Time For Ohio State To Prove It’s The Best

I’m not usually in the habit of posting my columns from Buckeye Sports Bulletin here on my blog. However, I have received several emails asking me to reprint the column I wrote for our Football Preview issue.

Evidently, people liked it and wanted me to share with those who may not have seen it. Here it is:

Dear Buckeyes,

This is an open letter to you and your coaching staff, one that I would think many members of the Buckeye Nation would write if they had the opportunity.

It will not be a love letter, however. It will contain the cold, hard truth and hopefully you can use it as some small piece of motivation for the upcoming 2008 season.

Most of the college football world has reduced Ohio State football to something of a water cooler joke. As difficult as it may seem for a program that has won 32 of its last 35 regular-season games, taken home three Big Ten championship trophies in a row and reached back-to-back BCS National Championship Games, much of the nation at large is laughing at you.

You are seen as big, lumbering plowboys whose coaching staff doesn’t have the first clue about how to stop spread offenses or speedy teams from the South.

Is that fair? Absolutely not. The truth of the matter is that it is incredibly unfair.

However, in this day and age of instant gratification where the lines are so blurred between perception and reality that they are often interchangeable, the reality is that you have lost back-to-back title games and didn’t look very good either time.

Therefore, the national perception is that what you have accomplished over the past couple of years is nothing more than a fluke and anything less than an undefeated Ohio State team in 2008 is undeserving of another chance to play for the national championship.

It seems to me, therefore, that you have one option and one option only – you need to win all of your games this year.

I know that task is much easier said than done. In the entire history of Ohio State football, there have been but five teams to make it through an entire season without a loss or tie, and there have been only two in the last 40 years.

Consider, however, the alternative of anything less than perfection. There are thousands upon thousands of former Buckeyes who won more than their share of games during their careers. There are only a select few, however, who earned the right to be called national champions. It’s a life-altering experience that money can’t buy.

And I’m not talking about momentary glory. I’m talking about the pride you will carry until the day you take your last breath. I’m talking about the special place where you will reside – not only today but for all time – in the hearts of fans of the scarlet and gray.

By all rights, you should be the latest team in an ongoing Ohio State football dynasty. You should be embarking upon a season for the ages. You should be playing for college football immortality. You should be playing for the school’s fifth national championship in seven years.

No one who witnessed the wild championship ride in 2002 would dispute the fact that the Buckeyes of that season overachieved themselves into a national title. Talent-wise, that team couldn’t hold a candle to you. Somehow, though, they kept finding ways to win. Maybe it was because they weren’t supposed to. The point is that they did.

The following year could have been just as magical had it not been for the Maurice Clarett circus and all of the anguish it caused the program. With a healthy and clear-headed Clarett in 2003, there is no doubt in my mind that OSU would have made a run at back-to-back national championships. Even with all of the turmoil on and off the field, the Buckeyes lost only twice – to Wisconsin and Michigan – and both times because they couldn’t muster any kind of running attack. The Badgers held them to 69 yards in a 17-10 loss at Madison, and they managed only 54 on the ground in a 35-21 loss at Ann Arbor.

I will concede that neither 2004 nor 2005 had national championship potential. But you cannot convince me that your team couldn’t have and shouldn’t have won the title in the 2006 and ’07 seasons, campaigns that were totally different in terms of personnel but remarkably similar when it came to wins and losses.

Many of you were around in 2006 when the team featured some of the most explosive players in the history of the program. Yet, somehow, some way, when it came time to step on college football’s biggest stage, the team played like some sixth-place finisher from a mid-major conference. If anyone who participated in that lame performance is not ashamed of himself, perhaps organized athletics is not your calling.

I watched Ohio State play every game of that 2006 season and I also had a pretty good working knowledge of the Florida team it played that night in Arizona. Even knowing what I know now, I would have a tough time picking the Gators to win that game if the teams were matched against one another again next week.

