its first Big Ten championship in 20 years and take dead aim at a lofty seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament with a 97-95 double overtime victory over fourth-rated Indiana.

“It was a great game,” said OSU head coach Randy Ayers. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a better one. Both teams played hard for the entire 50 minutes they were on the floor. A lot of players really laid it on the line today.”

The game provided plenty of thrills for the St. John Arena sellout crowd of 13,276 and millions more in a nationwide television audience.

Like two heavyweight boxers taking turns landing hard punches, the Buckeyes and Hoosiers staged one of the most exciting college basketball matches in recent memory.

The game was tied on 22 separate occasions and the lead changed hands 21 different times, and the momentum swayed back and forth throughout the entire contest.

However, when the game was on the line, both at the end of regulation and near the end of both overtime sessions, it was the Buckeyes who rose to the challenge.

By virtue of the victory, Ohio State was able to sweep a season series from Bob Knight’s Hoosiers for the first time since 1985.

More important, the Buckeyes squeezed some breathing room between themselves and the Hoosiers in a Big Ten race that has been too close for comfort all season.

Ohio State came out of the game with a 12-1 conference mark, 1½ games ahead of Indiana at 10-2. The Hoosiers’ only two league losses have come at the hands of the Buckeyes.

Each time the game was on the line, it was sophomore sensation Jim Jackson who turned the tide for the Buckeyes.

When junior point guard Mark Baker went down early with ankle injury, it was Jackson who stepped forward to assume the point guard duties.

It was Jackson’s whirling jumper in the lane just before the buzzer that sent the game into overtime. It was Jackson’s offensive rebound and pass to senior Treg Lee that allowed Lee an uncontested eight-footer that sent the game into double overtime.

And it was Jackson who drove the lane and then dished to Lee again with 0:04 showing in the second extra period that allowed the OSU senior forward another uncontested jumper that meant the difference in the game.

Jackson wound up with lofty numbers – a career-high 30 points, a game-high 11 rebounds, six assists and one steal.

But it was the fact that the basketball was in his hands at every crucial juncture of the game that stood out more than mere numbers.

“I just have confidence in myself,” Jackson explained.

Ayers said he had run out of superlatives for his star player.

“What more can I say?” the OSU head coach asked. “Jimmy just stepped forward and showed why he’s the great player that he is.”

Watch the replay of the game, tape it, TiVo it – do whatever you have to do to see this game if you haven’t seen it before. To paraphrase ABC announcer Keith Jackson at the end of the broadcast, I trust you’ll enjoy it.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays today include Friends actress Courtney Cox-Arquette, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, baseball Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Wade Boggs, Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren, actor Jim Belushi, rapper/actor Ice Cube (born O’Shea Jackson), San Francisco Giants righthander Tim Lincecum, New York Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte, PGA golfer Justin Leonard, actor Neil Patrick Harris (“How I Met Your Mother”), Good Charlotte guitarist and keyboard player Billy Martin, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt, and Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker.

AND FINALLY

** Speaking of Baker, I had the opportunity to cover Friday night’s game between Cincinnati and defending World Series champion Boston. (Maybe you didn’t know that I’m also managing editor of the publication called Reds Report.) Anyway, all of the reporters congregate in Baker’s office following the game to get his thoughts. I was struck by the fact that his office at Great American Ball Park is spacious enough but not exactly what I’d call “plush.” He had a few family photos around, an autographed photo of late blues man John Lee Hooker, nice nondescript desk, a couple of chairs, a mini fridge stocked with sports drinks … and that was about it. Certainly a far cry from the palatial digs Jim Tressel has over at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Of course, Baker can cry about it all the way to the bank. His annual salary of $3.5 million beats Tressel by a little over a million.

** Despite a truly magical back nine yesterday that included two monstrous bombs for eagle and a chip-in birdie, don’t expect Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Open today. As bad as his left knee was hurting and as much magic as Tiger used up on Saturday, it would be difficult to see how he can navigate his way around Torrey Pines for the win. Then again, maybe he can simply will his way to the victory. It seems that whenever he gets near the lead, every other golfer wilts. No matter how he plays today, though, it’s going to be tough to top what he did Saturday.

** In case you missed it, Indiana University officials confirmed last week that sophomore Jordan Crawford was leaving the men’s basketball program, leaving new head coach Tom Crean with exactly one returning scholarship player for the 2008-09 season. The lone returnee? Kyle Taber, who averaged 1.3 points per game last year.

** You might want to start making reservations for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2013. First-year eligible players that year will include Brett Favre, Michael Strahan, Warren Sapp and Jonathan Ogden.

** Today is Father’s Day, a celebration that dates back only to 1908 in the United States. And believe it or not, it’s only been since 1972 that the holiday has been officially recognized in this country. Mother’s Day has been around in one form or another since the 1850s. Those of us who are fathers seem also seem to get the short end of the stick as far as gifts go. According to research, Americans were expected to spend about $11 billion this year on Father’s Day gifts. That’s about $8 billion less than what was spent for mom on her day. Oh, well. It’s the thought that counts, right? Here’s wishing all the dads out there a happy, healthy and safe Father’s Day.

SEC Dominance? Yeah, Right

Enough is enough … for me anyway. If I have to hear one more time about how LSU “dominated” slow-footed Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game, I may throw up. Or I may start throwing rocks at the next person who utters such a notion.

I was there. I was in New Orleans on that January night when LSU scored 31 unanswered points on its way to a 38-24 victory. Yes, scoring that many points in a row could lead one to believe that the game was a blowout – if you didn’t watch the damn game. If you did, and can be even the tiniest bit objective, it should be obvious that the outcome of that game hinged on three plays. Three plays out of 150 in the entire game. Three plays, each of which went against Ohio State.

The first two came back-to-back early in the second quarter when the game was tied at 10. The Buckeyes were in position to regain the lead and the game’s momentum by pushing the ball to the LSU 21. On third-and-3 from there, quarterback Todd Boeckman threw what could have been his best pass of the evening, a seemingly perfect floater to receiver Brian Robiskie.

Robiskie had gotten a glimmer of separation from LSU defender Chevis Jackson and appeared to cradle the football as he fell to the Superdome turf. Robiskie had made countless similar catches all season long but not this time. He lost control of the football and the Buckeyes missed the chance for a go-ahead touchdown.

On the next play, OSU lined up for what would have been a 38-yard field goal to retake the lead, but the attempt was blocked. Blame kicker Ryan Pretorius, blame his protection, blame whomever you want – it was the fourth blocked field goal for OSU on the season, something that must keep the special teams-minded Jim Tressel awake at night.

So, instead of the Buckeyes holding a 17-10 lead (or 13-10 at the very least) and kicking off, LSU dodged the bullet and went the other way for a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive. It was a crushing momentum swing of 10 to 14 points, and the Tigers went from being on the ropes to enjoying a 17-10 advantage with 7:25 left until halftime.

The third crucial play came early in the third quarter. LSU had increased its lead to 24-10 by the break but 14 points was far from an insurmountable advantage. And when the Buckeyes forced the Tigers to punt on their opening possession of the second half, anything was possible. But rather than sit back and wait for the momentum to change, Tressel rolled the dice and called for a punt block.

No one ever calls football a game of inches but in this particular case it was. OSU sophomore linebacker Austin Spitler blew through the LSU protection and was on punter Patrick Fisher in plenty of time to block the kick. But somehow the ball sailed an inch or two out of Spitler’s reach, his momentum carried him into Fisher and the subsequent roughing penalty wiped out a fourth-and-23 with an automatic first down for the Tigers. Four plays later, LSU scored another touchdown for a 31-10 lead and the Buckeyes never seriously threatened again.

First of all, let’s get something straight. To blame Robiskie, Pretorius or Spitler for the loss is ridiculous. It is, after all, a team game. Take those three players off the OSU roster and perhaps the Buckeyes aren’t even in New Orleans. But the game turned on the three crucial plays in which those players were involved and that is the unvarnished truth of the matter.

Look, the game the Buckeyes played the previous year against Florida? That was a blowout. Plain and simple. Nothing else to say. But last year’s game between OSU and LSU was nothing even resembling a blowout. Speed had nothing to do with it and the SEC’s supposed dominance over the Big Ten had nothing to do with it either.

