J.T.’s Last Stand

The Ohio State University football team is in its summer camp, the first game is less than three weeks away, and Buckeye Nation is abuzz about who will play where for the Scarlet and Gray.  Battles for starting jobs are raging at every position except one:  quarterback.  That’s because J.T. Barrett is back for his senior season.

Opposing teams have got to wonder if J.T. Barrett is ever going to graduate.  It seems like he has been with the Buckeyes forever, setting new Ohio State all-time offensive records whenever he touches the ball and posting more Ws on the Buckeyes’ overall record.  Sure, J.T. has got some losses to his name, and last season definitely ended with a clinker, but for the most part the J.T. Barrett era has been one of great success — and now J.T. is back, again, to lead the team during his final season.

jt-barrett-ohio-state-buckeyes-football-nfl-draft-2000“Lead” is a good word to use in conjunction with J.T. Barrett, because by all accounts he is a leader first, second, and always.  Any true Buckeye fan has seen J.T. in the locker room or on the sidelines, pumping his fist and giving impassioned talks to his teammates, but what really seems remarkable about him is not the rah-rah stuff, but the quiet things that generate respect and a willingness to leave everything on the field for the guy.  When J.T. first burst onto the scene, he played behind an inexperienced line and got pulverized in an early loss to Virginia Tech — but he showed great toughness, kept his mouth shut, accepted the punishment as part of the game, and led the team to a dramatic turnaround that saw the Buckeyes become an offensive juggernaut.  And then, on the cusp of triumph against Michigan, he suffered an injury that knocked him out of that game, the Big Ten championship, and the run to the National Championship.  Lesser people would have whined about their misfortune, but not J.T. Barrett.  He reacted with grace and dignity, supported his team, and celebrated when they hoisted the trophy, even though it must of been devastating to not be able to run out onto the field.

J.T.’s whole career has been like that — a series of victories and disappointments, hard hits and perseverance, but always with him looking for a way to win and a way to lead.  It’s pretty rare these days for the great players to stay for their senior season, but then J.T. Barrett seems like a rare individual in many ways.  Whether he goes on to play football at a professional level or not, he certainly seems like the kind of person who has the qualities that will make him a success in life.

I’ve been watching Ohio State football for almost 50 years and have seen lots of great players don the Scarlet and Gray, but J.T. Barrett ranks up there with my all-time favorites.  Here’s hoping he has a senior season that suits a player who has meant so much to the University, its fans, and his teammates.

At The End Of The Show Cause Order

Today marks the end of the NCAA penalty imposed on former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel.  For five years, any school that wanted to hire Tressel to coach football would have had to “show cause” as to why it should be permitted to do so, and receive approval, before he could once again return to prowl the sidelines of the gridiron and coach young men about football, and life.

Five years is a long time, and this five-year period seems like it’s been been much longer.  Ohio State football has moved on from the Tressel era and has enjoyed enormous success under current head coach Urban Meyer.  True Buckeye fans will never forget Coach Tressel, however.  He was the man who lifted the Ohio State program from a period of ever-present heartbreak and big-game failure and returned it to its rightful position as one of the preeminent programs in college football.

20140512jhlocaltressel06-4Coach Tressel remembers, too.  He’ll always be a Buckeye at heart, but he hasn’t sat idle, pining for a chance to coach.  He is a man with a lot to offer, and other people know it.  He’s now the very successful president of Youngstown State University.  Odd, isn’t it, that he has been effectively barred from coaching a sport, but he can run an entire university with 13,000 students — a university that has its own successful football team?  But that’s just one of the many curious elements of the “tatgate” story — involving player violations of NCAA rules, in trading merchandise for tattoos, that the New York Times story linked above describes as “quaint” compared to some of the serious, criminal wrongdoing that has come to light in college sports since that time.  The NCAA determined that Coach Tressel learned about the player misconduct, and he failed to report it — and that started the dominoes falling toward the five-year ban.

But even though the NCAA penalty has prevented Coach Tressel from formally coaching young men, that’s still what he does, informally but routinely.  Eleven Warriors, an Ohio State football website, has a terrific reflection on Tressel’s continued connection with his former players and assistant coaches and what steps he takes — instinctively, reflexively, as part of his core and character — to try to help them.  In the Webner family, we know what kind of person Coach Tressel really is from our own personal experience, when he befriended our family’s most diehard Ohio State fan, Aunt Bebe, became her pen pal, and then graciously showed up for her memorial service.  It’s the kind of small but deeply meaningful personal gesture that is all-too-uncommon in the modern world.

