Adversity manifests itself in different ways. For example, if you awake in the morning face down on the pavement, that's a hint it's probably not going to be a real good day for you. Ohio State Quarterback Art Schlichter got a similar signal last fall when, as an 18-year-old freshman playing in his first college game, he threw five interceptions and ended up face down a whole lot while the Buckeyes took an ignominious 19-0 thrashing from Penn State. Of his 26 passing attempts, he completed 12 to guys wearing shirts that matched his. "I'd have had a heckuva percentage if they had just counted all the balls I threw that were caught by someone," he says. On that same long afternoon, he rushed for minus 15 yards.
Reflecting the other day on the bad times, Schlichter said, "The important thing to understand is that you always have to go through adversity to get to the good." Last Saturday on a gloriously sun-kissed November day in Ann Arbor, Schlichter (pronounced Schlee-ster) completed the climb from the Valley of Despair to the summit of Mount Ecstasy.
Before the largest crowd ever to see a regular-season college game—106,255—Schlichter hit on 12 of 22 passes for 196 yards to lead the Buckeyes to a thrilling 18-15 triumph over Michigan. It was Ohio State's first win over the Wolverines since 1975; it was also the first time since then that the Bucks have even scored a touchdown on their Most Hated Rival. Thus, surprising Ohio State completed the regular season undefeated and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl, where its opponent probably will be Southern California (9-0-1). Michigan, inheriting Ohio State's role of late, will be on the bowl season undercard, having accepted an offer to meet North Carolina (6-3-1) in the Gator Bowl.
In the process of spearheading Ohio State's resurgence, Schlichter has made a case for himself as the nation's preeminent quarterback and the winter-book favorite for the 1980 Heisman. And he still has two more years to play for Ohio State. But is Art Schlichter a great quarterback?
November 26, 1979
Art considers the question, then says softly, "He wishes he could be."
Wish no more, Arthur. For as Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler conceded in the gloom of defeat, "Schlichter makes the difference."
Not that Bo is surprised. After all, it was only two years ago that Art and his parents were guests of Schembechler at this same game when Michigan was putting on a recruiting rush to get the young man from Miami Trace High School in Bloomingburg, Ohio to matriculate at Ann Arbor. But, as Schlichter says, "You can't underestimate the thrill of playing at Ohio State University for Ohio kids."
Nor can Ohio State underestimate the thrill of having Schlichter play for it. Fred Zechman, Schlichter's high school coach, now in his first year as a Buckeye assistant in charge of quarterbacks and receivers, says, "He's a passer who can run and a runner who can pass." He's also smart and durable, and getting smarter every day. Zechman recalls a time in high school when Schlichter checked off a play called by the coach, then threw an interception. Zechman summoned his protègè off the field and bellowed, "If I get fired, it's going to be because of one of my dumb calls, not one of yours. Now get out there and call my plays." But there is a chemistry between the two. Indeed, in high school and college games in which Zechman has coached and Schlichter has quarterbacked, their record is 39-0-1.
Art's father Max, who farms 1,000 acres—corn, soybeans, wheat—near Washington Court House, says of his son, "When he was four years old, I knew he was different. With a basketball, most little kids slap at it. He dribbled it." Art's fanaticism for games involving various kinds of balls meant the family home was decorated in Early Broken, Late Bent and Smudged Provincial. His mother, Mila, once tried to raise African violets but gave up when none proved strong enough to withstand Arthur and his games. "If he's still, he's ill," says Mila.
By sixth grade, Schlichter says, he sensed he might have some athletic ability. How so? "I scored all the points." And by seventh grade he could look at three receivers at once, an ability usually not acquired until college, if then. A recruiter marveled at his talents but wondered how Schlichter was to get along with. Said Miami Trace Athletic Director Dick Hill, "No problem. We haven't told him yet how good he is."
But such talent couldn't be hidden. When former Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes visited, Schlichter was concerned that he wouldn't get a chance to pass in Woody's run-dominated offense. Said Hayes, "In time, we will vary our offense." That was hardly an all-out commitment to a passing game, but it was good enough for Schlichter.
When Schlichter arrived at Columbus last year, happy times did not immediately ensue. Although it was kept hidden from the public, there was a revolt of sorts by black players in preseason practice when Schlichter was installed as starting quarterback ahead of the black incumbent. Rod Gerald, who was shifted to split end. Complicating all this was that Hayes' concept of a passing offense too often consisted of sending out one receiver, which can make a quarterback's life trying. The Buckeyes struggled to a 7-4-1 record. Schlichter threw a depressing 21 interceptions, and Hayes got fired for taking out his frustrations on a Clemson linebacker in a 17-15 Gator Bowl loss.
Earle Bruce, the former Iowa State coach, took over at Columbus to thunderous skepticism. "Let's face it," says Linebacker Jim Laughlin, "everybody had their doubts about Coach Bruce."
No more. Schlichter has erupted into stardom—his father says. "Arthur isn't fooling when he says he likes pressure situations"—and Bruce has been one step short of miraculous. Injuries have beset the team, but Bruce has proved to be a magician at disguising the consequent weak points. Both of his starting flankers have missed games because of injuries; the tailback was lost for the season; others dropped out and no-names took over. Bruce even switched Paul Campbell, his fullback and the Bucks' leading ground-gainer, to tight end for the UCLA game. Malcontents of last year, notably Middle Guard Tim Sawicki, have come on like gangbusters.
