The 17-Year Turning Point

Seventeen years ago today, I was at an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game.  It was the middle of another bleak winter, but there was a little bit of a buzz because the Buckeyes had just named a new head football coach and the rumor was that he might be at the game, where members of Buckeye Nation could get a good look at him.

His name was Jim Tressel.  He’d had good success coaching at Youngstown State, and there was hope that he might be more successful at Ohio State than his predecessor, John Cooper.  Cooper seemed like a nice enough guy, but his record at Ohio State in the games that really counted — that is, the annual fight to the death against Michigan, and then bowl games — was abysmal.  The Cooper era left Ohio State fans feeling beat down and forlorn, like we were in a hole that we could never really dig our way out of.

Could Tressel turn things around, and actually win a few games against the hated Team Up North?  Even more fundamentally, could we be sure he actually understood how important that game was?  There was always a lingering suspicion that Coach Cooper was baffled that, every year, his performance was judged on the basis of that one game.  Of course, native Ohioans and members of Buckeye Nation understood why that was the case — understood it intuitively, in their bones and their blood and their sinew, understood it with a depth of feeling that some might find maniacal but that every true sports fan recognizes.

And then, at halftime of that basketball game 17 years ago, Coach Tressel walked out and made a short little speech that was one of the single most electrifying moments I’ve witnessed in person.  He said:  “I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”  It wasn’t quite a guarantee of a win, of course, but it was an Ohio State coach speaking confidently about okaying Michigan.  It was thrilling!  The crowd erupted, and the video of Tressel’s remarks that I’ve posted above really doesn’t capture the explosion of cheers.  Here was a man who clearly . . . understood.  He understood the importance of The Game, and the importance of pride.

And he was right.  Coach Tressel changed things, forever.  The Buckeyes went on a tear against Michigan, and other teams, and they haven’t looked back.  And while Coach Tressel’s career at Ohio State didn’t end the way he hoped, members of Buckeye Nation will never forget him.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years.  Coach Tressel, thank you for that speech!

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The Losers’ Parade

Yesterday about three thousand people attended a parade in Cleveland on one of the coldest days of the year.  The parade was to commemorate the Cleveland Browns’ 0-16 season — only the second time in NFL history that a team has accomplished that dubious record.

The Browns’ players and, no doubt, the team’s inept management were embarrassed by the parade.  One player, Emmanuel Ogbah, tweeted:  “That parade is a joke don’t call yourself a true browns fan if you go to that thing! Going 0-16 was embarrassing enough as a player. That is like adding fuel to the fire and it is completely wrong!”  Other players argued that the parade might discourage NFL free agents, or draftees, from wanting to play for the Browns, and that the team shouldn’t want to be known for going 1-31 over the past two seasons.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to play for a team that loses every game, and often found inventive and absurd ways to do so, so I’m sympathetic to the players.  But does having a tongue-in-cheek parade really send a bad message, and does it really discourage players who might be considering the Browns more than, say, the 0-16 season itself, and the obvious disarray in the front office and on the field, and the fact that the head coach for next year has to win 31 consecutive games to even reach a .500 record with the team?  Or does the parade, instead, send the message that notwithstanding years of futility and a horrible product on the field, there is still a solid core of Cleveland Browns backers who will freeze their butts off to try to send a demonstrable message that they still support the team and hope that this awful season marks a turning point?

I’ll be honest — I’ve been a Browns fan for as long as I can remember, but the years of failure and egregious ineptitude have caused me first to lose passion, and then to lose interest.  I tip my cap to those rugged and dedicated fans who still care enough to make a public demonstration of their commitment to the team on a frigid day.  If NFL players won’t come to Cleveland because of a parade, I think that says something about the character of the players, not the quality of the dedicated fans.

 

Farewell, J.T., And Thanks

Ohio State won the [insert corporate name here] Cotton Bowl last night.  With the defense smothering the USC Trojan offense, relentlessly pressuring and sacking its quarterback and forcing turnovers, the Buckeyes rolled to a 24-7 halftime lead and then endured a scoreless second half to get the victory.  It’s the first time the Buckeyes have beaten Southern Cal since 1974, and the dominant defensive performance gives Ohio State fans the ability to argue that the Buckeyes should have made it to the College Football Playoffs this year.

usa_today_10505433-1514599547The Cotton Bowl win was also senior quarterback J.T. Barrett’s last game at the offensive helm for Ohio State.  In fact, the game was a bit of a microcosm of Barrett’s career at OSU.  He scored both offensive touchdowns for the Buckeyes and became the Big Ten’s all-time total offense leader, but the offense became predictable and J.T. run-oriented and was stopped repeatedly in the second half, when with a few additional scores the Buckeyes could have blown the Trojans off the field and really made a statement.  That’s why many members of Buckeye Nation view JTB with mixed emotions — they acknowledge him as a winner and appreciate his skills as a runner and a leader, but they also think about what could have been if he had just played a little bit better in the handful of losses that have marred Barrett’s overall record.