Rules are rules, and Jim Tressel made a mistake.  We’re human; we all do.  But no imposition of an NCAA show cause order could ever change what kind of person Coach Tressel is, deep inside.  This is a good man, and what he’s done and continues to do just confirms it, over and over again.  Our very best wishes go with him.

Countdown To Kickoff

Today Ohio State plays its first game of the 2016.  At noon at Ohio Stadium, a crowd of more than 100,000 will roar as The Best Damn Band In The Land makes its ramp entrance and this year’s version of the Buckeyes sprints onto the field to face the Bowling Green Falcons.

It’s an exciting time in Columbus, the capital city of Buckeye Nation, where following the Men of the Scarlet and Gray is an annual rite and heartfelt passion, and wins and losses can affect the whole city’s mood.

ar-131119242This year’s team is an intriguing one.  Most of last year’s starters have ended their college careers, and many have moved on to the NFL.  Familiar names like Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Darron Lee aren’t on the roster any more.  In their places are a bunch of new guys.  We don’t really know them — yet — but we’re eager to see whether they can fill the big shoes of some of the finest players ever to don the Ohio State uniform.

On offense, virtually all of the skill players are new.  The one exception is junior J.T. Barrett, the multi-purpose pass-run threat who already ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in Ohio State history.  Head coach Urban Meyer will be counting on Barrett to provide the steady hand and experienced leadership to help his young, newbie offensive teammates to perform up to the high Buckeye standards.  On defense, there has been a similar exodus, and junior middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan will be playing the J.T. Barrett role.  On both sides of the ball, there is a lot of four- and five-star talent — but how do they perform when big-time college football games are played, crunch time comes, and the game is on the line?

We’ll find out, starting today.  Bowling Green has a very solid football team.  And in two weeks the Buckeyes will be in Norman, Oklahoma to play the third-ranked Sooners in a clash of two of the best programs in college football history.  Later this season, of course, rivalry games against Michigan State, which knocked the Buckeyes out of the college football playoffs last year, and That Team Up North loom.

These young Buckeyes had better grow up fast.

Birthplace Of The Buckeyes

IMG_1225Recently I was walking on Whittier Avenue in German Village, past the Giant Eagle, when I saw one of those historical marker signs.  Intrigued, I crossed the street to check it out.  It announced that the first Ohio State home game occurred on that spot on November 1, 1890, in a park that was located there.  Only in football-crazy Columbus, I suppose, would the location of a college football game be the subject of an historical marker.

Unfortunately, the sign reveals that the Buckeyes lost that first home game to the College of Wooster, 64-0, and the sign indicates that the loss was due in part to the Buckeyes’ poor conditioning.  Yikes!  Things have changed a bit since then!

The Spring Game

It’s a beautiful day in Columbus.  After weeks of crappy, rainy, even snowy, unseasonably cold weather, spring finally has arrived in earnest and brought some warm weather.

img_1616-1000x750-2b938vhFor Ohio State football fans, today marks the semi-official start of spring — and starts the countdown to Buckeye football in the fall — with the playing of the spring game.  The Ohio State team will split in half, with the Scarlet squad vying against the Gray team in Ohio Stadium.  Tens of thousands of people will show up to watch.  Last year, a record 99,391 members of Buckeye Nation made the trip to the Horseshoe to watch the spring game.  Why not?  It’s fun, there’s no pressure in the result, and it’s a way to scratch that need-to-watch-football itch that’s been tormenting OSU fans since the Buckeyes trounced Notre Dame in their bowl game.

The spring game is a kind of glorified scrimmage, but it’s one that is broadcast on national cable TV (tune in at 1:30 on the Big Ten Network!) and this year it’s got an interesting story to it.  A huge number of Buckeye stalwarts of the recent past — Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Adolphus Washington, Eli Apple, Michael Thomas, Taylor Decker, and Braxton Miller among them — have moved on to the NFL, so the Buckeyes have a lot of holes to fill.  Here’s a chance to see the newbies don the pads and the uniform and begin to show what they’ve got.  They’ve been working hard for weeks with Urban Meyer and his coaching staff in spring camp,  and now they get to run out onto the turf at the fabled Ohio Stadium venue and soak in the cheers and applause of the Buckeye faithful.

