A no-frills blog dedicated to Ohio State football, the Michigan rivalry,
and the ongoing melodrama that is life in the Big Ten.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Coach Springer Show

There’s a foul stench drifting down from Ann Arbor these days, and it has nothing to do with nearby Detroit. Take a deep breath. Can you smell it? It’s dirty laundry. Ripe, stinking, lost-in-the-back-of-your-locker dirty laundry. And it’s making me sick.

When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez to be its next coach, we all knew big changes were afoot, though we expected them to revolve around the spread offense. Instead, we got the Jerry Springer Show.

In less than a month as coach, Rodriguez has managed to bring more melodrama to Ann Arbor than Gary Moeller after three cocktails. The headlines are relentless, and have nothing to do with football. I’ve now read more than I care to about bad blood between Rodriguez and his former university, the meddling (or not) of West Virginia’s governor in the affair, lawsuits over buyout clauses, and recently released email squabbling between the university and Rodriguez’s agent.

Rodriguez’s agent? Here’s a challenge, Michigan fans: name a story—any story at all—in the last thirteen years that discussed Lloyd Carr’s agent.

Yes, things have changed in Ann Arbor.

As a Buckeye fan, I view these changes with a sad and wary eye. In the long, storied history of our rivalry with Michigan, we’re used to having coaches on both sides focus on just two things: honoring tradition and winning football games. Sure, there are occasional controversies. Sometimes a player just needs to get in a bar fight or solicit a prostitute after class. Sometimes a spectator feels the urge to light an opponent’s car on fire. These things happen in a sport featuring prima donna athletes and lunatic fans. But our coaches? They remain above the fray.

I can think of two exceptions, and both led to the termination of the coaches involved: Gary Moeller nipping a little too much grandma’s cough medicine and chewing out a cop, and Woody Hayes punching a kid in the throat. Okay, that last one was pretty bad, but at least Woody was trying to fire up his team when it happened. If anything, he went down because he loved the game too much.

What’s at the heart of the Rodriguez controversy? Money and power struggles. Petty things. Things that sound ugly and out of place for a man now serving as custodian of one of the nation’s greatest football traditions.

To be fair, all of the controversy stems from Rodriguez’s tenure at West Virginia, and has nothing to do with his new job at Michigan. Nor is he necessarily to blame for all the bad press. For all I know, West Virginia is run by crazy, spiteful, petty people who just want to bring a good man down and will conjure up any story to do it, knowing the press will leap on it like a Michael Vick pit bull on a three-legged cat. That’s beside the point. The stories are out there, and they’re distracting.

Where are the stories about what Rodriguez is doing at Michigan? How is he building his team to replace the enormous loss of talent to the NFL? How is he reaching out to returning players? How will he tweak both his program and his offense to get the best fit? How is he endearing himself to the Wolverine nation?

Unfortunately, only one article concerning Rodriguez’s actual job in Ann Arbor has made headlines. Know what it was about?

His salary.

So now, all we really know about Rich Rodriguez as head coach of Michigan is that for the next six years he’ll be making $2.5 million per year—a million more than Carr, who maybe should have had a better agent.

That’s some really expensive laundry to have stinking up the back of a locker. I hope someone gets that cleaned up real fast.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Return of the Little Animal

Upon learning that James Laurinaitis would return to Ohio State for his senior season, I involuntarily let fly into the ether: “O-H!” Rising out of the stench of stale beer on High Street, 400 miles away, came the reply: “I-O!” All across the land, Buckeye nuts flung themselves from tree limbs, rolling shamelessly through the streets hoping to be gathered up and made into tacky necklaces before next August. Somewhere in Columbus, a small child knelt at his bedside, clasped his hands together, and prayed: “God Bless the Little Animal.”

Yes, we’re all excited to have ol’ number 33 back. The news that the 2006 Nagurski Award winner and 2007 Butkus Award winner will be suiting up again next year was exactly the jolt needed to shake off the funk lingering from yet another bowl game humiliation, and set the Buckeye nation dreaming once more of glory, perhaps even another shot at redemption. But before the band strikes up Carmen Ohio, I just have to ask: “James, what the hell are you thinking?”

Let me explain my position here, and know that you’re hearing this from a former high school administrator, someone who values education very, very, very much: any player who can leave college early as a first-round draft pick—particularly an early first round pick as Laurinaitis has been projected—should.

My argument: One can always go back and get a college degree, but one has only a small window of opportunity to play in the NFL. And the monetary reward for playing in the NFL is very big. And the reality of it happening hinges on something very small—about the size of a knee or ankle.

