Happy Birthday, Archie!

In honor of Archie Griffin, who celebrates his 54th birthday today, here is another excerpt of my book, “When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.”

The book, which should be in bookstores next month, contains 20 chapters each devoted a player or coach and the one game that transformed him into a Buckeye legend. Archie’s chapter deals with his breakout performance as a freshman in 1972 against North Carolina.

That Archie Griffin became a star in only his second game at Ohio State may not be all that surprising to fans who have come to believe the two-time Heisman Trophy winner is the greatest player ever to wear the Scarlet and Gray.

It’s a minor miracle that Griffin was playing at all against North Carolina much less gaining a then single-game record 239 yards.

Griffin was one of the most highly-sought-after high school running backs in the nation after finishing a superlative prep career at Columbus Eastmoor. He gained 1,737 yards and scored 170 points during his senior year alone. The 5-10, 184-pound speedster quickly narrowed his choices from an estimated 150 scholarship offers to just three – the U.S. Naval Academy, Northwestern and Ohio State.

An appointment to the Naval Academy and the prestigious it carried made the Midshipmen an early favorite, but Griffin’s desire to play Big Ten football eliminated Rick Forzano’s Middies.

Northwestern head coach Alex Agase felt he had an excellent chance to get the star running back, but when longtime head coach Woody Hayes visited the Griffin home and discussed nothing but academics with Griffin’s parents, James and Margaret, as well as what Ohio State could do for their son – not the other way around – the Buckeyes had themselves a new running back.

Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however. During OSU’s 21-0 victory over Iowa in the 1972 season opener, Griffin was reduced to mop-up duty behind veterans Morris Bradshaw, Elmer Lippert, Rick Gales and Joe DeFillipo, and didn’t get into the game until late in the fourth quarter.

When the play “18 Sweep” was called in the huddle, Griffin was raring to go. He knew that he would get the ball on a pitchout and his thoughts quickly turned to breaking a long run and perhaps even scoring a touchdown on his first college carry.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Griffin couldn’t handle a low pitch from backup quarterback Dave Purdy, a fumble that Purdy eventually had to smother himself for a 5-yard loss. Hayes, who hated putting any emphasis whatsoever on untested players, watched film of the play over and over later that night and decided Griffin should have made the play. On the official stat sheet of the game, the coach personally crossed out the fumble and lost yardage that were charged to Purdy and credited them to Griffin.

At the team’s next practice, the freshman was so far down the running back depth chart that he wasn’t even on the depth chart. Griffin was listed on the freshman roster only and he began to wonder if he would ever get in another varsity game over the next four years.

He needn’t have worried.

The Buckeyes took a week off after their opening victory over Iowa and prepared to take on nonconference foe North Carolina. Thanks to an early start to their season, the Tar Heels already had three victories under their belts, including an emotional 34-33 win over instate rival North Carolina State the previous week. North Carolina had a talent-laden-roster in 1972 that included a pair of All-America offensive linemen in guard Ron Rusnak and Jerry Sain as well as five defenders who were first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference performers.

UNC was coached that year by Bill Dooley, who was in the sixth season of an 11-year tenure in Chapel Hill. Dooley, the brother of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, went on to coach at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before retiring after the 1992 season with a career record of 161-127-5.

It was an uncharacteristically raw late September day in the Horseshoe. The crowd of 86,180 squeezed into the stadium and huddled together as the thermometer struggled to get to the 50-degree mark. A stiff northwesterly breeze added to the chill in the air.

Things didn’t exactly warm up when Ohio State took the opening kickoff and did absolutely nothing with it. Bradshaw took a pitch around left end for 5 yards and got 3 more up the middle on second down. But the drive stalled when fullback Randy Keith was stopped after a 1-yard gain on third down and the Buckeyes were forced to punt.

North Carolina didn’t do any better on its first possession. In fact, the Tar Heels went in the wrong direction thanks to three illegal motion penalties before quickly punting the ball back to the Buckeyes.

But OSU was still stuck in first gear. A first-down run by Bradshaw netted only 1 yard, quarterback Greg Hare misfired on a long second-down pass and Bradshaw was stopped on third down after a short 3-yard gain.

The tempo of the game suddenly changed, however, on the next play. UNC’s Jimmy DeRatt broke through the Ohio State defense and blocked punter Gary Lago’s kick. The loose ball tumbled end over end back toward the OSU goal line where North Carolina co-captain Gene Brown was able to make a sliding recovery in the end zone. Ellis Alexander kicked the extra point and a suddenly silent Ohio Stadium crowd looked on as the Tar Heels had taken a 7-0 lead at the 9:37 mark of the first quarter.

