Between 1960 and 1976 Ohio State traveled from the heights to the depths of college basketball. From No. 1 in the country to last in the Big Ten. From cheering, capacity crowds at St. John Arena to disappointment and disinterest among students and alumni. But this season, under intense, demanding second-year Coach Eldon Miller, OSU is again on the rise. Thanks largely to the best bunch of freshman players in the country, the Buckeyes are off to a 3-1 start, and the crowds in the arena are SRO and happy once again. The more nostalgic Ohio State followers are even comparing the quality of the talent and the degree of interest to the glory days of the early '60s, when the Buckeyes went to the NCAA final three straight seasons.
The man who took them there, Fred Taylor, has had nothing to do with this revival. Indeed, he prefers to stay away from the arena. Taylor, who in the early '60s was considered the college coach with the rosiest future, retired two years ago and now works for Ohio State's physical education and intramural athletics departments. His resignation was not caused by age—Taylor was 51 when he quit—or ill health or excessive alumni pressure. He was done in by the changing currents of the game itself—not by the Xs and Os of coaching, but the nature of modern-day recruiting. Taylor abhorred both the direction and speed of the recruiting merry-go-round, and so, with regret, he jumped off after the '76 season. He harbors no ill will toward Miller, but he is resentful of former Athletic Director Ed Weaver who, he feels, never gave him proper support.
Although Bobby Knight of Indiana, Lefty Driesell of Maryland and Gale Catlett of Cincinnati all showed interest in succeeding Taylor, the school ultimately chose the little-known Miller, who is 38. Born and raised on a small farm in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, he became a star guard at Wittenberg University and a successful coach at his alma mater and Western Michigan. Immediately after his Ohio State appointment was announced. Miller hurried across the street from a motel news conference to St. John Arena and began scouting the talent at the state high school tournament. He was not about to waste any time. To a lot of Ohio State basketball fans, that was evidence enough that things had changed.
The best of Miller's first year's three recruits was Guard Kelvin Ransey of Toledo, whose initial lack of interest in Ohio State showed just how much prestige the Buckeyes had lost. "I had never wanted to play here, because I knew the football team was great and the basketball team wasn't." he says. But after Miller convinced him that things soon would be different, Ransey changed his mind, enrolled at Columbus and set a school scoring record for varsity freshmen, with 327 points and a 13.1 average. Nevertheless, Ohio State finished last in the Big Ten for the second straight year.
Obviously, the Buckeyes would need more talent, and Miller and his staff set about getting it. Unlike Taylor, who hesitated to recruit outside of Ohio and to take full advantage of the prestige of such former players as John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas and the help of the world's largest alumni association, Miller enlisted support wherever he could find it. No detail was overlooked. Grads were asked to write letters, make telephone calls and chat with recruits while they were laying over at airports en route to visiting Columbus. Meanwhile, the coaches were corresponding with 500 prospects across the U.S., scouting 100 of them in games, visiting with 75 and inviting 17 to come to the OSU campus. As a result, Ohio State signed six freshmen this year, all of them blue-chippers.
The Buckeyes won out over some stiff competition for those recruits. The prize catch, 6'11" Center Herb Williams, Ohio's Class AAA Player of the Year, also considered Michigan, UCLA and Maryland. When Williams agreed to enroll at Ohio State, the usually unflappable Miller got so excited that he told his secretary to take the rest of the day off. No wonder. Four games into his freshman season, Williams is the Buckeyes' leading scorer (23.5 points per game) and rebounder (14.8), while two other All-Ohio freshmen, Forward Jim Smith and Guard Carter Scott, are also in the starting lineup. The other newcomers are Guard Todd Penn, whose high school team won two of the last three Ohio AAA championships; Guard Marquis Miller, the state's Class AA Player of the Year; and Guard Ken Page, an All-America from New York City. Next spring Miller hopes to land two big frontcourt players. Few of his rivals doubt that he will.
The talent bonanza paid off even before the season began by generating so much enthusiasm that a record 5,500 season tickets were sold. All three of the Buckeye home games have been sellouts, compared to one full house all last year and two in Taylor's final season.