I’m not one of the JTB doubters, because I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect perfection from college students.  J.T. Barrett has rewritten the Ohio State offensive record books.  He’s got a perfect, 4-0 record against That Team Up North, he’s come up big in a number of crucial games, and his play as a redshirt freshman was essential to putting Ohio State in position to win the first national championship in the College Football Playoff era.  Ohio State has been in the national championship conversation during each year J.T. Barrett has been at the controls on offense.  The fact that the Buckeyes have fallen short during three of those years shouldn’t take away what Barrett has accomplished.

So I say thanks, J.T., and godspeed!  You will be missed.

The Family Curse

The Cleveland Browns lost today . . . again.  The team is now 0-14.  Last year, the Browns were 1-15.  Can it get any worse?  I guess an 0-16 season is worse, so that’s what I’m expecting.

sadbrownsfansBut that’s not what really bothers me.  Frankly, the Browns have been so putrid for so long that it’s impossible for me to get emotionally invested in the efforts of this horribly mismanaged, poorly coached band of losers.  In fact, I don’t even watch the games any more.  When Sundays roll around, I just check my ESPN app to see whether the Browns have lost, and when I confirm that they have turned in another dismal performance, as they did today, I move on.

No, what really bothers me is that I have infected Russell with the scourge of Browns fandom.  Before today’s game, he texted me, with the eternal optimism of youth, that he “had a feeling” about the Browns’ chances against the Ravens.

Of course, he should have recognized the feeling as one of impending doom.

Russell, I am sorry that I infected you with the family curse!

Should It Be The Buckeyes?

Every year, it seems, the talk on the Sunday where the participants in the College Football Playoff are finally decided is all about the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Should they go, or shouldn’t they?

jt-barrett-vs-wisconsin-8e4be645b4ee0204This year is no different.  With Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin last night, a game in which the Buckeyes were led by a gutty J.T. Barrett, only days after he’d had knee surgery, the Buckeyes are 11-2 and the official Big Ten champions.  Normally, you’d think the Big Ten champs would be in easily — but in one of those losses the Buckeyes got waxed at Iowa, losing by 31 points in one of those games that shows you that anyone who thinks they can predict college athletics just doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  The first three teams in to the College Football Playoff are easy decisions:  Clemson, Georgia, and Oklahoma, which handed the Buckeyes their other loss.  And now the chatter is whether the fourth team should be Ohio State, the Big Ten champ with that one big matzo ball of a bad loss, or Alabama, which has only one loss but didn’t play in its conference championship game, lost its only game of the season against an elite team, and played a schedule that wasn’t very difficult.

It’s a tough question, and as an Ohio State fan I’m king of torn.  Last year’s blowout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff rattled a lot of us.  We love our Buckeyes, but that defeat — and then the Iowa debacle this year — has introduced an element of doubt for many.  We don’t want to see the Men of the Scarlet and Gray get in, and then get creamed.  And since the Buckeyes would be the fourth seed if they were to make it, they’d play Clemson again.  Would another humiliating spanking be in the offing?

On the other hand, you’ve got to give Ohio State credit for playing one of the toughest schedules in the country.  They’ve beaten a number of very good teams, including Penn State in an epic comeback, and they bounced back after the Iowa loss to thrash Michigan State, win their great rivalry game against Michigan on the road, and then beat a tough Wisconsin team on a neutral field.  And, while Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin was only by six points, I think the Buckeyes clearly were the superior team by a larger margin than the score indicated.

So, should it be the Buckeyes, or the Crimson Tide?  Call me a homer, but I think a conference championship should count for something, and I think fans can’t let their fears stand in the way of the dreams of young men who’ve played hard and had a fine season.  I hope the Buckeyes make it.

Companion Of The Airwaves

We drove back to Columbus from Maine yesterday.  It’s about a 15-hour drive, down through Maine — which, like Florida, seems to go on forever after you cross the border and get all excited about finally being there — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.  We hit some bad Thanksgiving weekend traffic in Massachusetts, and a little rain in western New York and northern Pennsylvania, but other than that it was clear sailing and a long day.

hermosa_3a1f3cda-8075-4d6b-b6be-9e716983c7eeOn the way, we listened to the radio on Sirius XM.  We listened to the Ohio State-Michigan game, as announced by the Michigan radio network announcers, who are pretty funny (and cliche-prone) if you’re an Ohio State fan, and when the Buckeyes pulled out a victory and the deflated announcers whispered the final few plays it helped to energize us for the rest of the drive.  We listened to some classical music.  We listened to the Beatles channel, which featured celebrities explaining and playing their “Fab Four” favorite Beatles tunes and got us talking about what would might pick as our “Fab Four” — a pretty impossible task, if you think about it.  We listened to some sports talk radio, and the Auburn-Alabama game, and some big band music on the Siriusly Sinatra channel.

I like long-distance driving and always have.  Part of the reason for that is I just like listening to the radio.  Imagine what long drives would be like if you were just driving in silence for hours!  But the radio is a good companion, a conversation-starter, and a reason to unlimber those vocal chords and sing “Here Comes The Sun” when some unfamiliar celebrity selects it as one of their Beatles favorites.

Radio is old technology by modern standards — popular radio is approaching its 100th birthday — and consequently we take radio for granted, but what would highway travel be without it?

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.