Worst-case scenario for a top prospect entering the draft: Get signed for millions of dollars, sustain a career-ending injury the first week of practice, still collect a large portion of your money because your contract has certain guarantees, and with that large portion—which I should emphasize is very large—go back and finish college, which you’ll drive to each day in your Hummer from your enormous house.

Worst-case scenario for a top prospect staying in college one more year to get his degree: Sustain a career-ending injury at some point during your senior season, thereby ensuring you don’t get a dime—not one—for your enormous talent, a turn of events that rocks your world, nay your very existence, and will haunt you for the rest of your life as you think about what could have been. But hey, at least you’ll have that degree in interdisciplinary studies to fall back on.

“But wait,” a purist protests, “What about goals like wanting to lead your team to a national championship? You can’t put a price tag on that.”

That’s true, you can’t. Nor can you guarantee that it will happen.

Have we learned nothing from Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Jake Long? They returned to Michigan for their senior season, anchoring what was expected to be one of the nation’s most potent offenses, with three goals in mind: beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, and winning a national championship. They accomplished none of these. Instead, they opened their season as the victims of the biggest upset of all time and followed that up, in the case of Henne and Hart, by getting hurt. Not only did their goals go unfulfilled, they likely actually lowered their stock for the NFL draft. And they were lucky. If the injuries they sustained had been worse, they wouldn’t be getting drafted at all.

I’m not saying that the Buckeyes are going to flop next year, or that Laurinaitis will get hurt. I’m just saying we don’t know what’s going to happen, though after winning the Butkus Award this year and setting the record for tackles in the National Championship game, it's hard to imagine what he can do next year, short of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to make his stock any higher than it is at this moment.

Anyway you slice it, coming back is a risk, and a big one at that. One can only assume that Laurinaitis has thought it all through, weighed the pros and cons as I’ve done, and somehow determined that leading the Buckeyes for another season is a risk worth taking.

For that, you have to love the guy even more.

God bless the Little Animal.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Ah, the Irony

Well, it’s official. The Buckeyes are slow.

Of course, such a label has little to do with foot speed. Beanie Wells showed he could run with anyone when he sprinted 65-yards to paydirt on the first drive of the game. No, the Buckeyes aren’t slow on foot. They’re just a little slow in the head.

In last year’s title game, they showcased this stunning lack of wit by injuring their own star during an end zone celebration. How would they top such a performance in this year’s title game? By making sure they gave LSU as many free yards as possible—and at the most critical of moments. Brilliant.

When Ohio State committed two personal fouls in the span of three plays, giving LSU thirty bonus yards on the Tiger’s way to their first touchdown, well, I thought that was a special case of the stupid. But such a display seemed minor league in comparison to the dimwitted grandeur exhibited in the third quarter by Buckeye defender Austin Spitler, who roughed the punter on 4th and 23 to give new life to a stalled LSU drive.

“You think that was stupid?” teammate Cameron Heyward seemed to say. “Watch this.”

Heyward’s personal foul on the very next play moved LSU across midfield. Thirty seconds later the Tigers would be celebrating in the endzone. You just can’t script that kind of dumb.

As a direct result of Ohio State’s disciplinary letdowns, LSU scored fourteen points—the exact margin of victory in the ballgame. When one considers the timing of the infractions and the shifts of momentum that resulted, the difference was likely larger still. Consider:

The meltdown in the second quarter came when the Buckeyes still led 10-3. LSU went on to score on that drive, and never trailed again. The Spitler/Heyward debacle came on the opening drive of the second half, with LSU leading by 14. Instead of Ohio State getting the ball back early in the quarter with a chance to cut the lead to seven, LSU burned more time off the clock and increased the lead to 21, making it a three possession ballgame. Can I nominate that for a Pontiac Game Changing Performance? Such numbskullery would have to at least put us in the running for the $100,000 prize.

And the mental lapses didn’t seem to be confined to just the players. Am I the only one who wondered why Wells, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry and ran over LSU defenders like a teenage driver jumping speed bumps in the school parking lot (did you see that stiff-arm?), only carried the ball 20 times in the game? Were Buckeye coaches not aware that everyone from Les Miles to Urban Meyer to Kirk Herbstreit said that containing Wells had to be LSU’s main priority? McFadden ran the ball 32 times in Arkansas’s defeat of LSU. Wells ran the ball 39 times against Michigan. Both gained over 200 yards in their respective efforts. Why limit Wells to 20 carries in the title game, especially when LSU was failing to stop him? I’m no offensive coordinator. Just a very confused fan.