Most SEC bubbas have forgotten that their big, bad conference was punked by the Big Ten two years ago when Penn State beat Tennessee and Wisconsin beat Arkansas. You can even cite last year’s Citrus Bowl when a depleted Michigan team rolled over Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and the defending national champion Gators.

In this decade, the SEC and Big Ten have played 16 times in the postseason and have split those games right down the middle. Someone is going to have to explain to me how an 8-8 record equals dominance.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

The longer this season Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones keeps his batting average above the .400 mark, the more reporters and sportscasters talk about whether he can keep up the pace for the entire season.

It’s not likely.

No one has hit .400 for an entire season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Jones was at .419 through Wednesday’s games and is as locked in as any major league hitter can be. But the Atlanta slugger has a lifetime batting average of .310, and while that is very good, it ain’t 400. Not even close. Jones’ best season was last year when he hit .337.

The most recent players to flirt with .400 were Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and George Brett, Hall of Fame players who amassed a total of 18 league batting championships between them.

Carew was hitting .401 as late as July 10 during the 1977 but went 1 for 5 in a 6-5 loss to California and dipped below the .400 mark. He never got above it again before finishing at .388.

In 1997, Gwynn was at .402 on July 14 but fell to .398 after a 1-for-3 performance during a 16-2 loss to San Francisco. He finished at .372.

Finally, in 1980, Brett was still sitting at .400 as late as Sept. 19. But he went 4 for his next 23 and had to settle for a .390 finish.

The highest batting average over the course of a single season since Williams hit .406 in 1941 was the .394 turned in by Gwynn in 1994. But as close to .400 as he was at the finish line, the San Diego outfielder’s average was never above that mark after May 16 of that season.

If Jones is still hitting above .400 after the All-Star Break, then we can have the discussion. Remember, no one in the National League has hit better than .400 since Bill Terry hit .401 for the New York Giants in 1930.

BEST OFFENSIVE CATCHER EVER?

Upon the recent retirement of Mike Piazza, the question was raised: Was he the greatest offensive catcher in the history of Major League Baseball? Several so-called experts weighed in and decided that Roy Campanella, not Piazza, was the best offensive catcher ever.

Really? First of all, I wondered why Johnny Bench was not mentioned in the discussion. So I scoured the old Baseball Encyclopedia and here are the players’ career stats:

Johnny Bench 389 HR, 1,376 RBI, .269 BA, .342 OBP, .476 SLG

Roy Campanella 242 HR, 856 RBI, .276 BA, .360 OBP, .500 SLG

Mike Piazza 427 HR, 1,335 RBI, .308 BA, .377 OBP, .545 SLG

The career total numbers could be skewed somewhat because Campanella played only 9½ seasons with Brooklyn because of a career cut short on the front end by the color barrier and on the back end by the automobile accident that left him paralyzed. But even when you average out these players’ career numbers to a 162-game schedule, here is what you get:

Bench 29 HR, 103 RBI, .267 BA

Campanella 32 HR, 114 RBI, .276 BA

Piazza 36 HR, 113 RBI, .308 BA

Campanella has a slight edge in RBI, Piazza owns the margins in homers and batting average, and (much to my chagrin) Bench finishes third in all three major categories. Then when you consider that Piazza accomplished his averages over a longer period of time, it seems the case could be made for him being the best offensive catcher in history.

Not that there weren’t plenty of other terrific offensive catchers in major league history. Their 162-game career averages, including Mickey Cochrane (13 HR, 91 RBI, .320 average); Yogi Berra (27, 109, .285); Bill Dickey (18, 109, .313); and Carlton Fisk (24, 86, .269).

All very good numbers but not quite as good as Piazza.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Those celebrating birthdays today include actor Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”); former NFL defensive tackle Sam Adams; Jackass jackass Steve-O; actresses/entrepreneurs/party girls Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen; actor Tim Allen (“Home Improvement”); and John-Boy Walton himself, actor Richard Thomas.

One of football’s all-time greats was also born on this day. Harold “Red” Grange was born June 13, 1905, in the tiny town of Forksville, Pa., and grew up to be one of the football’s earliest stars. He was a three-time All-American at Illinois and picked up the nickname “The Galloping Ghost.” Grange went on to become one of the first stars in the fledgling National Football League, helping the Chicago Bears to league titles in 1932 and ’33. He died Jan. 28, 1991, in Florida at the age of 85.

SEVENTY-THREE YEARS AGO TODAY

If you are a fan of the movie “Cinderella Man” like me, you might want to know that today is the 73rd anniversary of the heavyweight boxing match when James J. Braddock upset champion Max Baer. Braddock was a 10-to-1 underdog to the previously unbeaten Baer and took a 15-round decision to win the title.

I think the movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, is vastly underrated. If you like a classic underdog story with excellent writing and crisp acting, rent it. You won’t be sorry. Check out the movie trailer at this link: Cinderella Man Trailer.

AND FINALLY

** You hear about walk-off home runs all the time, but how about a walk-off hit batsman? It happened yesterday in Chicago’s 3-2 win in 11 innings over Atlanta when Braves reliever Jeff Ridgway hit Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson with a pitch, forcing in the winning run.

** That game also produced another head-scratcher courtesy of Cubs manager Lou Piniella. Veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning for Chicago to send the game into extra innings. But in the 11th, with the bases loaded and no one out, Piniella decided to play the percentages pinch hit for the left-handed hitting Edmonds. He sent right-handed hitter Johnson to the plate against Ridgway (a lefty) and the reliever plunked Johnson with his first pitch. Not much wonder why the Cubbies have the best record in baseball right now at 43-24.

** Most NFL fans assume that John Madden was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they lost Super Bowl II to the Green Bay Packers in January 1968. He wasn’t. The coach of the Raiders that season was John Rauch, who died Tuesday in Florida at the age of 80. Rauch was AFL coach of the year in 1967 and guided the Raiders to a 12-2 record the following year. But the constant meddling of Oakland owner Al Davis caused Rauch to resign and move on to the head coaching job with Buffalo. One of the first things he did when he got to the Bills was draft O.J. Simpson with the No. 1 pick of the 1969 draft. Rauch, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame because of a stellar playing career as a quarterback at Georgia, later coached in the Canadian Football League and had brief stints as an assistant with Atlanta and Philadelphia before leaving coaching in the mid-1970s and settling into semi-retirement in Florida.

** Today is Friday the 13th, the only such occurrence we will have during this calendar year. In case you do have some fear about days like these, you have something called paraskavedekatriaphobia. The next time you have to worry about Friday the 13th will be Feb. 13, 2009. That also happens to be the day the remake of the horror film “Friday the 13th” is scheduled to open.

Nehlen Nearly Became OSU Head Coach – Twice

Best wishes for a speedy recovery go out to former West Virginia football coach Don Nehlen, who underwent triple heart bypass surgery on Tuesday. Nehlen is recovering at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, and is said to be coming along well.

He is the winningest coach in West Virginia history with a 149-93-4 record over 21 seasons. But did you know that Nehlen twice was on the verge of becoming head coach at Ohio State?

Although he is best known for being a Mountaineer, Nehlen is a native Ohioan who became a star quarterback at Bowling Green and led the team to the 1956 Mid-American Conference championship before embarking upon a coaching career that began at the high-school level in Ohio. He served as an assistant at his alma mater Mansfield High School, and then moved on to head coaching jobs at South and McKinley high schools in Canton. Nehlen later served as an assistant coach at Cincinnati and BG, and then took over the Bowling Green program, where he was 53-35-4 in nine seasons from 1968-76.

In 1977, Nehlen left the Falcons to become quarterbacks coach on Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan. Two years later, when Woody Hayes was fired after the 1978 Gator Bowl, Nehlen made inquires into the Ohio State coaching position. He was considered but didn’t make the final cut of six interviewees – longtime Woody assistants George Chaump and George Hill, Don James of Washington, Ron Meyer of SMU, Rudy Hubbard of Florida A&M and Earle Bruce of Iowa State.

Nehlen stayed at Michigan through the 1979 season and took over the West Virginia program the following season.

