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!


Wishing, And Hoping

Today is the day the College Football Playoff Selection Committee earns its keep.

They’ve been watching games all season, and since mid-season they’ve been issuing interim rankings after each weekend of play.  But now the regular season games and the conference championship games are done, and it’s time to finally decide:  which four teams should be in this year’s playoff?

urban-meyer-explains-why-an-8-team-college-football-playoff-wont-work-and-he-makes-a-good-pointAlabama is in, of course, as the number one seed.  They romped through a pretty pathetic SEC without a loss and drubbed an offensively challenged Florida team in the SEC championship game.  That’s an easy call.  But who else do you select?  One-loss Clemson won the weak ACC, edging out a pretty one-dimensional Virginia Tech team in last night’s championship game, and has looked good at times but bad at times, too.  One-loss Washington played one of the easiest schedules in college football and won the PAC 12, beating up a hapless Colorado team in the championship game.  Oklahoma, with two losses, won the defensively challenged Big 12.

And then there’s the Big 10.  Ohio State played one of the toughest schedules in college football, smashed Big 12 champion Oklahoma on its home turf, and beat a series of top ten teams during the season, including winning a thrilling edition of The Game against Michigan.  But because Ohio State lost at Penn State, on a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes didn’t play for the conference championship.  Penn State did and won last night, coming from far behind to beat Wisconsin.  But the Nittany Lions have two losses, one of which was a 39-point thrashing at the hands of That Team Up North.

So who should join Alabama in the playoffs?  The dedicated members of Buckeye Nation obviously hope the Committee selects Ohio State, which was ranked number 2 after last week’s Committee vote.  Should the Committee just pick the one-loss teams from the Power Five conferences, which means Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington should make the cut?  Or should Penn State’s impressive run and conference championship knock out one of those teams?  But how do you vault the two-loss Nittany Lions above two-loss Michigan, which beat Penn State like a drum early in the season?

Ohio State fans are wishing, and hoping, that the Buckeyes make the cut.  Having watched a number of games with the top teams, I honestly think Ohio State is one of the top four teams — but I’m not on the committee.  We’ll know at 12:30.

When All Will Be Revealed

Tomorrow we’ll see the finale of HBO’s Westworld.  We’re being assured that all will be revealed, and after the episode the show will actually make sense.

Yeah, right!  I’ll believe it when I see it.  That’s like expecting triumphant Trump staffers  and bitter Clinton campaign operatives to reach friendly consensus on why Donald Trump won the election, or imagining that fair-minded Michigan fans will freely concede that the referees correctly spotted the ball on the 15-yard line after J.T. Barrett’s fourth-down keeper in the second overtime of this year’s classic version of The Game.

Westworld is right up there with The Leftovers as the most confusing show since Twin Peaks.  It’s so intentionally mystifying that I don’t even try to understand it, or piece together the disparate threads of the plot.  I just wince at the horribly bloody violence that is likely to occur at any tender moment, groan at the show’s troubling core assumption that any human who goes to a fantasy world will promptly turn into a blood-soaked, sex-crazed lunatic, and recognize that any character in the next instant could be revealed as a robot, a cold-blooded killer, a psychopath, or all three.  (I also cringe for the actors who have to routinely sit buck naked on chairs on a sterile set while other characters question them and tap iPads, but that’s another story.)

I’ve stopped trying to figure it all out.  Kish and I watch the show, and I just let it kind of wash over me, rather than struggling to make sense of why Dolores’ outfit changes from instant to instant or why Bernard’s interactions with his fake dead son are so significant.  I realized that the show had reached the point of ridiculousness this past week, when I was walking back from lunch with two friends, one of whom watches Westworld and one of whom doesn’t.  The watcher and I started talking about the show, and after a few minutes of discussion of “Billy” and the possibility that the show’s plot is running along different timelines and the importance of the photo of Billy’s bethrothed and whether the twitching beings at the church Dolores visited were troubled robots looking for some kind of salvation, the non-watcher asked, with a baffled laugh:  “What is this show?”  And I realized that it was all pretty silly.

So I’ll watch the finale, but I’m not expecting that I’ll get everything in this episode, because that sure hasn’t been the case in the past episodes.  I just make one request:  before we move on to “the new narrative,” can you at least let us know what the old narrative was all about?


Look, there have been a lot of incredible Ohio State-Michigan games over the years.  Virtually every game between the two fierce rivals during the ’70s was a tough, hard-hitting advertisement for why college football is the greatest sport there is.  There was the Snow Bowl, and the 2006 match-up between two teams ranked no. 1 and no.2, and — giving the devil its due — Michigan’s legendary 1969 upset of an Ohio State team that many at the time considered to be the best college football team ever.