Of course, the end result was that the Buckeyes lost—handily—again. Whether their own gaffes or LSU’s prowess were the reason hardly matters. The announcers were already singing the old, tiresome tunes near the game’s end: “Ohio State receivers aren’t fast enough to get open.” “Ohio State’s line is being dominated by LSU’s faster, stronger line.” Well, maybe. Buckeye fans probably see it differently, recalling dropped passes in the endzone, silly missed tackles and a lot of knuckleheaded penalties instead. But for the next eight months, when we hear every sports analyst talking about how the Buckeyes aren’t fast enough to compete, we’d do well to just stay quiet and nod our heads in understanding. Maybe even offer up an ironic smile.

Better to let them think we’re slow than stupid.

Note (and slight change of tone):

After the game, Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline said he wished he could get every Buckeye fan into one room so that the team could apologize to us all. This struck me.

Brian, you don’t need to apologize to us. This was a rebuilding year. You made it to the national championship game, something nobody thought would happen (and critics will continue to say shouldn’t have happened). Regardless, you exceeded expectations just by getting there—and this in a year when other teams, who now claim they should have been playing for the championship instead, didn’t take care of business in the regular season to be in that position. Does this expose potential flaws in the BCS system? Probably. But those people need to blame the system, not the Buckeyes.

For Buckeye fans, our disappointment is simply two-fold: 1) The loss comes on the heels of last year’s much more embarrassing and inexcusable defeat, and 2) it always hurts more when stupid mistakes contribute to the loss—as I believe I adequately vented in my posting above. But you’ll be back next year, and older, and hopefully a little wiser. And you’ll likely have another crack at the national championship. There’ll be a lot of grumbling about that in the sports world. Expect it, and don’t try to refute it, except on the field. But you don’t need to apologize to Buckeye fans. We’ll still be cheering like mad. Like I said: we’re all a little slow in the head.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dear Buckeyes: Your bid for respect has been postponed.

Well, tickle me blue. The Gators got beat by a Big Ten team. And by a Big Ten team that got beat by Appalachian State, no less. Can we forget that one now?

It’s not often Ohio State fans get to celebrate a Michigan victory, but it would be a cold-hearted Buckeye who didn't feel a warm, fuzzy glow watching Michigan players hoist Lloyd Carr onto their shoulders after the Capital One Bowl. Good for Lloyd for going out on top. Good for Chad Henne for having the game of his career and leading his fellow seniors to their first bowl victory. And good for Mike Hart for seizing the opportunity to make a giant ass out of himself one last time on national television. Who but Hart could offer such a rich display of chest pounding, muscle flexing and smack talking on his way to two goal line fumbles? Brilliant. Had Michigan lost, Hart would have been the reason. As it is, he’s the reason they didn’t win by more. Well done.

Of course, any Big Ten celebrations were somewhat tempered by the game that came next: a 32-point emasculation of Illinois by USC in the Rose Bowl. No one really expected Illinois to win this game, but we did hope they would at least show up. I swear I haven’t seen a Big Ten team look that helpless since…uhh…last January’s national title game.

But really, where was the Illini team that beat Ohio State in November? Where was the Juice Williams who ran at will against the Buckeye defense? I think I know what football analysts Mark May and Dan Wetzel would say: “Right there on the field, getting trounced by USC.” And they wouldn’t be alone. For much of the college football world, the Rose Bowl—and later Georgia’s fleecing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl—proved that next week’s BCS title game is just that: a “BCS” title game. No matter who wins between LSU and Ohio State, people are already speculating that either USC or Georgia may top the final AP poll. Buckeye fans, you had to see this coming.

So just what is Ohio State playing for at this point?

A national title, certainly. No matter what, a victory places the Buckeyes number one in the final BCS, and a convincing win just might keep us atop the AP, as well—though with plenty of grumbling.

But how about earning respect back for the Big Ten? Well, with the Penn State, Purdue, and Michigan wins, a Buckeye victory would bring the Big Ten to a solid 4-4 in bowl games, proving that we’re not an awful conference…just mediocre.

How about at least getting a little revenge on the SEC? Sure, I’d never overlook the satisfying, wonderfully petty feeling of revenge as motivation, and I would hope that Big Ten victories over Florida and LSU—two teams who supposedly challenge light itself in the speed category—would finally debunk the myth that the Big Ten is full of slow, plodding plough horses. Though those same victories would also seemingly reinforce the belief that the conference really is just a two-horse race, regardless of whether they're plough horses or thoroughbreds.

So what does this all mean? It means that next week the Buckeyes will be playing for, well, for the Buckeyes. A victory gets us a national title, a very drunk city of Columbus, and an eight-month reprieve, if not outright respect, from football critics.

The bid for outright respect has now been moved to the USC game next fall.