To say Hayes was displeased would be akin to saying there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It would have been a gross understatement. The coach stomped his way up and down the sideline, jaw set, eyes narrowing into tiny slits, fists clenched. Then to emphasize his displeasure with the way his first-teamers were performing, he decided to send them a message.

Jumping all the way down the depth chart to the fifth-string halfback, thanks to more than a little cajoling from running backs coach Rudy Hubbard, Hayes barked, “Griffin! Get in there!”

The freshman was stunned. He had no preconceived notions about playing against the Tar Heels so soon after his miscue against Iowa. He hadn’t even stayed at the team hotel the night before, a privilege reserved only for those who were certain to play the following day. But as the initial shock of hearing Hayes yell his name gradually wore off, Griffin began to sprint onto the field. Only when an assistant coach stopped him did the freshman realize he was headed into battle without his helmet. That was quickly retrieved, the chinstrap buckled, and Griffin took his place in the offensive huddle.

He was eager atone for his mistake of two weeks earlier and didn’t waste time doing so.

Griffin’s first carry was infinitely better than the fumbled pitch in the season opener and resulted in a 6-yard sweep around left end. His second was a 6-yard burst over left guard Jim Kregel, and his third was another sweep around left end for 6 more yards. In his first three carries, Griffin had surpassed the team’s yardage total for its first two possessions combined.

But on a fourth straight carry, North Carolina managed to finally corral Griffin for no gain. On third-and-4, Hayes decided to change things up and called for an option pitch to wingback Rick Galbos, but it fell a yard shy of the first down and the Buckeyes were forced to punt again.

Still, the legendary Ohio State coach had finally stumbled upon a strategy that was working. It just so happened that it was an attack that Hayes held dear: a good, old-fashioned, run-the-ball-down-their-throats attack designed to give the ball to Griffin and keep giving it to him. Once the Buckeyes got the ball back, Hayes did exactly that.

The freshman quickly repaid his coach’s faith in him by breaking off a 32-yard scamper on the first play of OSU’s next drive. After a couple of short bursts on his first few carries, Griffin showcased his explosiveness by gliding through a hole between Kregel and left tackle Doug France, picking up a block from Galbos and breaking into the North Carolina secondary. That pushed the Buckeyes into enemy territory for the first time in the game, and they pushed even further when Hare faked a handoff to Griffin and completed his first pass of the afternoon, a quick toss to Galbos that the OSU wingback turned into a 17-yard gain.

Back Ohio State came with Griffin, who carried on each of the next six plays. First it was over left tackle for 2, then a cutback inside right guard for 8 followed by a slash over left guard for 4. Like a heavyweight boxer with his opponent on the ropes, Griffin continued to hit the Tar Heels from all angles, going over right guard for 3 yards, back to the left for 4 and then around left tackle for 4 more.

By the time the freshman running back was through, North Carolina’s defense was reeling back at its own 7-yard line. Griffin finally came out of the game for a short rest and the Buckeyes immediately seemed to slow down again. After a short 2-yard gain by Randy Keith and a third-down incompletion by Hare who overshot intended receiver Mike Bartoszek, the Buckeyes had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from kicker Blair Conway. Still, the kick finally got OSU on the scoreboard at 7-3 with just six seconds left before the end of the first period.

The team’s second score came much quicker. North Carolina took the ensuing kickoff and had good starting position at its own 36 before quickly moving out to near midfield. But on the fifth play of the drive, Ohio State linebacker Randy Gradishar tracked UNC quarterback Nick Vidnovic as he rolled out of the pocket to his right. Vidnovic evidently did not see Gradishar, however, because when he tried to get a pass to favorite target Ken Taylor in the flat, the Buckeye linebacker stepped in front of the would-be receiver to make the interception. Better still for OSU, Gradishar returned the pick 10 yards back inside Tar Heel territory at the 47.

Hare’s first-down swing pass to Griffin was too wide, but the Buckeyes came right back with their freshman sensation on second down and he followed blocks from sophomore fullback Harold “Champ” Henson and right guard Chuck Bonica for a 22-yard bolt. Two plays later, Griffin took another pitch and swept around left end for 8 more yards, setting up a third-and-2 at the UNC 17-yard line.

On the next play, the Tar Heels sniffed out a counter play and stopped Griffin for no gain. But this time Hayes didn’t want to settle for another field goal. He called for Hare to run the option, but rather than going left as the Buckeyes had so often during the possession, this time the play was going to the right. The Buckeye QB strung out the North Carolina defense to perfection, then after a quick faked option pitch to Griffin, Hare turned upfield, dodged a couple of would-be tacklers and danced into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.