To some Ohioans, it is not enough to call this the best freshman class in the country or to point to the good start as an omen for seasons ahead. They prefer praise of a higher order, declaring this year's crop "the best since Lucas, Havlicek and Mel Nowell," who played in the NCAA finals in 1960, '61 and '62. Perhaps the best indication of how far Ohio State's fortunes had fallen and how fast Miller is reviving them is the fact that those three were recruited about the same year the current freshmen were born.
Among the newcomers, Williams has been the subject of special praise, particularly from Dr. Robert Murphy, who has ministered to the Buckeyes for a quarter century. "He dominates both ends of the floor like no one I've seen since Jerry Lucas," says Murphy. Nowell, now a Columbus businessman and one of the team's color commentators on radio, adds, "These kids are receiving the same kind of fan appreciation we did. I see what happened to us happening all over again to them."
The highest tribute may have come from Stetson Coach Glenn Wilkes after his Hatters lost 108-71 to the Buckeyes last week. Not only was it Ohio State's third straight victory, giving the team its best start in six years, but the Buckeye score was the highest since 1973. "You add another good recruiting year, and they certainly are potential national champions," Wilkes said.
This Ohio State team, like any that relies on underclassmen, must first learn how to win on the road, which it did not do in a 77-76 loss at Vermont last Saturday. Even so, Miller says, "I believe we're capable of beating every team we play. Last year I didn't."
It is unfortunate that Ohio State's current success must be measured against the failure of Taylor to produce a Big Ten champion after 1971 or a winning record in any of his last three seasons. He was a superb teacher of basketball from the moment he took over at Ohio State in 1959. In 18 years there, he won the Big Ten seven times, the Mideast Region four times and the NCAA once—in 1960, when he was 35 years old. He produced four All-Americas, was Coach of the Year twice and served as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. His integrity was universally admired by his colleagues.
But at the end, Taylor had lost his taste for battle. He was frustrated by his inability to get along with Weaver, particularly in matters relating to the hiring and firing of assistant coaches, and disillusioned by the infamous 1972 brawl that occurred in a Minnesota-Ohio State game. That incident, which resulted in two Minnesota players being suspended and two Buckeyes being injured, "left me scarred," Taylor says. "I wasn't the same after that. The world I knew just wasn't the same. There seemed to be more furor among people here over an opponent cheating in football than the fact that two of our basketball players had to be taken to the hospital."
Even if there had been no fight, Taylor's decline was probably inevitable. His last two assistants, Bob Burkholder and Ben Waterman, were poor recruiters, and Taylor's own methods were out of step with the times. According to one former Big Ten coach, Buckeye recruiting after 1970 was considered laughably inept by rivals. Largely because OSU is the state's main university and attracted some Ohio schoolboys on that basis alone, it enjoyed a measure of success into the early '70s. Still, Ohio State has not had a first-team all-conference selection since Allan Hornyak, who was recruited in 1969.
Recruiting has always been the least enjoyable duty for many coaches. As described by Ohio State's current athletic director, Hugh Hindman, "It is a brutal, full-time job. It is much more time-consuming than coaching. You have to get up earlier, stay at it later, get there first and get there last. If Fred had been flexible enough to stay with the times the way Woody Hayes has, there wouldn't have been a problem."
That there was a problem was made quite clear to Taylor by Weaver in the spring of 1975. "I indicated informally that there was concern among the athletic administration about the decline of the team." says Weaver, "and I related the importance of having a good recruiting year." Taylor says Weaver told him to "win or else." Weaver denies that there was any such ultimatum, although his memory when discussing Taylor can be very selective.
Recruiting was a particularly unpleasant chore for Taylor, whose unyielding personal standards were often stricter than the letter—and even the spirit—of the NCAA rule book. While other coaches scoured the nation for players and, if necessary, used minority programs and other special provisions to get them into school, Taylor stuck mainly to Ohio and did not look for any loopholes in admission requirements. That is why he did not join in the pursuit of such Ohio products as Scott May, Bo Lamar and Ed Ratleff, who became All-Americas elsewhere. Because of this, when Taylor did go after a qualified black athlete, opposing coaches would try to scare the prospect by saying that Taylor did not really want any blacks. Eventually that feeling became pervasive even in Columbus' black community, particularly after an OSU player, Wardell Jackson, advised other blacks to go elsewhere. As a result, as other Big Ten teams won championships with lineups featuring numerous black stars, Ohio State rarely had more than one black among its starters. And that one almost invariably fit the mold of OSU's white players—tractable instate kids who, unlike most youngsters, found Taylor's ultra-low-key, no-promises approach attractive.