So I’m not going to say that yesterday’s double-overtime thriller was the best Ohio State-Michigan game ever played — but I am going to say that it was an epic contest that was simply one of the best college football games I’ve ever seen.  Two strong teams with shutdown defenses.  Wild emotional swings.  Missed field goals and turnovers.  Officiating controversy.  A gutsy call that blew up in the coach’s face, and then a gutsy call that produced the game-winning touchdown.  It’s the stuff of legend; an instant classic that people will remember and talk about for years to come.  No one who watched it, in the stands or on TV, will forget the 2016 edition of The Game.

And in the end, Ohio State won, and Michigan went home crushed.  Michigan’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, blames the referees for the loss, saying they missed a spot and blew some pass interference calls.  His disappointment is understandable, because his team played a great game and seemed to have The Game in hand until Ohio State’s defense ground the Michigan offense down and the Buckeyes’ offense finally woke up.  Still, it’s too bad that such a great game should end with such sour grapes.  Coach Harbaugh’s comments seem to cheapen The Game, and that’s too bad.

Ohio State’s unfortunate mishaps against Penn State mean that the Buckeyes once again won’t play in the Big Ten championship game.   Instead, they will have to wait to see whether they are selected for this year’s college football playoff, and Ohio State fans will keep their fingers crossed that the selection committee recognizes that the Buckeyes are one of the four best teams in the land.

For now, though, we can just savor an epic win against the Wolverines, and reflect on the fact that beating That Team from Up North never gets old.

What Bernie’s Michigan Upset Might Mean For Ohio

In a stunning upset, Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in Michigan last night, narrowly beating Hillary Clinton and delighting those unnamed members of the Webner household who have felt the Bern and are supporting the Sanders campaign.

michigan_for_bernie_sanders_poster-r8ceb6c5a3afe4dddbb80587579ecc891_wv4_8byvr_324It was a shocking victory, because the polls prior to the Michigan primary had shown that Hillary Clinton was way ahead in Michigan, by as much as 20 percentage points, and the pundits had already chalked up the state as falling into the Clinton win column.  But the polls were wrong — obviously — and now the pundits and pollsters are wondering whether there are some fundamental errors in their polling metrics and identification of likely voters.  They are uncomfortably considering whether the fact that polls were so wrong in Michigan might mean that the polling data in similar Midwestern states, like Ohio and Illinois, might also be way off base.  The polls in those states are showing Hillary Clinton currently holds big leads heading into primaries that will be held next week.

Sanders’ upset win is richly satisfying — not because I’m a Sanders supporter or Hillary hater, but because I’m sick to death of how the news media now uses polling data and know-it-all pronouncements to drive a horse race narrative and prematurely pick the winner, rather than just reporting on what the candidates are saying and doing and letting the voters decide.  The pollsters and pundits have long since declared Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee and have talked, talked, talked about when Sanders will be forced to get out of the race, but the voters in Michigan had something different to say about it and thumbed their noses at the Beltway crowd in the process.  Good for them!

Bernie Sanders obviously touches a chord with some voters that Hillary Clinton simply cannot reach.  Does his win in Michigan mean he might pull off an upset here in Ohio?  I don’t know, but I will say that I have personally seen a lot more excitement and activity in the Sanders campaign than I have from the Clinton campaign.  In Michigan, Sanders crushed Clinton among younger voters, made significant inroads with African-American voters, and appealed to Democrats who are fed up with their economic circumstances.  Ohio isn’t quite in the same shape as Michigan, but many of the same issues are present, and there’s no reason to believe Sanders can’t do the same thing here.

I’m hoping that Bernie Sander’s Michigan shocker means the pundits will stop with their confident pronouncements about what is going to happen, in Ohio and elsewhere, based on polling data that might just be fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps, just perhaps, they will be content to actually let the voters vote now that the race moves to the Buckeye State.


The Villain Comes Home

IMG_0483Evan Turner — improbably nicknamed The Villain by teammate Mark Titus — came back to Ohio State tonight to see his jersey retired and hung from the rafters.  Turner had a storied career with the Buckeyes, won National Player of the Year honors, and made a killer three-point buzzer-beater to beat Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.  Tonight he gave a heartfelt speech about his teammates, his coaches, and especially his Mom helping him along the way.

Oh, and the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines, too.  A good time was had by all.