To be perfectly blunt, that game should have been a victory for you, that season should have ended with a national championship, and the fact that it didn’t still leaves the sourest of tastes some 20 months later.

That 2006 team was seemingly invincible but evidently didn’t have the will to finish what would have been a season Buckeye fans would have continued talking about for decades.

Then there is last season. Most of you guys who made up the nucleus of that team overachieved your way to the national championship game – much like the 2002 squad did. As the victories began to pile up, most people quickly forgot all the dark clouds that hung over the program this time last year. No one knew how you were going to replace a Heisman Trophy quarterback, two receivers that were first-round NFL draft picks, a 1,000-yard rusher and eight other starters.

Also, that schedule the so-called experts enjoyed bashing later on didn’t seem so easy at the start of the season. You had potential landmines including a road test at Washington, a dangerous team that had beaten OSU each of the previous two times the Buckeyes had visited Husky Stadium.

The Big Ten schedule-makers didn’t do you any favors, either. They had given you back-to-back road assignments beginning in late September with contests at Minnesota and Purdue, and heaped on the added task of making both of those games night-time affairs. You also had to make a trip to Penn State for another prime-time game under the lights, knowing full well that Happy Valley was the site of a 17-10 loss in 2005 that ended any hopes of your rematch with Texas in the national championship game that season.

And there was the season finale in Ann Arbor against a team with a bunch of talented seniors who wanted nothing more than to beat you in the final game of their careers at Michigan Stadium.

Yet with the one hiccup at home against Illinois, you found yourselves in the championship game again, this time against a two-loss LSU team whose defense had been exposed by the likes of Kentucky and Arkansas. Those were the same Kentucky and Arkansas teams that finished last year with five losses apiece.

You all seemed to talk a good game before the title contest – the requisite indignation about the criticism-filled DVD compiled by the coaching staff, staying away from the party scene on Bourbon Street and insisting that going to New Orleans was nothing but a business trip.

Then adversity popped you in the mouth in the first half and LSU somehow managed to score 31 points in a row against a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 28 points in any of its previous games. Not that the offense was much help. While the Tigers were piling up all of those points, the offense was stuck in neutral. And I haven’t forgotten special teams. A blocked field goal and a roughing penalty on an LSU punt just poured gas on the fire.

The rest, as they say, is history and there is nothing you can do about it now. The only thing that remains within your control is your future, and despite what the babbling bobble heads on ESPN may say, your future is an extremely bright one.

No team in college football in 2008 has more talent than you. No team has more experience than you. No team has more returning starters than you. No team has more candidates for postseason awards than you. And no team has the chance to make more history than you.

I know that you have already made the sacrifices necessary to go for a national championship. I know about the countless hours in the weight room since late January, the gallons of sweat you’ve spent on the practice field during 7-on-7 drills this summer, the hours upon hours of film study.

But listen up, guys. Every young man who plays major college football makes those sacrifices. Those things alone don’t make national champions. You have to want it. You can’t just talk about wanting it. You have to want it – you have to want it so deep within your bone marrow that you’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to get it.

If you don’t want it that badly, you can resign yourself to personal glory and soothe yourself with a nice, fat NFL contract next year. After all, only one of Ohio State’s six Heisman Trophy winners ever won a national championship ring. Most of them came close, of course, but no one gets a trophy for getting close.

If you want it – truly want it – go out and get it. No team on your schedule – not even supposedly mighty USC – is as good as you are.

On paper, you are the best team in college football. All you have to do is go out and prove it.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to Don Grate, a star on the OSU basketball and baseball teams during the mid-1940s. Born Aug. 27, 1923, in Greenfield, Ohio, Grate was a two-time All-Big Ten performer in basketball and earned All-America honors in 1945. On the diamond, Grate was a storm-armed pitcher who logged 95 strikeouts in 89 career innings. Nicknamed “Buckeye,” Grate later appeared in seven games over two seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945 and ’46, and played two games in the NBA with the Sheboygan Redskins during the 1949-50 season. Grate also holds the world record for longest throw of a baseball – an incredible 445 feet, 1 inch, accomplished in August 1953.