Eight years later, when Bruce was fired with a game remaining in the 1987 season, Nehlen was again a candidate for the Ohio State coaching job. This time, he was much more viable and was apparently on the university search committee’s short list that included Jack Bicknell of Boston College, Bill Mallory of Indiana, Larry Smith of USC and John Cooper of Arizona State.

Bicknell was considered the frontrunner. He had been rumored as Bruce’s successor in 1986 when the Ohio State coach was being pursued by Arizona. Bicknell, however, had no ties to OSU or the state of Ohio and eventually decided he would rather stay in Boston. Mallory dropped out after Indiana signed him to a contract extension through the 1992 season, and Smith excused himself from the proceedings, saying he was not interested in leaving Southern California.

That left Nehlen and Cooper in the running – until the university decided it had to interview more than two candidates. The search committee quickly added several more names and finally pared the final list to seven: Glen Mason of Kansas, Willie Jeffries of Howard, former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano, Chaump (who was then head coach at Marshall), Bicknell, Nehlen and Cooper.

Nehlen got the first interview, speaking with Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones, university president Edward Jennings, associate AD Bill Myles and the rest of the interview committee in Cambridge, Ohio, on Dec. 19, 1987. Over the next four days, the committee interviewed all seven candidates, including Cooper in Dallas on Dec. 21.

The final decision was said to have come down to Nehlen and Cooper, both of whom reportedly interviewed well. The tiebreaker was immediate past performance. Nehlen was rebuilding at West Virginia and was coming off a 6-5 season in 1987 that included an invitation to play Oklahoma State in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Cooper’s team at Arizona State had posted a 6-4-1 record that had produced a spot in the Freedom Bowl against Air Force.

Those seasons seemed to be a wash, so the OSU search committee decided to take a look at the season before that. It was no contest. While Nehlen’s team went 4-7 in 1986, Cooper had guided the Sun Devils to a 10-1-1 finish that included a 22-15 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. A win over the Wolverines in Pasadena clinched it for Cooper, who was announced Dec. 31, 1987, as Ohio State’s 21st head football coach.

Nehlen didn’t shed a lot of tears about being passed over again in Columbus. The following season, his Mountaineers went 11-1 with the only loss coming to Notre Dame in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, the game that served as that season’s national championship game.

Nehlen never seriously considered leaving West Virginia again, and piloted the program through the 2000 season. During his tenure in Morgantown, he coached 15 first-team All-Americans, 82 all-conference players and sent 80 players to the NFL.

He finished his career with 202 career victories, one of only 17 coaches at the time to crack the 200 mark at the Division I-A level. In 2005, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, part of an illustrious class that included tight end/defensive end Jim Houston of Ohio State.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among the notables celebrating birthdays today are former President George H.W. Bush, actor/singer Jim Nabors, sportscaster Marv Albert, jazzman Chick Corea, Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, former Atlanta Braves first baseman Ryan Klesko, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Mathieu Schneider, Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and supermodel Adriana Lima. It’s also the birthday of songwriter Richard M. Sherman. You may not know who he is but if you’ve ever been to Disney World, chances are you know his most famous song: “It’s A Small World (After All).”

Also on this day in history, could it really be 14 years? On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found murdered outside Brown Simpson’s condominium in suburban Los Angeles. Former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson was charged with the murders, but on Oct. 3, 1995, after what was billed as “The Trial of the Century,” Simpson was acquitted on all counts.

Today also marks the 21st anniversary of what many believe was the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. On June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenberg Gate of the Berlin Wall and challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall.” Regardless of your particular political bent, there is no denying this seminal moment in world history. If you’d like to relive it, click on this link: “Tear Down This Wall.”

AND FINALLY

** Fellow BSB staffer (and Bengals fan) Marcus Hartman was telling me that the NFL Network recently replayed the 1981 AFC Championship Game between Cincinnati and San Diego. That contest, otherwise known as the “Freezer Bowl,” was won by the Bengals in wind chills calculated at 37 degrees below zero. As a result, I got to wondering whatever happened to Cincinnati backup QB Jack “The Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson, who played a couple of downs in that game. Seems that he landed on his feet after a checkered six-year NFL career. Thompson, who was an All-American at Washington State, returned to the Pacific Northwest after his playing days and became a mortgage banker in the Seattle area. His son, Tony, is a tight end at Wazzoo while Thompson’s nephew, Tavita Pritchard, is the quarterback at Stanford who engineered last year’s huge upset against USC.

** Once a coach always a coach, I guess. Former coaches Bill Curry and Dan Reeves are going to collaborate to pilot the new program at Georgia State, which will begin play in Division I-AA in 2010. Curry, who has been a college football analyst at ESPN for the past 10 years, previously had coaching stints at Alabama, Kentucky and his alma mater Georgia Tech. His career record is 83-105-4. Meanwhile, Reeves will continue to serve as a consultant for the university after having helped raise more than $1.2 million in pledged donations to help get the new football program off the ground.

** I think it’s now safe to refer to Texas Rangers outfielder/designated hitter Milton Bradley as “Crazy Old” Milton Bradley. He bolted out of the Rangers clubhouse after the team’s 11-5 win last night and headed up four flights of stairs looking for Royals television announcer Ryan Lefebvre. Bradley, who was DH’ing for Texas, heard was he considered derogatory remarks make by Lefebvre on a TV in the clubhouse. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington managed to intercept Bradley about 20 feet from the broadcast booth and led him back to the clubhouse. This is the same Bradley who blew out his knee being wrestled to the ground by his manager during an argument with an umpire … the same Bradley who was suspended for five games after throwing a water bottle at a fan in 2004 after someone had thrown the bottle onto the field … and the same Bradley who earned a four-game suspension after throwing a bag of baseballs on the field after an ejection … and the same Bradley who had a dugout confrontation with Cleveland manager Eric Wedge – during a spring training game.

** Evidently $4 gas has yet to hurt America’s Heartland. Yesterday, while waiting in traffic, I began to compare the number of guzzlers to the number of regular passenger cars. My final count: 24 SUVs and light trucks to just seven cars. I wonder if that 3½-to-1 ratio will continue if gas continues to climb toward $5 a gallon.

** And keeping with the monetary theme, another popular Yogi-ism: “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

Did You Know? Ohio State Coaches

Yesterday’s entry about Earle Bruce and the FBI got me to wondering what other things we may not know (or have simply forgotten) about Ohio State’s football coaches. So, I did some digging and unearthed some nuggets about each of them.

Alexander S. Lilley (1890-1891) – In 1890, Ohio State senior George Cole took up a collection from fellow students to purchase a regulation football and a book of football rules from the Spaulding Athletic Supply Co. That was the beginning of the football program at The Ohio State University. Cole later asked his friend Lilley, who had played organized football at Princeton – to serve as coach without pay. Lilley agreed, riding a pony to practice each day. The Buckeyes won their first game, beating Ohio Wesleyan by a 20-14 score on May 4. But that was their only win in their inaugural season. They lost their final three contests to Wooster, Denison and Kenyon by a combined score of 96-0.

Jack Ryder (1892-1895, 1898 ) – Born Frederick Bushnell Ryder in Oberlin, Ohio, Ryder was Ohio State’s first paid head coach. In his first season, he was paid the handsome sum of $15 per week. He led the Buckeyes to their first winning season in history, a 5-3 mark in 1892, and is credited with being the first coach to hold closed practice sessions. Ryder eventually left the coaching profession and became a sportswriter, first at the old Ohio Journal in Columbus and later at the Cincinnati Enquirer. During his tenure at the Enquirer, he was the first to call University of Cincinnati sports teams “the Bearcats.” Ryder died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 64.

Charles A. Hickey (1896) – Hickey was hired after the 1896 season began and took over for interim coach Sid Farrer, a medical student who had played college football at Princeton. Hickey was only one year removed from his own college playing career, having been captain of the Williams College team in 1895. The team finished 5-5-1 in Hickey’s only season and he was dismissed by the university. It didn’t seem to matter to him, though. He had already left town and had to be informed of the school’s decision by telegram.