Bruce has managed the delicate feat of tiptoeing around Hayes. Make no mistake. Woody still holds office in Columbus: as Acting God. He is widely defended, deferred to and feared. Before the Michigan game, Bruce asked him to speak to the team; Woody did. But Bruce made it clear from the start that he is his own man, a different man. Bruce confers freely with the press, and so do his staff and players. They've become absolute chatterboxes. No longer do headsets fly on the sidelines. No longer does emotion overrule strategy. The yard markers are safe from abuse. Times, they have a-changed. "If we had been told to go out last year and win one for Woody," says one player, "we would have lost 60-0."
The fact that things are different—that there is an unmistakable new spirit at Ohio State—explains why the Buckeyes arrived in Ann Arbor undefeated and left in the same condition. It was not, however, easy.
For openers, Schembechler had given his Wolverines a new look, too. He started a freshman quarterback. Rich Hewlett, whose total game experience until Saturday had been mopping up to the tune of four rushes and two incomplete passes against Wisconsin. "Our offense had been tailing off," said Schembechler, "and I wanted to try to do something about it." Too, Schembechler had had uneven luck alternating B. J. Dickey, who can run the option well but passes poorly, and John Wangler, who throws ropes, but to whom running the option is one of life's mysteries. Four weeks ago, Dickey was" hurt and he has been out of action since. Wangler alone was no ball of fire: thus the nod to Hewlett.
After a Schlichter pass was intercepted with 6:57 to play in the first quarter (it was only his fifth interception all year), Hewlett drove Michigan from the Ohio State 31 to a third and one on the Buckeyes' two. But an option keeper by Hewlett got nowhere, and on fourth and one, the usually conservative Schembechler disdained the gimme field goal and ordered up another option. Again the Buckeyes held.
Just three plays later, operating out of his own end zone, Schlichter had to use all his wit and guile to elude being tackled for a safety. Scrambling adroitly, he spotted Calvin Murray for a 25-yard completion. Thus were two big opportunities blown by Michigan.
The fun part of the Buckeyes' day started with 11:30 to go in the second quarter. Michigan went into punt formation at fourth and seven on its own 36. Bryan Virgil faked the kick and threw what was recorded as a pass, but which looked more like a hot-dog wrapper caught in the breeze as the ball fluttered harmlessly to the artificial turf. Such daring was un-Bo-like but, as it turned out, Michigan was not fatally hurt just then. The Wolverine defense denied Ohio State a first down, and Vlade Janakievski's 46-yard field-goal attempt was wide to the right.
But on Ohio State's next possession, which featured some nifty running by third-team Tailback Jim Gayle, who gained 72 yards on the day, the Buckeyes finally squeezed out a 23-yard field goal by Janakievski to make it 3-0 with 3:48 to play in the half.
At which point Wangler came in for Hewlett, who had injured his left ankle, and on his fifth play Wangler threw a spectacular pass to freshman Anthony Carter for a 59-yard touchdown. But then, with only 1:30 left in the half, Schlichter put on a display of masterful passing. Throwing into the teeth of the Wolverines' prevent defense, he drove the Bucks 72 yards in eight plays, ultimately settling for Janakievski's second field goal, a 25-yarder.
In the third quarter Schlichter finally got it done. On third down at the Michigan 18, he unloaded a pass toward Split End Chuck Hunter racing for the corner flag. Defensive Back Mike Jolly tipped the ball, but Hunter reached out with his left hand and somehow held on even as he tumbled to the ground at the corner of the end zone. The long TD drought was over. Said Hunter, with a straight face, "I was playing for the tip." But Jolly intercepted a pass for a 2-point conversion attempt, so the score was Ohio State 12, Michigan 7.
Wangler trotted back on the field and again connected with Carter, this time for a 66-yard gainer. Five plays later, Roosevelt Smith rammed the ball barely across the goal line from the one to put the Wolverines back on top. Smith took it in for a 2-point conversion to put Michigan a head 15-12.
Then disaster struck the Wolverines. With 11:21 to play in the game, Virgil came in to punt from his own 38. Ten Ohio State players massed at the line of scrimmage, intent on blocking the kick instead of setting up a runback. It was Linebacker Laughlin who came through the left side untouched to block the kick. He had been crashing in through the right all year, but Bruce decided to switch him, guessing that Michigan would have been prepared for him in his normal route. Laughlin leaped and the ball hit both forearms. Buckeye Safety Vince Skillings tried to pick up the ball but only kicked it, and it wobbled toward the goal, before taking a big hop directly into the arms of Ohio State Linebacker Todd Bell, who ran it in from the 18-yard line. Afterward a grinning Bell wore a button that read PRAISE THE LORD. Michigan was doomed when Ohio State—thanks again to some astute Schlichter quarterbacking and running—controlled the ball for all but 17 seconds of the last 5:24. All told, Ohio State had gained 432 yards to Michigan's 298.
Afterward, Schembechler said, "The point is that our kicking game has been disastrous. With a decent kicker, well, I don't say we'd be undefeated [the Wolverines are 8-3], but we'd sure be better. I'll tell you, if I were the greatest high school kicker in the country, I'd contact Schembechler, because he's definitely interested."
Meanwhile, back on the farm, Mila Schlichter was asked how good she thinks her boy Art is, and she said, "I just hope he's a good person." For his part, Art put his feet up his days of adversity well behind him, and smiled his unaffected all-American hero smile. "All this is a dream come true," he said. "Is that corny?" Nope.