One gets the feeling that when they dine out, Buckeye fans are quick to send their filet mignon back to the kitchen.
During the question-and-answer period at the Sept. 29 meeting of the Ohio State Quarterback Club, a few of the older boosters brought a matter of grave concern to the attention of coach John Cooper. Sure, they said, it was great that the team was undefeated and that wide receiver Joey Galloway was scoring all those touchdowns, but did Galloway have to get so happy afterward—remove his helmet, strut around, that sort of thing?
Replied Cooper: Lighten up.
We're paraphrasing, slightly. "You oughta be happy if you make a great play," said Cooper in Galloway's defense. He reminded his audience that former Buckeye coach Woody Hayes had tolerated the touchdown shimmies of quarterback Cornelius Greene and the celebratory backflips of safety Tim Fox. And on the subjects of long hair and earrings, Cooper said, "I have a feeling Coach Hayes would have adapted to the times."
October 10, 1993
He dares speak for Woody! Now in his sixth year in Columbus, Cooper has reason to be emboldened. His team's 51-3 dismantling of Northwestern last Saturday improved the Buckeyes' 1993 record to 4-0 and solidified their No. 6 ranking. Those weren't boos cascading on Cooper as he strode off the held after the game. The fans at Ohio Stadium were yelling, "Coooop!"—bless their fickle hearts.
That's right, the guy who came within a play of losing his job last year now answers to Coop. Nice game, Coop. Keep it up. Coop. The 55-year-old Cooper was coaching Arizona State when Ohio State hired him in 1988 to replace Earle Bruce, who was canned after nine seasons for winning a mere 75% of his games. By the beginning of this year Cooper had made many in the Buckeye State nostalgic for Bruce: Cooper's winning percentage was .600, and he was 0-4 in bowl games and 0-4-1 against Michigan.
That tie came at an opportune time. Before last year's Michigan game The Columbus Dispatch reported that another loss to the Wolverines would cost Cooper his job. Facing fourth-and-goal on the Michigan five with 4:24 remaining and the Wolverines leading 13-6, Ohio State's Kirk Herbstreit threw a scoring pass to Greg Beatty, and the Buckeyes hung on for a 13-13 tie. University president Gordon Gee's jubilant assessment of the stalemate—"This tie is one of our greatest wins ever"—was interpreted as naked relief that he wouldn't have to lire a decent man.
And a better-than-decent coach. The Buckeyes' 21-12 win over Washington last month thrust them, for the first time in Cooper's tenure, into the AP's Top 10. Ol' Coop is the toast of the town...for now. Ohio State's sternest tests—Penn State at home, Michigan in Ann Arbor—lie ahead, and Cooper has not exactly established himself as a big-game coach. Before this season his Ohio State teams were 3-13-2 against ranked opponents.
Two things, however, separate this Buckeye squad from Cooper's previous teams: an abundance of speed and an absence of controversy. The ascension of Florida teams has finally convinced Big Ten coaches that the days of pounding the ball behind stegosauruslike offensive linemen are over. "We've begun to realize," says Cooper, "that if we're going to compete with the big boys, we're going to have to recruit speed."
A roll call of Ohio State's fleet:
•Galloway spent Saturday accelerating past Northwestern's cornerbacks. He caught six balls for 119 yards and scored the Buckeyes' third touchdown—and his sixth of the season—on a reverse.
•Tailback Butler By'not'e, who scored Ohio States first touchdown against the Wildcats, is the speediest man in college football and also its leader in apostrophes. Both titles are unofficial. Two years in a row By'not'e has outraced all comers in the University Football 40, which takes place at the Stanford Invitational track meet in the spring. Next year By'not'e will run sprints for the defending Big Ten champion Buckeye track team, as will wide receiver Chris Sanders, who has long-jumped 26'9¾".
•Outside linebacker Craig Powell is a defender with serious wheels. Against Washington he ran the width of the field and caught Husky tailback Beno Bryant—who runs the 40 in 4.31 seconds—saving a touchdown.
•Even Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson, the Buckeyes' 6'5", 305-pound defensive tackle, can motor. Big Daddy ran the 40 in 4.87 three years ago—when he weighed 350. Now that Wilkinson is down to a gaminesque three bills, he is even faster.
Meanwhile, that eerie silence emanating from the the Ohio State locker room is...harmony. "This place was a carnival for a while," says quarterback Bobby Hoying. "The year I got here , we went 7-4-1, and everybody wondered if Coach Cooper was going to be here that much longer."
Cooper kept his job, but the following August, starting tailback Robert Smith quit his. Smith, who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings, walked off the team, claiming he had been instructed by assistant coach Elliot Uzelac to skip classes in a summer school premed course in order to be on the field for double sessions. Uzelac denied the allegation, but he eventually lost his job, and the fallout from the incident made Cooper's hold on his position even more tenuous.