David F. Edwards (1897) – Another Princeton graduate became head coach when Edwards took over the job. But he got it only when Fielding Yost – yes, the same one who went on to legendary status at Michigan – had a less-than-sterling interview for the position. Yost, who had been head coach at Ohio Wesleyan, wanted to coach at Ohio State, but during a visit to campus was a little overzealous. It seems that he showed a couple of his patented plays to a student and a faculty member, knocking both to the ground. The Buckeyes selected Edwards over Yost, then proceeded to turn in one of the program’s poorest records at 1-7-1. Even the lone victory was tainted – Ohio Medical was leading by a touchdown but left the field after protesting an OSU touchdown. Officials later awarded the win by forfeit to the Buckeyes.

John B. Eckstorm (1899-1901) – Eckstorm was the first “professional” coach to pilot the Buckeyes and his approach to the game produced the program’s first undefeated season. The team posted a 9-0-1 mark, outscoring its opponents by a 184-5 margin. All nine wins were shutouts and the only blemish on the season was a 5-5 tie against Case. After the season, Eckstorm was rewarded with another program first. The university rehired him for the next two years, making him the first Ohio State coach in history to sign a multiyear contract.

Perry Hale (1902-1903) – Hale, a former star player at Yale, took over the program when critics were calling for its abolishment. During the 1901 season, OSU center John Sigrist suffered a neck injury during a 6-5 win over Western Reserve and died two days later. A resolution to cancel the rest of the season and abolish the program was defeated by an 18-8 vote of the Athletic Board. Hale brought several innovations to the Buckeyes, innovations that were seen as “safer” than traditional methods although the coach perfected the “flying wedge”

E.R. Sweetland (1904-1905) – Edwin Regur Sweetland was a native New Yorker who coached football, basketball, track and rowing and nine different colleges and universities during his career. He was a graduate of Cornell, where he played football for legendary head coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. During his first season with the Buckeyes in 1904, the team achieved a program first when it finally scored points against archrival Michigan. (In five previous games, U-M had outscored Ohio State by a lopsided 177-0.) The 1904 score came on a 50-yard fumble return by Bill Marquardt and was the only bright spot for OSU in a 31-6 defeat to the Wolverines. Sweetland left coaching after the 1918 season and went into politics. He died in 1950 at the age of 75.

A.E. Herrnstein (1906-1909) – A native of Chillicothe, Ohio, Herrnstein presided over the first Ohio State team to play an entire season without giving up a touchdown. In finishing 8-1, the Buckeyes recorded six shutouts, surrendered only two field goals (worth four points in those days) during a 12-8 win over Ohio Medical, and lost a 6-0 verdict to Michigan when the Wolverines scored on a field goal and a safety. The Buckeyes also attempted their first forward pass during the 1906 season, and Herrnstein became the only Michigan graduate ever to serve as Ohio State head coach.

Howard Jones (1910) – Born in Middletown, Ohio, Jones was a college football star at Yale when the Bulldogs won three straight national championships from 1905-07. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be a coach, though. He spent one-year stints at Syracuse, Yale and Ohio State, going 6-1-3 with the Buckeyes before deciding to go into private business. Jones returned to coaching six years later and enjoyed success at both Iowa and Southern Cal. He won back-to-back Big Ten titles with the Hawkeyes in 1921-22, the only time in history Iowa has won consecutive league crowns. Later, Jones captured seven conference championships and went a perfect 5 for 5 in Rose Bowl appearances in 16 seasons with the Trojans. He retired following the 1940 season and died at the age of 55 the following summer. In 1951, ten years after his death, Jones was included in the inaugural class of inductees in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Harry Vaughn (1911) – Vaughn, who had no previous coaching experience, was another former player from Yale and he got the Ohio State job solely on Jones’ recommendation. But he didn’t seem too interested in the job. He guided the Buckeyes to a 5-3-2 record but left after the season to resume his law studies at Yale. OSU was rapidly getting the reputation for being unable to hold onto its coaches, searching for its 11th different head coach in just 23 seasons of organized football.

John R. Richards (1912) – Richards packed a bunch of firsts into his only season as head coach. Hired also as the university’s first-ever director of athletics, he did away with closed practice sessions, encouraging fans to attend and even suggest plays. It helped usher in a new era of enthusiasm for the program, enthusiasm that spiked even more when Richards installed lights on the practice field for nighttime drills. Unfortunately, after a 6-3 record, Richards abruptly resigned following the 1912 season. In retrospect, he might have done Ohio State a favor. His resignation led to the hiring of Lynn St. John as athletic director and John W. Wilce as head football coach.

John W. Wilce (1913-1928 ) – John Woodworth Wilce was a native of Rochester, N.Y., who lettered in three sports at Wisconsin. Ohio State, however, was the school that gave Wilce his first chance to be a head football coach and he stayed in Columbus for 16 seasons, the second-longest tenure in program history. During his tenure, the Buckeyes earned their first conference championship (1916), received their first-ever invitation to play in the Rose Bowl (1920) and began play in Ohio Stadium (1922). Wilce retired following the 1928 season and became a professor of preventive medicine at the Ohio State College of Medicine, specializing in research and treatment of heart diseases. He also served as director of Student Health Services from 1934 to 1958. Wilce died in 1963 just five days after his 75th birthday.

Sam Willaman (1929-1933) – If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that Willaman played pro football for the Canton Bulldogs alongside Jim Thorpe. Perhaps you didn’t know, however, just how talented Willaman was. In 1921, he was selected as second-team halfback on Ohio State’s all-time team just behind Chic Harley. Willaman was also Thorpe’s backup with the Bulldogs. Also, Willaman hired one of his former players as an assistant coach in 1931. He was Richard Larkins, the same guy who would succeed St. John as Ohio State athletic director in 1947 and serve in that position until 1970.

Francis A. Schmidt (1934-1940) – Schmidt may have had one of the most unique nicknames ever in college football history. Because most of his teams were known for high scoring, newspapers began calling him “Close the Gates of Mercy” Schmidt. He is, of course, known for beginning the Gold Pants tradition at Ohio State – each member of the program receives a small gold pants charm for beating Michigan. It came about by accident, however, when asked in his first season at OSU about playing the Wolverines. Despite the fact the Buckeyes had won only six of the previous 30 games with their archrivals, Schmidt replied, “Those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, same as everyone else.” OSU beat Michigan 34-0 in Columbus that year and shut the Wolverines out in each of the next two years, making Schmidt the first – and still only – coach in school history to beat Michigan in each of his first three tries.

Paul Brown (1941-1943) – It’s hard to uncover much about a guy who is credited with changing the way football is played today. However, here are a couple of things you may not have known. Brown played quarterback in high school at Massillon, following Harry Stuhldreher, who went on to become one of Notre Dame’s legendary “Four Horsemen.” Brown later played his college football at Miami (Ohio) but not before first enrolling at Ohio State. As a 145-pound freshman quarterback for the Buckeyes, he soon found out his body couldn’t take the pounding of a Western Conference schedule and Brown transferred to Miami. He graduated there in 1930 with an undergraduate degree in education, then got his master’s a decade later from OSU. Finally, let’s dispel the myth that the Cleveland Browns are named after Paul Brown. In reality, they are named after former heavyweight boxing champion Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis. The team was originally named the Brown Bombers, which was later shortened to simply the Browns.

Carroll C. Widdoes (1944-1945) – Widdoes was Brown’s hand-picked successor at Ohio State with the understanding he would simply hold the job while Brown served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. But two things conspired against Widdoes – first was his easy-going, soft-spoken nature; second was the fact he simply wasn’t Brown. After the Buckeyes went 9-0 in his first season, they slipped to 7-2 in 1945 and the natives weren’t happy. Widdoes abruptly resigned and didn’t coach again until four years later when he resurfaced at Ohio University. He stayed in Athens for nine seasons, going 42-36-5 with the Bobcats and winning the Mid-American Conference championship in 1953.

Paul O. Bixler (1946) – Bixler is the sixth head coach in Ohio State history to serve only one season and – so far – the most recent. His brief tenure was marred by a 4-3-2 record that included a 58-6 thrashing at the hands of Michigan. Bixler resigned after the ’46 season, citing pressure of the job as the major reason. The Mount Union graduate landed on his feet, though. He later spent five seasons as head coach at Colgate, then followed Brown to the NFL and served several years as director of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns.

