What do UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have in common with Ohio State?
The answer is obviously not football. The Buckeyes have celebrated five consensus national championships in that sport, five more than the Bruins, Tar Heels, Wildcats, Blue Devils and Jayhawks have won combined.
When the conversation turns to basketball, however, the overriding conjecture is that the Buckeyes do not belong in that group of elite programs. And that is where the overriding conjecture is dead wrong.
I mentioned this in a previous column a couple of years ago, but in light of the Ohio State basketball team making its 11th trip to the Final Four, it bears repeating.
Back in 1989 when Gary Williams was head coach of the Buckeyes, the two of us were visiting in the coach’s office at St. John Arena. At one point during the interview, Williams wheeled around in his chair, looked outside his second-story window and said something to the effect of “I’ll never understand why this school doesn’t support basketball the way it does football.”
Without much thought about how it would sound, I immediately replied, “Well, Coach, there’s a simple explanation and part of it is why your office is located on Woody Hayes Drive and not Fred Taylor Drive.”
Williams didn’t like it, but the implication was clear. Ohio State was then, is now and always has been a football school. That has to do with any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the football program generates many, many more dollars than the basketball team.
Football is also the sport where most Buckeye fans get their identity. Ask 100 fans to name their favorite Ohio State sports memory and chances are 95 of them will have to do with football.
In terms of championships, however – or at least in terms of playing for championships – the basketball Buckeyes are very much on par with their football brethren.
Ohio State celebrates those five consensus national championships in football (1942, 1954, 1957, 1968 and 2002) and several more if you count the National Championship Foundation title in 1944, the championship awarded by the Football Writers Association of America in 1961 and the trophy handed out in 1970 by the National Football Foundation.
Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has only the 1960 national title banner hanging in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center.
But with the basketball Buckeyes making their 11th trip to the Final Four, the program has cemented its claim to join elite status with the aforementioned cage powerhouses. Only UCLA (18), North Carolina (18), Kentucky (15), Duke (15) and Kansas (14) have made more trips to the Final Four than Ohio State.
The perception of Ohio State as a football school was steeped mightily by the Woody Hayes era that began in 1951, produced its first national championship in 1954 and became an all-encompassing behemoth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It was Taylor’s unfortunate fate to serve as basketball coach of the Buckeyes during the same era as Hayes. Taylor’s persona of mild-mannered tactician made far fewer headlines than his football counterpart’s bombastic personality. But the truth of the matter is that Taylor’s best years were more successful than any comparable stretch Hayes put together.
From 1960-63, the basketball team posted a 98-10 record (a .907 winning percentage) with four straight Big Ten titles, three trips to the Final Four and one national championship. Hayes’ best four-year span came between 1972 and ’75 when the football team went 40-5-1, good for an .880 winning percentage, won the Big Ten championship each year and appeared in a record-setting four straight Rose Bowls.
Still, Ohio State football has generally always trumped Ohio State basketball in the minds of most fans. Not that it should be that way. There should be room to embrace both programs by the majority of Buckeye Nation.
And why not? Florida proved in 2007 that national championships can be won both in football and basketball (victimizing Ohio State in the process of capturing both). Now, with Urban Meyer patrolling the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and Thad Matta marking his second trip to the Final Four in the past six seasons, why can’t the Buckeyes be national championship contenders in both sports?
History dictates they always have been.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS
** Did anyone notice that Syracuse began to leave William Buford alone on the offensive end during the final minutes of the regional final game? The OSU senior’s late-season shooting slump became more pronounced in the NCAA Tournament. After scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting in the tourney opener against Loyola, Buford went 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) in the next three games vs. Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse.
Look, the last thing I would ever want to do is dump on a kid who has played his guts out for Ohio State these past four years. Likewise, I know Matta feels he owes Buford a huge debt of gratitude for his years of service. But doesn’t the coach also owe his only senior the chance to win a championship ring even if it means some Final Four bench time?
** Imagine one game with this scenario: Jared Sullinger gets his normal double-double, Aaron Craft has an overall game like he did against Gonzaga, Deshaun Thomas lights up the scoreboard as he did against Loyola, Lenzelle Smith Jr. rains in threes the way he did against Cincinnati and Syracuse and Buford shakes off his lengthy slump and finally plays the way we know he’s capable of playing.
No opponent – not even heavy favorite Kentucky – could match that kind of firepower.
** How do you like this starting five for next season: Craft at the point, Smith at shooting guard, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson at forward and Amir Williams at center.
Craft is already a star and Smith only needs consistency to become one. Ross has an impressive skill set, Thompson can literally jump out of any gym and Williams will become better and better the more experience he gets.
Of course, that starting five is minus Sullinger and Thomas. This year was a gift from Sullinger, who could have gone to the NBA last year and been a lottery pick. As for Thomas, continued success through the Final Four will likely mean he’s gone next year as well.
** Did you know the NCAA Tournament is the brainchild of a former Ohio State basketball coach? In 1938, OSU head coach Harold Olsen, also a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, proposed the concept of a national championship tournament. The first tourney was held the following season at Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., with Olsen’s Buckeyes losing to Oregon in the title game. Olsen remained tournament chairman from its inception until 1946.
** Did you further know the term “Final Four” also has Ohio roots? It first appeared that year in an article for “The Official Collegiate Basketball Guide” and was coined by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Chay. In the story, Chay simply mentioned that “outspoken coach Al McGuire’s (Marquette) team was one of the final four” during the previous season’s tournament. Someone at the NCAA liked the phrase and the governing body of college sports later trademarked it.
** McGuire is credited with first referring to the NCAA Tournament as “The Big Dance.” During his team’s run to the 1977 championship, the coach wore the same blue blazer for each regular-season game. When asked if he would continue to wear the blazer in the NCAA Tournament, McGuire replied, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.”