Rumors about Cooper's status continued to distract the team last fall. Gee announced in midseason that he would review Cooper's contract at the end of the year, triggering intense speculation. Then a local radio station reported, incorrectly, that Cooper had resigned to take the coaching job at Arkansas.
Finally came the Wolverine drama. "Our jobs, our futures, the security of our families, came down to one play," recalls quarterback coach Ron Hudson. "If we get [the touchdown], we got a chance. If we don't, we're gone."
The Buckeyes' reprieve—and their current return to prominence—shows that even a well-coached team needs a little luck. That's what Cooper had in recruiting strong safety Chico Nelson, who hails from Sarasota, Fla. Wooed by all the football powers in his state, Nelson chose to matriculate in Columbus. Why? "Two reasons," he says. "I remembered seeing [former Buckeye receiver] Cris Carter on TV wearing red Nikes. I wanted to wear red Nikes. And I wanted to see snow."
Nelson, a defensive co-captain who had one of Ohio State's five interceptions on Saturday, has seen plenty of snow. His opponents have seen stars. The man is a headhunter. "In the spring game two years ago," says defensive coordinator Bill Young, "he hit [tight end] Cedric Saunders so hard, we thought he'd knocked Cedric's head off. His helmet flew off, his mouthpiece came out. It scared us all."
Nelson's fellow headhunter, Wilkinson, had seen plenty of snow in his native Dayton—and plenty of food. When Cooper offered him a scholarship in 1991, they made a deal: If Big Daddy reported for summer camp under 310 pounds, he could play as a freshman. Wilkinson reported at 348 and had to spend the season as a redshirt, taking his meals at the Buckeyes' Fat Man's Table.
Redshirting Wilkinson, says Cooper now, was a mistake: "You and I both know he's not going to be around here for two more years." Wilkinson has been called the best defensive lineman in college and is projected as a first-round pick should he come out early for the NFL draft. "I'm thinking about it," he says.
"He weighs 300 and has the feet of a dancer," says Young. Body by Frigidaire, feet by Fred Astaire. Teams run away from him. "It's frustrating, watching all those rollouts away from me," he said after Saturday's game. Wilkinson's five tackles against Northwestern were not an accurate measure of the mayhem he created in the Wildcats' backfield, harassing runners and pressuring quarterback Len Williams into numerous ugly throws.
Williams tossed four interceptions, all of which led to Buckeye touchdowns. Wildcat wideout Lee Gissendaner, the 1992 Big Ten Player of the Year, was not a factor in the game, which was decided by halftime. After wins over Boston College and Wake Forest, said Northwestern coach Gary Barnett, "we got a good, solid dose of reality, right between the eyes."
Downplaying his team's fast start, Cooper said, "Humility is always a week away." As he well knows. A year ago the Buckeyes were 3-0 when they embarked on the trip from hell. "We went up to Wisconsin," says senior guard Dave Monnot. "Our flight got in late. There was a dairy convention in Madison, so we had to stay an hour and a half from the stadium. It was an 11:30 a.m. kickoff for ESPN, so we had to get up at the crack of dawn. Coming off the field after warmups, they pelted us with marshmallows. Better than being pelted with cheese wheels, I guess."
The fired-up Badgers won 20-16. This year's team has vowed to avoid such letdowns, and it is by far the most talented of the Cooper era. Certainly the defense, which has yet to yield a rushing touchdown, is special. A debating topic among Buckeye fans is whether this is the best Ohio State defense since the '84 unit, which featured Chris Spielman and Pepper Johnson, or since the '73 defense of Bob Brudzinski and Randy Gradishar.
However this squad stacks up against those, Cooper's most lasting legacy in Columbus may be that he has lightened the burden for his successors. Some think he has done the unthinkable: lowered the expectations of Buckeye fans, who were spoiled by eight Rose Bowl appearances and three national titles under Hayes. "Earle Bruce had six 9-3 seasons and got fired," says Bruce Hooley of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Last year Cooper went 8-3-1, and people were ecstatic."
Not entirely in agreement is Bruce himself, who now hosts a radio sports-talk show in Columbus. "The people in this town will never be satisfied with anything but winning," he says. "Ohio State is just not a good place for coaches. You've got to be fired, retired or dead—then they'll say you were pretty good."
On the Wall of Champions in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, plaques commemorate the Ohio State teams that won Big Ten titles and national championships. After the plaque for the '86 squad, which shared the conference title with Michigan, there's nothing but empty wall. Lowered expectations or not, if this team doesn't end up in Pasadena, those "Cooops!" could become boos.
"I can't worry about that," says Cooper. "Life's too short to go home with a headache every night."
Every Friday, Cooper takes a dose of Instant Perspective when he and a few players visit patients at Ohio State's Arthur James Cancer Hospital. "You realize there are worse things than losing football games," says Cooper.
"But don't get me wrong," he adds, looking ahead, perhaps, to this week's meeting of the Quarterback Club. "Losing at Ohio State is a close second."