Wesley E. Fesler (1947-1950) – One of the finest all-around athletes the Youngstown area has ever produced – and it has produced more than its share – Fesler was a three-time, first-team All-America end for the Buckeyes from 1928-30, and also starred on the OSU baseball and basketball teams. He was good enough in basketball that he became that program’s first consensus first-team All-America selection in 1930. Despite overtures from the NFL to continue his playing career, Fesler wanted to coach and began as an assistant on Willaman’s staff in 1931. He later coached at Harvard, Princeton (where he was also head basketball coach) and Pittsburgh before returning to his alma mater in 1947. Fesler would last only four seasons with the Buckeyes, though, resigning under pressure after a 9-3 loss to Michigan in the 1950 Snow Bowl. He resurfaced the following year at Minnesota before leaving coaching and pursuing a career in real estate. Fesler died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease in California in 1989 at the age of 81.

Woody Hayes (1951-1978 ) – Think you know everything there is to know about Woody? How about this? He wasn’t only a student of military history, he lived it. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July 1941, six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Hayes commanded two different Navy ships – submarine chaser PC-1251 during the Palau Islands invasion and destroyer-escort USS Rinehart, which served in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If you insist that your nuggets be restricted to football, ask your buddies if they know who succeeded Woody at Miami (Ohio) when he became head coach of the Buckeyes. The answer is Ara Parseghian. If you’d like to see snippets of Woody’s commencement speech in 1986, click here.

Earle Bruce (1979-1987) – When Bruce was recruited by Penn State during his senior season of high school in Cumberland, Md., Nittany Lions head coach Joe Bedenk sent an assistant coach to make first contact. That assistant’s name – believe it or not – was Earl Bruce. Bedenk was head coach at Penn State for only the 1949 season after which he requested to return to his old position as line coach. Bruce (the one without the “e” at the end of his first name) served as interim coach for spring practice until new head coach Rip Engel was hired away from Brown. Engel, of course, brought with him to Happy Valley a young assistant coach named Joe Paterno.

John Cooper (1988-2000) – It seems like Cooper spent all of his life in the coaching profession beginning as a college assistant in 1962 and serving at eight different schools over the next 39 years. Before that, he was a gritty running back and safety at Iowa State. After graduating from high school and spending two years serving in the U.S. Army, Cooper enrolled at Iowa State on a football scholarship and quickly became one of the Cyclones’ best players. He played both offense and defense and was a member of the school’s famed “Dirty Thirty,” the 1959 squad that finished 7-3 including upsets of Nebraska and Colorado. Cooper was a sophomore on that team, and went on to captain the 1961 team most remembered for beating Oklahoma in Norman, the Cyclones’ first win there in 30 years.

Jim Tressel (2001-present) – Like Hayes, it’s difficult to come up with anything about Tressel that isn’t already well-known. But … Did you know Tressel graduated cum laude from Baldwin Wallace with a degree in education? Did you know that during his tenure at Youngstown State he shifted a game against Akron to Friday night one season when it was originally scheduled for the same day as the OSU-Michigan game? Did you know that his boyhood idol was Rex Kern? And did you know that Lee and Jim Tressel make up the only father-son combination ever to win NCAA national championships?

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays today include U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, actors Gene Wilder and Hugh Laurie (“House”), former race car driver Jackie Stewart, ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, 2006 U.S. Open champion golfer Geoff Ogilvy, former Connecticut and current WNBA star Diana Taurasi, New York Mets shortstop José Reyes and current movie heartthrob Shia LeBeouf.

June 11 also marks the birthday of Vince Lombardi, considered one of the greatest football coaches of all-time. Lombardi was born Vincent Thomas Lombardi in Brooklyn and considered the priesthood as a teenager. But after two years in a secondary program to become a priest, Lombardi transferred to St. Francis Prep where he became a star football player.

He played college ball at Fordham University where he was one of the fabled “Seven Blocks of Granite,” and in 1939 got his first coaching job as an assistant at Englewood (N.J.) St. Cecilia High School. He later held college coaching jobs at Fordham and West Point before joining the New York Giants’ staff in 1954. Five years later, he became head coach for the Green Bay Packers and guided the team to five NFL titles in the seven-year span between 1961 and 1967.

Lombardi stepped down as Packers head coach following the 1967 season but stayed with the franchise through 1968 as general manager. The following year, he returned to coaching with the Washington Redskins and guided that team to its first winning season in 14 years.

It was to be his only season with the Redskins, however. In June 1970, Lombardi was diagnosed with an aggressive form of intestinal cancer and he died just 10 weeks later on Sept. 3, 1970, at the age of 57.

AND FINALLY

** Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow insists jockey Kent Desormeaux is to blame for the horse finishing last in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Desormeaux, who eased up Big Brown with a quarter-mile to go, has said that he “had no horse. He was empty.” So, who to believe? Dutrow, whose racing success dates back only to 2004? Or Desormeaux, who is a Hall of Fame jockey with nearly 5,000 victories in thoroughbred races? We’ll probably never know because Big Brown isn’t talking.

** Longtime Pacific 10 commissioner Tom Hansen has announced that he will retire next summer after 26 years on the job. Hansen started working for the conference in the early 1960s when it was known as the Big Five and had only five teams – California, Stanford, Washington, UCLA and USC. Coupled with the announced retirement of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is seeing a couple of his allies against a Division I-A playoff begin to disappear.

** Did you know that NFL Films founder Ed Sabol was a three-year letterman at Ohio State in swimming? It’s true. Sabol, who set a world high school record in the 100-yard freestyle at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J., competed for the Buckeyes and legendary swim coach Mike Peppe from 1935-37, and was a member of the 1937 Big Ten championship team in the 400 relay. After graduation, he had a brief career as a Broadway actor, served in World War II and worked as a clothing salesman out of his father’s factory. In 1962, Sabol founded Blair Motion Pictures, a company that two years later became NFL Films.

** In honor of what would have been Lombardi’s 95th birthday, I leave you with one of his most notable quotations: “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”

Earle Bruce = FBI Man?

If it hadn’t been for Woody Hayes and his do-the-right-thing character, Earle Bruce might have joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 1949, Bruce finished a high school career at his native Cumberland, Md., as a star running back and track star. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. How could that guy have been a track star? Well, in those days, Bruce was 5-9 and 155 pounds and never lost a 220-yard dash in three years of high school. He was beaten only once in the 100.

That kind of speed got him noticed by college football coaches and Bruce always figured he would go to his home-state school of Maryland. But he was turned off by a meeting with Terrapins head coach Jim Tatum and decided to explore other options. Bruce went with a teammate on an official visit to Ohio State where he met head coach Wes Fesler.

Two things impressed the youngster about Fesler – the coach called him by his childhood nickname “Lefty,” and later sent him a telegram on his birthday. That was all Bruce needed to make up his mind.

He spent the 1950 season on the Ohio State freshman team, trying to learn Fesler’s single-wing offense. At the end of the season, Bruce sat in frigid Ohio Stadium as the Buckeyes lost a 9-3 decision to Michigan in what has become known as the Snow Bowl. A few weeks later, Fesler resigned and Hayes was named as his replacement.

Bruce was still down the depth chart at halfback, behind such notables as future Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz, and expected that he would be moved to flanker or a receiver position to take advantage of his speed. Then in August 1951, about a month before the Buckeyes’ season opener against SMU, Bruce was taking part in practice drills when he slipped on the grass and twisted his knee.

At first, team trainers believed the injury was a simple muscle pull. But several days later, the pain had yet to subside and Bruce sought a second opinion. He had suffered cartilage damage to the joint and the meniscus tendon had been torn away from the bone. Today, he would have undergone reconstructive surgery and returned the following season. In 1951, that was a career-ending injury.

Knowing he was no longer of use to the Buckeyes, Bruce packed his bags and returned home to Cumberland. By the time he got there, Hayes had already called and left a message with Bruce’s mother – get your carcass back to Columbus, finish your education and help coach the team.

In those days, injured players typically lost their scholarship. Hayes didn’t follow that philosophy, however, believing that schools and coaches should honor their commitments. Bruce re-joined the team as a student assistant with no formal title. As he continued his education, he wasn’t thinking about coaching as a profession. He was considering law school and a career with the FBI.

But when he began enjoying his role on the coaching staff, Bruce decided to transfer out of OSU’s Arts College and into Health and Physical Education.