Also celebrating birthdays today: keyboardist Daryl Dragon (the Captain half of Seventies hitmakers The Captain & Tennille); former Bond girl Barbara Bach (and Mrs. Ringo Starr); veteran character actor G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Rizzo on “M*A*S*H,” Lt. Harris in the “Police Academy” movies, and currently Detective Lt. Provenza on “The Closer”); Alabama guitarist and fiddle player Jeff Cook; former MLB third baseman and manager Buddy Bell; Texas football coach Mack Brown; actor Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman); tennis player John Lloyd (and ex-Mr. Chris Evert); two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer; actress Chandra Wilson (Dr. Miranda Bailey on “Grey’s Anatomy”); No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal; rapper Mase (born Mason Durrell Betha); Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome; and Olympic gold medal skier Jonny Moseley.

Today also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, born Aug. 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas, on the Perdernales River.

AND FINALLY

** Despite what you have heard, the NCAA has not ruled against Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk in his quest for a sixth year of eligibility. Mauk is going to get to plead his own case to the NCAA committee on Thursday, but when the governing body will rule is anyone’s guess. Even if he is granted a sixth season, it will be difficult for Mauk to be of much use to UC right away. He hasn’t been allowed to practice with the Bearcats, who open their season Thursday night against Eastern Kentucky.

** Jack Nicklaus believes that the U.S. will regain the Ryder Cup this year even without Tiger Woods. Quoted in the September issue of Golf Digest, Nicklaus said, “Tiger won’t be playing in the matches this year, of course. If he were, I’d consider the Americans big favorites. I still think they’ll win. I just believe we have better players. Europe has a lot of good players and a host of very promising young guys. But who among them has a great record?”

** Sorry to disagree with the Golden Bear, but I think the Americans get beat again. They put too much pressure on themselves during Ryder Cup week, pressure they are not accustomed to while cruising from fat paycheck to fat paycheck on the overly-cushy PGA Tour.

** If you like your spreads thick, check out the Kansas-Florida International contest during opening weekend of the college football season. The Jayhawks are as much as 37-point favorites over FIU, which went 1-11 last year and has lost 23 of its last 24 games. If there was ever a 37-point spread that was safe, it would be this one.

** Speaking of odds, Bodog.com is allowing fans to place wagers on the next NFL player to be arrested. Not surprisingly, re-signed Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry is the prohibitive favorite at 4-to-6. Others include Pacman Jones of Dallas (1-to-1), Tank Johnson of Dallas (2-to-1), Ray Lewis of Baltimore (5-to-1), Steve Smith of Carolina (5-to-1) and Kellen Winslow of Cleveland (6-to-1).

** When Bronson Arroyo went all nine innings last night in a 2-1 victory over Houston, the Cincinnati Reds became the last major league team to notch a complete game in 2008. It was the sixth complete game of Arroyo’s career. As a point of reference, Greg Maddux is the active leader in complete games with 109. The all-time leader is Cy Young with 749 … and, no, that’s not a misprint.

** Got an email this week from the National Baseball Hall of Fame about the 10 players, whose careers began in 1942 or earlier, who will be considered for election in December by the Veterans Committee. Among the names of the list are Vern Stephens, a slugging shortstop whose 15-year career between 1941 and 1955 was spent mainly with the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox. Stephens finished in the top 10 in the American League MVP voting six times over an eight-year span, was an eight-time All-Star and had three seasons when he drove in 137 runs or more. He led the Browns to their only AL pennant in 1944, and for the three-year period between 1948 and 1950, he averaged 33 homers, 147 RBI and hit .285 for the Red Sox. My only question: How is Vern Stephens not already in the Hall of Fame?

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