Nonetheless, former black players like Nowell and Jim Cleamons are strong supporters of Taylor. "Those people who had doubts about Fred could only see the surface," says Nowell. "They didn't know the man."
Taylor's problem was not so much that he failed to recruit black players, but that he failed to land the best players of any description. Bill Hosket, a star of the late '60s and now a Columbus businessman, says, "I can't say enough for him as a man and as a coach, but I have to say his downfall was recruiting. Sure, Fred is highly principled, but so is Miller. The difference is that Miller is more aggressive. Fred didn't understand that there were people who wanted to help him. He said he didn't want to inconvenience anyone. Fred had been used to kids just waiting for the invitation to come to Ohio State. It was that way with me, but not the players of today. They think nothing of leaving the state. Just look at Kevin Grevey and Mike Phillips, who went to Kentucky, and Phil Hubbard and Steve Grote, who went to Michigan. Fred didn't stay in touch with changing ideas. When he retired, I was so caught up in the emotion of getting basketball back to where it was that for a while I thought I wanted the job myself."
As Taylor examines his recruiting style, he admits, "Maybe I wasn't too smart, but I was raised with the idea that your word was your bond. I really resented a kid who said he was coming and then went somewhere else. That happened with Nick Weatherspoon [Illinois] and Larry Harris [Pittsburgh]. Havlicek always told me I was too low-key, but when people say I can't recruit, I think about guys like Hosket and Cleamons. That's a slap at them." Indeed, Cleamons, who plays for the New York Knicks, says, "I wasn't going to Ohio State until I talked to Taylor and found out how much I liked him. He didn't wine and dine you and tell you what you wanted to hear. I got out of Ohio State just what Fred said I would get."
In this respect, at least, Taylor and Miller seem to be alike. Sophomore Jim Ellinghausen, Miller's first Ohio State recruit, says, "Miller is an honest man, a common guy. He doesn't tell you all kinds of garbage or dress flashy."
Miller has been smart enough to say only good things about the man who preceded him, while taking special care to give the program his personal stamp. Ohio State players wear new uniforms, and Ohio State boosters are now members of the Center Circle Club instead of the Rebounders Club. The coaching staff will speak to just about any group with a vacant podium. Miller himself has given more than 200 talks since being hired. On each occasion he impresses the audience with his sincerity and determination, but he does not waste much time trying to make anybody laugh. "He's as hard a worker as I've ever seen, short of our football coach," says Weaver, who retired this year. "He's at it night and day. Nothing takes precedence."
If all this effort pays off in the way many Ohioans are already expecting it to, there will be another championship-team picture in the lobby of St. John Arena. Taylor will not be around if it happens. He figures to be somewhere else after Jan. 1, 1979, because by then he will have put in enough time to qualify for the state's retirement program.
Taylor never made more than $28,000 a year or drove a free car or drew a bonus for his appearances in postseason tournaments. He turned down a more lucrative offer from Northwestern in 1973, because he never cared that much for money and always thought he would end his career at Ohio State. But a cubicle in the school's intramural office is certainly not what he had in mind. Now he thinks he might give college coaching another try, probably at an institution where he does not have to fight the athletic director or compromise his ideas about how to run a program.
"I think we are coming back to a time when the degree is important and the game is played for pure enjoyment," he says. "We had championship teams at Ohio State without going beyond certain principles, and I see no reason to change."
One of OSU's former players believes Taylor probably would have tried to recruit Ohio State's current freshmen himself—or at least the five from Ohio, all of whom would have qualified for the school even under Taylor's strict entrance requirements. But no, the ex-Buckeye added, Fred probably could not have gotten any of them to come.