He graduated from Ohio State in 1953 and landed his first (paying) coaching job as an assistant at Mansfield (Ohio) High School. Bruce would later become head coach at three high schools in Ohio – Salem, Sandusky and Massillon – before returning to Columbus in 1966 to rejoin Hayes’ staff.

Bruce became a college head coach in 1972 and served stints at five different schools for the next two decades including nine seasons at Ohio State from 1979-87 during which the Buckeyes posted a 81-26-1 record. Overall, Bruce had a 154-90-2 record as a college head coach, and took four different schools to bowl games where he had a 12-5 record.

In 2002, he received one of the sports highest honors when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bruce is one of only six former Ohio State coaches in the hall – John W. Wilce, Francis A. Schmidt, Howard Jones, John Cooper and Hayes are the others. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even consider becoming a coach until being coaxed into it.

In the end, the FBI’s loss was Hayes’ – and college football’s – gain.

JUNIOR GETS NO. 600

I have never quite understood why many Cincinnati Reds fans loathe Ken Griffey Jr. He was named to the All-Century Team, owns 10 Gold Gloves, has made 13 All-Star teams and took a huge pay cut to play for his hometown team. Yes, he has been injured – a lot – since joining the Reds in 2000 and the team has finished above .500 only once since he has been in Cincinnati.

But it’s not like the guy was trying to get injured. Even at the age of 38, I contend Junior remains one of the top 50-75 players in the game. And he has accomplished all that he has without the slightest whiff of any controversy – something that has unfortunately become all too rare in the so-called steroid era.

So when Griffey hit his 600th career home run last night at Florida, it gave me pause. He became only the sixth player in major league history to reach that plateau, and if you consider the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, Junior joined an elite group that includes only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. When you earn admission into a club with that kind of exclusivity, you have staked your claim to be called one of the game’s all-time greats.

Here are some little-known facts about the 600 home run club:

Ruth needed only 2,044 at-bats to reach 600. Sosa was next at 2,302 followed by Bonds at 2,394. Griffey hit his 600th in his 2,439th career at-bat and that was faster than either Mays (2,557) or Aaron (2,592).

Ruth, of course, became the first MLB player ever to reach to the 600 mark, hitting that historic homer Aug. 21, 1931, off pitcher George Blaeholder of the St. Louis Browns. It would be more than 38 years before another player would join Ruth in the 600 club. Mays took San Diego’s Mike Corkins deep on Sept. 22, 1969.

On April 27, 1971, Aaron hit his 600th on a pitch (probably greased up) from future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who was pitching for San Francisco at the time. Another 31 years would go by before Bonds connected off Kip Wells of Pittsburgh for his 600th on Aug. 9, 2002. And just last year, on June 20, Sosa cracked No. 600 of his career on a pitch served up by Jason Marquis of the Cubs.

Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker hit 242 homers in his career, but has a direct connection to four members in the 600 club. He has managed Griffey, Bonds and Sosa, and was the on-deck hitter for the Braves when Aaron slugged No. 715 to pass Ruth on April 8, 1974.

GRADUATION CONGRATULATIONS

Among the several thousand graduates who picked up diplomas Sunday at Ohio State’s spring commencement ceremonies were 14 football players – Alex Barrow, Matt Daniels, Mike Doss, T.J. Downing, Matt Drummelsmith, Dan Dye, Dionte Johnson, Devin Jordan, Mike Kudla, Ryan Lukens, Devon Lyons, Jon Skinner, A.J. Trapasso and Brent Ullery.

Another freshly minted graduate’s names you might recognize – basketball player Matt Terwilliger.

Congratulations to these current and former Buckeyes, just a small fraction of the 115 student-athletes who graduated Sunday.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Birthday wishes go out today to an eclectic mix that includes Price Philip of Edinburgh (Queen Elizabeth’s better half), famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, former NFL quarterback and noted Ohio State hater Dan Fouts, disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, actress Elizabeth Hurley, former Cincinnati Reds second baseman Pokey Reese and Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Tara Lipinski.

Among those passing into history on this day were such notables as actor Spencer Tracy, playwright William Inge, novelist Louis L’Amour, Mafia kingpin John Gotti, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson, singer Ray Charles and Alexander the Great.

SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO TODAY

It was June 10, 1944, and nearly every able-bodied young man in the United States was either in Europe or the Pacific fighting in World War II. That meant the talent pool in major league baseball was diluted enough that the Cincinnati Reds allowed a skinny kid from nearby Hamilton to suit up for a game.

Sixty-eight years ago, 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall – just a few days removed from completing the ninth grade – pitched two-thirds of an inning against the St. Louis Cardinals and became the youngest player in modern major league history. (In 1887, Fred Chapman pitched five innings for the Philadelphia A’s at the tender age of 14. It was his only major-league appearance.)

Nuxhall’s line for the game: two hits, five walks, two wild pitches and five earned runs that translated into an ERA of 67.50. Nuxhall actually recorded an out against the first man he faced, then gave up a walk before pitching to outfielder Stan Musial. The future Hall of Famer greeted the youngster with a solid single to right, a hit Nuxhall later described as “an absolute rocket. He blistered it.”

Nuxhall was sent to the minors after his lone appearance and didn’t return to the majors until eight years later.

Nuxhall’s debut wasn’t that unusual in 1944. He was one of eight National Leaguers who played in their first major league games that season at the age of 17 or less. The most famous of those was probably infielder Granny Hamner, who had a 17-year career playing mostly for the Philadelphia Phillies. Hamner made his debut Sept. 14, 1944, at the age of 17.

Most baseball fans remember Nuxhall as only a broadcaster – the Ol’ Lefthander who would butcher names and unabashedly root for the Reds. But he put together a pretty nice major-league career that lasted 16 years.

Pitching mostly for Cincinnati, he appeared in 526 games and fashioned a 135-117 record and 19 saves to go along with a 3.90 ERA. Nuxhall’s best season came in 1963 when, at the age of 34, he went 15-8 with a career-low 2.61 ERA.

Unfortunately for him, Nuxhall pitched in the Reds organization when it was not a consistent winner (kind of like now). Cincinnati won the National League pennant in 1961 and played the New York Yankees in the World Series, but Nuxhall had been shipped to the Kansas City Athletics three months before that season began.

He went 5-8 with a 5.34 ERA for the A’s in 1961, a performance that got him released in December of that year. Nuxhall was signed as a free agent by Baltimore before the 1962 season but the Orioles released him late in spring training. He was picked up later that day by the Los Angeles Angels and appeared in five games with them, posting no record and a 10.13 ERA. The Angels gave him his unconditional release in mid-May and the Reds gave him a contract in June.

That began a continuous 45-year run for Nuxhall as a player and broadcaster for the Reds that ended with his death last November at the age of 79.

AND FINALLY

** If you’re into quirks of fate, I received a copy of Orange Bowl Insider yesterday in the mail. Since Ohio State has appeared in the Orange Bowl only once, and that was way back in 1977, I can only assume I got on the mailing list because of the other game the Orange Bowl folks are hosting this coming season – the BCS National Championship Game.

** Did you know that the Pac-10 has “associate members” for wrestling? I didn’t either but it seems that Boise State, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Bakersfield, Portland State and UC Davis each compete for the annual Pac-10 wrestling championship. In fact, Boise State won this year’s title while Cal Poly senior Chad Mendes was named conference wrestler of the year.

** Remember Washington quarterback Jake Locker, the virtual one-man team for the Huskies? Locker is spending his summer playing center field for the Bellingham (Wash.) Bells, a team in a special league designed for college players. Locker has the blessing of U-Dub head coach Tyrone Willingham to play in the league with one caveat – the strong-armed lefty is not allowed to pitch.

** The famed Madison Square Garden in New York City is hoping its $500 million renovation project will help it land some future NCAA Tournament games, perhaps the East Regional championship in 2012 or 2013. MSG, site of the annual postseason NIT, last hosted an NCAA tourney game in 1961.

** Why does sour cream have a sell-by date? And what does it become after that date? Sour cottage cheese?

No Early Signing Period For Football

For all of their pronouncements about superiority in college football, the Southeast Conference sure seems to get things wrong an awful lot.

