Kirk Herbstreit first met Ohio State coach Urban Meyer as a junior at Centerville High in Centerville, Ohio. The coach was a graduate assistant with the Buckeyes, and he and Herbstreit kept in touch as Meyer moved up the coaching ladder. Two decades later, Meyer has Ohio State on the verge of its first national championship since 2002.
“I’ve know him, and I’ve known his heart, privately,” Herbstreit said of Meyer this week. “Even when Jim Tressel was doing amazing things at Ohio State, in the back of my mind I thought, it’ll be interesting when coach Tressel retires and if Urban Meyer gets his chance to kind of live out his dream and become the head coach at Ohio State. I thought those things privately and never really talked about them. Then obviously everything happened that happened.”
Herbstreit is not just an ESPN analyst. He’s a former Ohio State quarterback watching his alma mater vie for another national title. The eyes of several past Ohio State and Oregon stars will fall on Arlington on Monday night when the two teams clash. For one program, it’s a chance to return to the sport’s summit. For the other, a championship would serve as the final missing piece to its recent ascent to dominance.
Ohio State is seeking its eighth national championship, but a win over Oregon would mark just the program’s second title since 1970. The Buckeyes have put together great teams in the interim, including Meyer’s first team in 2012. That squad capped a 12-0 regular season, but it was barred from postseason play due to lingering NCAA sanctions from the Tressel era. Meyer has a 37-3 record since his arrival in Columbus yet has not played for a national title with Ohio State before this season.
He entered the year with the odds stacked against him thanks to a preseason injury to starting quarterback and Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller. Backup J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and became a Heisman contender himself, but a fractured ankle forced Ohio State to start Cardale Jones in the Big Ten title game. Meanwhile, tragedy struck Ohio State off the field when walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge committed suicide in November.
The number of obstacles in Ohio State’s path is why Archie Griffin, college football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and a former Ohio State running back, thinks the 2014 Buckeyes might be the best team of the Meyer era.
“When you consider the fact that they’re on the third quarterback, dealing with the death of a player, all the adversity that they’ve had, then this would have to be considered one of the best,” said Griffin. “But you never know what that team that went undefeated would’ve done. You like to believe it would’ve won. You’d like to believe it would’ve gotten to a national championship game, and you like to believe it would’ve done well. But it didn’t happen.”
A win by the Buckeyes would mark Meyer’s third national title as a coach while also lifting the program back into the driver’s seat in the Big Ten. In 2013, Michigan State dropped then-undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game before winning the Rose Bowl. If not for NCAA sanctions and that one loss, the Buckeyes might be contending for their third straight title this year.
Herbstreit said Ohio State’s win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl was the program’s biggest victory since beating Miami for the national championship in 2002. But the Buckeyes’ former quarterback isn’t shocked that his alma mater has returned to the top of college football.
“I’m not surprised at all to see the success he’s enjoying,” Herbstreit said of Meyer. “The fact he’s made it to a national championship this quickly from where they were, the job that he’s done this year, I would argue, is as good a job of coaching as he’s ever done as a head coach.”
Added Griffin: “This team is pretty doggone special.”
Monday’s championship game is a bit different from the perspective of former Oregon players. The Ducks have been one of college football’s most dominant programs over the last few years, going 70-10 in six seasons under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. But entering 2014, Oregon had yet to win a championship or claim a Heisman Trophy.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota knocked the latter off of the Ducks’ to-do list last month. That’s something past stars like Joey Harrington, Dennis Dixon and LaMichael James couldn’t bring to Eugene. Now Oregon’s ascension to the sport’s peak is almost complete under Mariota. For Harrington, the Ducks’ season shows just how far the program has come since his playing days.
“We were all in different situations: Myself, Dennis, LaMichael and Marcus,” said Harrington. “But I think that Marcus is -- I don’t want to call it the culmination of the program, but when I was in the mix we obviously had to put up a 10-story billboard in New York just to get everybody’s attention. And it worked in the fact that I ended up in New York to end the season.
“I think through the continuation of the development of the program in the last decade and all the things that come with it -- building a national brand, the uniforms, et cetera -- people are watching [Oregon] now,” Harrington said.
Harrington knows what it’s like to lead an Oregon program still trying to make its mark on college football. He helped lead the Ducks to their first 10-win season in 2000, and he staged a Heisman campaign the very next year with the help of his Manhattan billboard (he finished fourth in voting). Now Oregon is on the cusp of finally winning its first championship, a journey sparked by Harrington and others several seasons ago. Mariota will look to finish it Monday against Ohio State.
“That was one of the first things Chip Kelly told me when we were talking about who was going to replace Darron Thomas [in 2011],” Harrington said. “He said, ‘This freshman kid we’ve got, Marcus Mariota’ -- who was redshirting at the time – ‘he just gets it. He just gets football.’”