Looking back now, it’s hard to recapture the complex mix of emotions that gripped Ohio State football fans during the 2002 season, but the story demands that we try to do so.
The team had made it through an undefeated season relying on a stout, deep, hard-hitting defense led by safety Mike Doss, the tough running of oft-injured, talkative, controversial freshman sensation Maurice Clarett, and the careful and clutch quarterbacking of Craig Krenzel. The Buckeyes had eked out hard-fought, nailbiter wins against Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue (thanks to the “Holy Buckeye!” play), Illinois (in overtime), and finally Michigan. The team had stared defeat squarely in the face on multiple occasions but had, somehow, always come out on top.
Running the table during the regular season was great . . . but the national media didn’t give the Buckeyes much credit. Some called them the “Luckeyes” and argued that they had barely beaten mediocre opponents. And the team that the Buckeyes would be playing in the national championship game would be the formidable Miami Hurricanes, possessors of an unbelievable 34-game winning streak. Miami had crushed Nebraska in the 2002 BCS National Championship game, and they were the overwhelming favorites to pulverize the Buckeyes in the 2003 game. And while Ohio State fans professed confidence, there was a strong undercurrent of nervous concern. Ohio State’s defense looked awfully strong, but what if the Big Ten offenses were just weak that year? If Ohio State fell behind Miami, how could the run-oriented offense possibly catch up? Could the game quickly turn into an embarrassing blowout?
So, Ohio State fans had to make a decision on whether to go to the game or not. It would, of course, be a costly exercise to get tickets and travel to and from Tempe, Arizona. But it also would be the first time the Buckeyes would play for the national championship since 1968, when I was 11 years old. Who knew whether it would ever happen again? Even if there was a chance of humiliation at the hands of the Hurricanes (and their fans), there also were other, more important considerations at play — like really supporting your team, and putting your money where your mouth is, and perhaps having a chance to share in what would no doubt be a sweet, always-to-be-cherished memory of an historic triumph.
So, Russell and I decided to put all fears aside and give it a go.