Take this ridiculous idea about an early signing period for football that SEC coaches wanted before the conference presidents and athletic directors summarily rejected it. Those coaches aren’t being the least bit protective of high school prospects by wanting an early signing period. Their reason – and their only reason – for espousing such a proposal is to protect themselves from themselves.

Coaches in that part of the country are commonly referred to in the profession as “poachers.” In other words, no verbal commitment is safe with those guys around. Last year, for example, more than a dozen prospects de-committed from SEC schools to sign with other schools in the same conference.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban ran off with the unofficial national championship in recruiting this year because he wrested a bunch of top prospects away from his SEC rivals. Among Saban’s recruiting haul this past February were outside linebacker Jerrelle Harris of Gadsden, Ala., defensive tackle Marcel Dareus of Birmingham (Ala.) Huffman, defensive end Michael Williams of Reform (Ala.) Pickens County and five-star receiver Julio Jones of Foley, Ala. Each of those four players were highly rated performers by Scout.com, and each one selected Alabama over the scholarship offers of at least one other SEC rival school. In the case of Jones, he selected the Crimson Tide over conference rivals Auburn, Florida and LSU

Only three of the 12 SEC coaches against the early signing proposal – Bobby Petrino of Arkansas, Steve Spurrier of South Carolina and Urban Meyer of Florida – and Meyer went on the record with his opposition.

“I think recruiting should be done in December, January and February,” he said. “I think it speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives. To squeeze them, to press them, to say you’ve got to get it done now – I just don’t believe in that. My daughter is going through recruiting right now. If someone ever does that to her, it’s going to be a tough phone call. Take your time. Take your trips.”

Not surprising Meyer would say something like that. He is a well-known poacher from his days at Utah. Two years ago, Meyer’s recruiting class of 2007 contained eight players who de-committed from other programs including safety Jerimy Finch of Indianapolis Warren who changed his mind twice – first committing to Michigan then switching to home-state Indiana before finally signing with the Gators.

Even with the poachers around, it seems that waiting until National Signing Day benefits the prospect more than an early signing period, especially a marginal or so-called off-the-radar pick. Anyone with even a passing interest in recruiting can identify the five-star prospects. By waiting until later in the process, the ones who may take a little longer to mature can go through their senior seasons, take their full allotment of official and unofficial visits and make what they hope can be a measured, thoughtful decision.

There are other drawbacks to an early signing period. What if a coach gets fired? What if a program gets put on probation? There are any number of mitigating circumstances that could change a prospect’s mind between September and the following February.

Even Joe Paterno agrees and he was victimized last year by a poacher in his own conference. Four-star running back Michael Shaw of Trotwood (Ohio) Trotwood-Madison had committed to Penn State the summer before his senior season but changed his mind after a visit to Michigan in January.

SAYING GOODBYE

One of the reasons why you are reading this blog is because of Jim McKay. Growing up in the 1960s, there wasn’t much to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon except watch old black and white movies on television. But in the late afternoon came a ray of sunshine in the form of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, hosted by McKay.

Whether it was log rolling at some lumberjack camp in Vermont, the Indianapolis 500 or the 24 hours of Le Mans, McKay always seemed to be having the time of his life as he reported from some far-off place I’d never heard of. It was about that time when I decided if I couldn’t have a career as a professional athlete, I could at least have one in sports journalism.

As you have no doubt heard by now, McKay died Saturday at his home in Maryland at the age of 86. During his illustrious career, he won 13 Emmy awards, earned induction in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and hosted Wide World of Sports for more than 40 years. Although I never met the man, I felt a sense of loss when I heard the news of his passing. It was like I lost a sort of a mentor over the weekend.

Today also marks the ninth anniversary of the passing of another man who was influential in my life. He is the person who taught me how to throw a baseball, the person who encouraged my writing and the person who first introduced me to Ohio State athletics. Many people come up to me today and tell me how much I remind them of my father. I consider that a compliment of the highest regard because I figure if I can be one-tenth the man he was, I’ll have turned out all right. As I told him the last time I saw him, I have been and always will be proud to be his son.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Happy 27th birthday today to actress Natalie Portman, who has an interesting connection to Ohio State. Portman’s father, Avner Hershlag, who is an Israeli doctor specializing in fertility and reproduction, was visiting OSU in the late 1970s when he attended an event at the Jewish student center on campus. Selling tickets to the event was Shelley Stevens. The two met and began a relationship that continued even after Hershlag returned to Israel. The two eventually married and daughter Natalie was born June 9, 1981, in Jerusalem. The family moved to the United States three years later and Natalie began acting in films at the age of 13, taking her grandmother’s maiden name Portman as her professional name.

Others celebrating birthdays today are guitar pioneer Les Paul, former baseball player and manager Bill Virdon, college basketball loudmouth Dick Vitale, former Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Dave Parker, prolific crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, actors Michael J. Fox and Johnny Depp, San Francisco Giants outfielder Randy Winn, Chicago Cubs infielder Mike Fontenot, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and New England Patriots linebacker Tedi Bruschi.

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY

On this day, exactly 35 years ago, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a whopping 31 lengths and became the first winner of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown since Citation in 1948.

In the wake of Big Brown’s big loss at Saturday’s Belmont, I feel sorry for those of you who weren’t around to watch Secretariat run. The chestnut colt, nicknamed “Big Red,” still holds the record times in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and might have the Preakness mark as well had the timer not malfunctioned the day of the race.

On his way to a still-standing Churchill Downs record of 1:59 2/5 over a mile and a quarter, Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. That means he was accelerating throughout the race. No other horse ran the Derby in less than two minutes for another 28 years.

I can still remember track announcer Chic Anderson’s famous call at the Belmont that included the classic line, “(Secretariat) is moving like a tremendous machine.” You can relive Anderson’s magical call thanks to YouTube. Here is your link: Secretariat’s Belmont Run. It still gives me chills.

Secretariat won 16 of the 21 races he entered during his career, and finished in the money 20 times. He retired to stud (now there’s the life) in 1974 and lived out his days at Claiborne Farm just outside Paris, Ky., where he died in 1989 at the age of 19.

AND FINALLY

** Once again, almost as if these things are scripted, you needed only to watch the final two minutes of last night’s NBA Finals. Of course, you also needed to stay up until midnight proving why the NFL remains the No. 1 spectator sport in this country. Their one-game championship begins at 6:30 p.m. and is over by 10:30 p.m. Basketball and baseball insist upon beginning their championship series at 8:30 p.m. in the East, stretching those outcomes to midnight or after. Hardcore fans will watch but to sustain your game, you have to bring in the casual fan … and the casual fan isn’t staying up past midnight to watch the outcome of a game that will be replayed a hundred times the next day.

** According to his blog, Greg Oden has a major league crush on singer Rihanna and had a chance to meet her backstage after a concert in Portland. How did the big guy do with the leggy singer? Let’s just say his moves seem to be limited to the court. In his own words, when he met Rihanna, “I froze up. I had all this great stuff in my head about what I was gonna say to her, but none of it came out. I could (have) punched myself.”

** John McCain or Barack Obama, are you listening? If you want my vote in November, do something about the ceaseless spam I find in my inbox every Monday morning. Find a way to eliminate the emails about fake Rolexes and penis enlargements and you have my support.

Rex Kern: Great Guy, Great Stories

I could list any number of reasons why Rex Kern was one of my heroes while I was growing up. First and foremost, of course, was the fact that he led Ohio State to the 1968 national championship. Every kid I knew tried to emulate Kern’s swashbuckling style on the field and anyone who played quarterback in those days – whether in organized football on in the backyard – wanted to wear a No. 10 jersey in tribute.

In my years with Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I have become lucky enough to become friends with my boyhood idol. Rex graciously consented to write the forward for my upcoming book, “When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.” The book is already available online at most of the major booksellers and will be on bookshelves in August.

One of the many stories Rex told me during our correspondence last spring was one I’d never heard before. It concerned an injury he sustained during practice for the Rose Bowl date with Southern Cal and its Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson.

Rex told me that as the team was preparing on its first day of bowl practice, the running backs were having a tackling drill. The quarterbacks were not involved in the drill, he said, and weren’t paying much attention to it.