Who’s going to be the next great Ohio State running back?  Who’s going to harass opposing quarterbacks, make the clutch catch in a big game, or make the key block that allows the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to cinch a game?  The Spring Game might provide some answers to those questions — and it also lets you start to work on your tan.

Another Great Season

Look, I know a lot of pundits and Ohio State fans are at the point where the Buckeyes have to win every game by 50 points and win the national championship, or the season is deemed a failure.  I think that’s ridiculous, but it is what it is.

635776004767032555-ap-ohio-st-virginia-tech-fooThis was a great season, by any rational measure.  If you are an Ohio State fan, you define season success by whether you beat Michigan.  This year, the Buckeyes trounced the Wolverines, in Ann Arbor.  Michigan was a darned good team — they smashed an SEC team, Florida, in their bowl game today.  And then Ohio State won its bowl game today, convincingly beating a very solid Notre Dame team in the Fiesta Bowl.  Those of us who lived through the Cooper era will never forget it, and will always treasure every win against That Team Up North and bowl game opponents because we will always remember, with a grimace, what it is like to end a season with a painful belly flop.

People are upset because Ohio State lost one game, played in a driving rainstorm, on a last-second field goal.  But when your team finishes 12-1, wins its crucial rivalry game and pounds a traditional power in a New Years Day bowl game, you can’t fairly be heard to complain.  If you do, you’re really as spoiled as the appalling Affluenza Kid.

A lot of Buckeyes have made the last few years really enjoyable for those of us in Buckeye Nation and will (in some cases probably) be moving on. Thanks, Braxton Miller!  And Joey Bosa.  Ezekiel Elliott.  Cardale Jones.  Taylor Decker.  Adolphus Washington.  Joshua Perry.  Jacoby Boren.  Other seniors who have won 50 games in their four years.  And, perhaps, some other juniors who think it’s time to take their talents to the NFL.  They have accomplished everything you could ask for, and I will always remember cheering myself hoarse and screaming “ZEEEEEKE” as last year’s national championship game wound down and I got to celebrate a year where my team and many of these same players and coaches won it all.

Thanks, guys, to all of the players, to head coach Urban Meyer and the rest of the coaching staff, and to everybody else who is part of the Ohio State football program.  It’s been a pleasure, and today was the cherry on top.

The Real Season Begins

The Ohio State Buckeyes have played 10 games this college football season and have won them all.  Every Ohio State fan knows, however, that the real season begins today, when the Michigan State Spartans come to town.

It’s been an interesting season for Ohio State, filled with twists and turns but with one, overriding theme:  the Buckeyes’ failure to be as dominant and impressive as the pundits expected them to be.  With Ohio State’s run to the National Championship still fresh in everyone’s minds and preseason expectations sky-high, anything other than a 60-0 drubbing is seen as a disappointment.  Last week’s win over Illinois is a good example.  The Buckeyes beat a Big Ten team with a winning record, on the road, 28-3 — and the talking heads kept talking about what was wrong with Ohio State.

22-bosa-connor-cook-crIf Ohio State can pull off a win today such talk should stop, because everyone knows Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country.  The Spartans are ranked in the top ten and would also be 10-0, save for a flukey loss to Nebraska that turned on a questionable no-call by the refs.  They’ve fought titanic battles with Ohio State, on even terms, the last few years.  They’re an experienced team led by a probable first-round draft choice at quarterback in Connor Cook, and their coach, Mark Dantonio, has turned the Michigan State football program into a powerhouse.  For the Spartans, this is a chance to avenge their loss to the Buckeyes last year and to take a further step toward cementing their status as one of the elite teams in the country.

This will be a tough, hard-hitting contest — but it also will be an opportunity for Ohio State to answer some of the critics and questions.  Can Ohio State finally gel on offense, avoid the frustrating breakdowns and penalties, and reach the same level of execution that made them close to unstoppable in last year’s National Championship Game against Oregon?  Can Urban Meyer and his coaches get Braxton Miller, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, and the Buckeyes other offensive weapons to fully mesh against a stout defense?  And can the Silver Bullets get pressure on Cook and avoid the big-play breakdowns that have made some of the Buckeyes’ wins this year too close for comfort?

The quarterback controversy is behind us, and the big games are finally here.  Everyone in Buckeye Nation wants to see a win for a great Buckeye, Braxton Miller, on Senior Day.  In Columbus, where the forecast is for rainy game-time conditions, the real season starts today.