Conway hooked his PAT attempt outside the left upright of the goal post, but Ohio State still enjoyed its first lead of the day with a 9-7 advantage at the 11:50 mark of the second quarter.

The Buckeyes had another scoring opportunity midway through the quarter and Griffin had a hand in it, gathering in a 17-yard pass reception on a third-and-9 play and adding a couple of carries for modest yardage. But on second-and-goal from the 5, Keith fumbled as he hit the line and the loose ball was recovered by North Carolina’s Ronnie Robinson to end the threat.

Meanwhile, the OSU defense had gotten itself untracked after some rough early going. The unit had limited the Tar Heels to just three first downs and only 81 total yards. Griffin had already surpassed those numbers all by himself by tallying six first downs and rushing for 111 yards on 16 first-half carries.

And he was just getting warmed up.

The hardcover book is scheduled to be released by the end of next month, but you can pre-order it right now (and for less money than you can buy it in bookstores). Amazon.com is also offering a special price when you buy it in tandem with Coach Tressel’s book, “The Winner’s Manual.

Click here for the details: When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Birthday shout-outs also go out today to actor Clarence Williams III (he’s played everything from Lincoln Hayes in the original “The Mod Squad” to Prince’s father in “Purple Rain”); TV producer and movie director Hugh Wilson (creator of “WKRP In Cincinnati” and director of the first film in the “Police Academy” series); would-be assassin Arthur Bremer; King Mohammed VI of Morocco; “The Early Show” co-anchor Harry Smith; former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon; Chicago Cubs righthander Jason Marquis; Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton; actress Kim Cattrall (man-hungry Samantha Jones in “Sex and the City”); actress Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity in “The “Matrix” movie trilogy); actress Hayden Panettiere (cheerleader Claire Bennet on “Heroes”); Google co-founder Sergey Brin; and country singer (and some would say Mark Rea lookalike) Kenny Rogers.

Several other luminaries who have passed into history also shared Aug. 21 birthdays. They include jazz pianist and bandleader William “Count” Basie; “Looney Toons” director Friz Freleng; sportscasters Jack Buck and Chris Schenkel; Princess Margaret of Great Britain; The Clash lead singer and guitarist Joe Strummer; and basketball great Wilt Chamberlain.

AND FINALLY

** Apparently Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has picked the least of his three evils by naming senior transfer Allan Evridge as his starting quarterback over junior Dustin Sherer and sophomore Scott Tolzien. The lefty-throwing Evridge won the starting nod despite a shaky scrimmage performance last Saturday, and despite the fact that dating back to his days as a starter at Kansas State, he has completed only 12 of his last 49 pass attempts. That’s a less-than robust 24.5 percent.

** Texas Tech is getting a lot of love from the preseason forecasters, and the Red Raiders rooters are buying into the hype – literally. The school recently announced it has set a new season ticket record with sales already exceeding 41,100.

** I’ve gotten a surprising number of comments about putting LSU at No. 20 in my preseason top 25. Obviously, the commentary is that I have the Tigers way too low. Here’s my reasoning: The SEC is much too tough a conference to expect to win consistently with a first-year starting quarterback. I see at least three losses for LSU this year – maybe more.

** How popular is Alabama head coach Nick Saban? Popular enough that Forbes magazine has reprinted 10,000 copies of its issue featuring him on the cover as college football’s “most powerful coach.” Copies of the issue reportedly sold out in 10 minutes at Books-A-Million’s Alabama stores last Friday.

** In the wake of the sudden death of NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, it will be interesting to see if the players association can get a successor who is as iron-willed. It will also be interesting to see if the association can resolve its contentious relationship with old-time players who have been seeking additional disability benefits, something Upshaw seemed consistently against doing.

** It could be the end of the line for Boston Red Sox righthander Curt Schilling. He wrote in his blog late last week that “the pendulum is swinging very heavily in the direction of it just being over.” Schilling underwent right shoulder surgery earlier this year and said while he is considering retirement, he could decide to rehab and make a comeback in 2009. If Schilling’s career is over, it will begin debate on whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. His career numbers: 20 seasons, a 216-146 record (.597 winning percentage), 3.46 ERA, 3,116 strikeouts in 3,261 innings, and a postseason record of 10-2 with a 2.23 ERA, including 3-1 and a 2.06 ERA in seven World Series starts. That postseason mark is really the only reason Schilling is the discussion for Cooperstown. IMHO, he had a fine career but not quite Hall-worthy.

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