“But everyone was pumped up, we were going to the Rose Bowl, Woody had turned the heat up in French Fieldhouse to about 98-plus degrees and he somehow decided it was a good idea to have the quarterbacks hit the tackling dummy,” Rex said. “Fired up and not knowing any better, we ran over to Woody and got ready to hit the tackling dummy.”

Kern was the starter, so he was first in line. He ran the few yards and flew into the tackling dummy before promptly falling to the ground in a heap. Woody came running up in a panic as his prized quarterback was writhing in pain and asked what had happened. Kern told him he thought he had dislocated his shoulder.

“Oh s**t! Oh s**t! Oh s**t!” the coach yelled, causing longtime trainer Ernie Biggs to run over to tend to Kern. When Biggs confirmed that Kern had indeed separated his shoulder – his non-throwing left shoulder, thank goodness – Woody stood up, shook his head, sighed, and then in true fashion said, “All right, you quarterbacks. That’s enough of that for today.”

Rex said he couldn’t practice at all until the team arrived on the West Coast, and even then had to wear a special harness that wouldn’t allow him to raise his left arm any higher than a 90-degree angle. The harness took some getting used to but worked almost to perfection during the game – except at the end of the third quarter when Kern got hit on the shoulder, dislocated the joint again. But he ran to the sideline where Biggs quickly reset the shoulder. He didn’t miss a play and the Buckeyes went on to win the game, 27-16, and the national championship.

In the contest, Kern completed 9 of 15 passes for 101 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and added 35 yards rushing. No wonder he was voted the game’s MVP and later inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

MY TOP TEN BUCKEYE QUARTERBACKS

That brings me to what will be a regular feature of the blog – the top 10 Ohio State players ever at each position. Here are my top 10 quarterbacks in order. How does the list stack up with yours?

1. Art Schlichter (1978-81) – What he has done after leaving school haunts him, but the guy was a whale of athletic ability. He never won a national championship and was only 1-3 in bowl games, but Schlichter still holds the school records for most yardage in a single game, most career passing yards and most career total offense – all more than a quarter-century after he played his last game. You have to wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up had the Buckeyes been willing to throw the ball more.

2. Troy Smith (2003-06) – The Heisman Trophy and three straight victories over Michigan pretty much speak for themselves. Smith came to Ohio State with a tempestuous persona and somewhat checkered past and turned himself into a model citizen. Along the way, he also transformed himself from a runner who could throw to one of the most productive passers in school history.

3. Rex Kern (1968-70) – He wasn’t the fastest guy on the team and didn’t have the strongest arm. What set Kern apart was his sheer determination – a will to win. And win the Buckeyes did when he was under center. It is a common misconception that Kern started every game between 1968 and ’70 – injuries put backup Ron Maciejowski into the lineup on several occasions during that span and Mace deserves his due for that. But Kern was the undisputed leader and there is no doubt that the Buckeyes were 27-2 during that three-year stretch because of him.

4. Bobby Hoying (1992-95) – The benefactor of Ohio State’s offensive firepower in the mid-1990s, Hoying probably doesn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. After all, he does hold the school records for most career completions and most TD passes while standing second all-time to Schlichter in career passing yardage – 7,547 for Art to 7,232 for the so-called Hoy Wonder – and finished 10th in the Heisman balloting in 1995, the same year teammate Eddie George won the award.

5. Cornelius Greene (1973-75) – Archie Griffin got all the publicity, Pete Johnson scored all the touchdowns, and Greene was the fire that lit the fuse on the Buckeyes in the mid-1970s. He was the first African-American to start at quarterback for Ohio State and he was an electrifying blur of kinetic energy. All you need to know about Greene’s value to the team can be summed up in the fact that Griffin voted for him as team MVP in 1975. That’s how Corny came to be Big Ten player of the year the same year Archie won his second Heisman.

6. Joe Germaine (1996-98 )– No one ever squeezed more talent out of their right arm than Germaine. I can still remember the beating he took from Florida State in the 1998 Sugar Bowl. But he kept coming back and coming back, and broke a bunch of school records the following fall. His 3,330 yards that season ranks as the best all-time in Ohio State history – not bad for a guy who had to start his college career at the JUCO level because no one wanted to give him a scholarship to play quarterback.

7. Don Unverferth (1963-65) – A player whose athletic legacy has largely been forgotten, Unverferth was a strong-armed quarterback out of Dayton. As a sophomore, he ran for the winning touchdown in OSU’s 14-10 victory at Michigan in 1963 and then engineered a 9-7 win at Ann Arbor two years later. When he finished his career, he had set the school career record with 2,518 passing yards. The mark stayed on the books for 16 years until Schlichter broke it midway through the 1979 season. After his football career ended, Unverferth went on to graduate No. 1 in his class from the OSU Medical School and became a world-renowned cardiologist at University Medical Center. He died in 1988 and the Unverferth House on the university campus was dedicated in May 1989 in his honor.

8. Mike Tomczak (1981-84) – Mikey suffered from being forced to follow Schlichter as quarterback for the Buckeyes and from the fact the team seemed to underachieve during his tenure. Nevertheless, Tomczak was the catalyst for a couple of ultra-talented rosters that featured such stars as Tim Spencer, Keith Byars, John Frank, Jim Lachey, Cris Carter, Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman, William Roberts, Marcus Marek, Garcia Lane and Kirk Lowdermilk.

9. Greg Frey (1987-90) – This guy is never mentioned among the best QBs in school history because he is associated with an era when the Buckeyes quite frankly weren’t very good. Still, he remains the only player in the history of the program to produce three consecutive seasons with 2,000 or more passing yards. Also forgotten is Frey coming off the bench as a freshman for a 19-yard completion to Vince Workman late in the 1987 Michigan game, an important third-down conversion in the Buckeyes’ march for the game-winning field goal in Earle Bruce’s final game as head coach.

10. William “Tippy” Dye (1934-36) – Hey, the guy beat Michigan three times in a row. That’s good enough to make anyone’s top 10 list. He was also a three-time letterman in basketball at OSU and a two-time letterwinner in baseball. And how did he get the nickname? The answer comes later in the blog.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

A big ol’ bunch of birthdays today include singer Tom Jones (always one of my mom’s favorites), former talk show host Jenny Jones, actor Liam Neeson, eponymous singer/songwriter Prince, professional wrestler Mick Foley, Dallas Stars captain Mike Modano, Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson, and comely former tennis star Anna Kournikova.

On Sunday, the birthday parade is led by Butch Reynolds, the former world record holder in the 400 meters and former speed coach on Jim Tressel’s football staff. Butch, who was born Harry Reynolds in Columbus on June 8, 1964, set the 400-meter record at 43.29 seconds on Aug. 17, 1988. It stood for 11 years until broken by Michael Johnson in 1999 at 43.18.

Also celebrating Sunday are former first lady Barbara Bush, comic legend Jerry Stiller, former comic legend Joan Rivers, singer Nancy Sinatra (Frank’s daughter), gravelly-voiced single Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”), actor/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes, former NFL defensive back Troy Vincent, tennis players Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters, and Grammy Award-winning rapper Kanye West.

AND FINALLY

** Here is the answer to how Tippy Dye got his nickname. He was born William Henry Harrison Dye, named after the nation’s ninth president. William Henry Harrison’s nickname was “Tippecanoe” – hence the shortened version of “Tippy” for Mr. Dye.

** Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese will step down next summer and his replacement may already be known. Dan Gavitt, son of Basketball Hall of Famer and Big East founder Dave Gavitt, would appear to have the inside track. The younger Gavitt is currently the Big East’s associate commissioner for basketball, and the only perceived hang-up for him is a lack of experience football-wise.

** Did you wonder what happened to Kelvin Sampson after he was forced to resign from Indiana in disgrace? Did he have to slink home to rural North Carolina and get a job flipping burgers? Nope. He accepted a position as assistant coach on Scott Skiles’ staff with the Milwaukee Bucks. Some disgrace, huh?

** If you had Florida outfielder Cody Ross on your fantasy team during the month of May, my congratulations. After hitting only .159 in April, Ross went 14 for 50 during May, good for a .280 batting average. Better still was the fact that 10 of Ross’ 14 hits during the month were home runs. He didn’t hit any in April.

** Remember: It’s never just a game when you’re winning.

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