NEBRASKA CASTOFF FRANK SOLICH HAS REBUILT ONCE-HAPLESS OHIO INTO AN UNBEATEN TEAM THAT'S POISED TO BECOME THE NEXT GREAT BCS BUSTER
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2012 issue
Tie score, 10 seconds left, national championship game. Alabama, which has dominated all year with its defense, rushes five against Tyler Tettleton, a 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt junior quarterback at Ohio. No, no, no—not Ohio State. Ohio University, the Bobcats, whom Tettleton embodies perfectly: undersized, underestimated and unheralded. As the final play unfolds, a tide of crimson rises through the stands of Sun Life Stadium, swamping the tiny outcropping of green-clad Ohio fans. Tettleton ignores the din, ignores Jesse Williams, the 6'4", 320-pound nosetackle bearing down on him, and zips a pass that travels 50 yards. All the electricity in the stadium seems to animate the ball as it descends toward the receiver, Landon Smith, who makes the catch and glides into the end zone. Ohio has won the national championship! Tettleton whoops in celebration, and in the excitement his best friend, Dakota, jumps on him and licks his face.
At this point it may be worthwhile to point out that Dakota is a Siberian husky, and that after Tettleton scratches the dog's head and neck, he drops the Xbox remote on the floor and turns off the TV. He kicks back on a threadbare couch in the basement of the five-bedroom house in Athens he rents with four other guys for $564 each a month. He and his buddies recently turned the garage into a party room in which his teammates often gather to watch national powers play in prime time. "We'd love a shot at a team like Alabama," Tettleton says. "That's why I came to Ohio, to play and beat BCS schools."
Pardon? Isn't Tettleton aware that in their 118 years the Bobcats have a losing record (522-525-48)? That they last won the Mid-American Conference championship in 1968, and between '69 and 2009 went to a single bowl game (the '07 GMAC Bowl)? From 1983 through 2008—Tettleton's senior year in high school—Ohio had 92 victories, or 3.5 per year, and just three winning seasons. Sure he is, but in the age of Twitter, where history is something posted a week ago, that's irrelevant. All that matters to Tettleton is that since he arrived in Athens three seasons ago, Ohio has won 27 games and gone to three straight bowls.
Suddenly the Bobcats look like Boise State circa 2003, a mid-major demanding attention from the big boys—and without the benefit of a blue field or an occasional Wednesday night date with ESPN. Their season-opening 24--14 win over depleted Penn State was a program changer, and last Saturday at Peden Stadium they dispatched Buffalo 38--31 to move to 6--0. With a remaining schedule that doesn't include one opponent with a winning record from 2011, Ohio will be favored to run the table and take the MAC title. Come December the Bobcats could well have the résumé to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game.
The man behind the program's ascent is sitting in his immaculate office on the fifth floor at Peden. At 5'8" and a lean 180 pounds, 68-year-old Frank Solich looks as if he hasn't aged more than a month since he was fired as Nebraska's coach in November 2003. Solich is measured with his words but when he talks about his program, he can't suppress a grin. "It's kind of remarkable how far we've come," he says.
For Solich, it has been a journey from a life in Lincoln, where more than a dozen beat reporters scrutinized his every move, to a town in which more student journalists than salaried pens cover the team. Despite Solich's 58--19 record over six years at Nebraska, athletic director Steve Pederson dismissed him. Solich was the epitome of Cornhuskers football: A fullback in the mid-1960s, he was the first Husker to appear on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Then he coached 19 years under Tom Osborne before becoming Osborne's handpicked successor.
"It's still hard for me to understand how that ever happened to Frank," says Osborne, who replaced Pederson as AD in 2007 and last month announced that he'll retire on Jan. 1. "He is a detailed, organized coach and a great recruiter. He got us Eric Crouch, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar, and the list goes on and on. I know that time was very, very hard on Frank."
When Solich is asked about how his career ended in Lincoln, he remembers the bad defeats in 2003—a 41--24 loss to Missouri, a 38--9 loss to Kansas State—and how Pederson stopped coming to the locker room after games. His voice grows soft when he recalls his day of reckoning with Pederson. "I was shocked," he says.
After turning down an offer from Army, Solich spent the 2004 season traveling the country, meeting with coaches at Oklahoma, Texas and USC, learning new concepts. Slowly the hurt from losing his dream job faded, and late that fall he began telling friends he was ready to return to the sideline at a school that met two criteria: It had to be close to an airport and near a large population center.
Those two ingredients flashed through Solich's mind in December 2004, when Ohio inquired about his interest: Athens had neither of them. And the Bobcats, unlike the Huskers, had no pantheon of pros, no multimillion-dollar budget and no success to speak of. But President Roderick McDavis had fired Brian Knorr, who went 11--35 between 2001 and '04, and Solich was curious. He had spent his teenage years in Cleveland, and the notion of building a program—brick by brick, player by player—was appealing simply because it wasn't Nebraska. He wanted, perhaps even needed, something different.
On the day before his interview Solich drove into the city of 24,000 nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. He steered his rental car along the cobblestone streets, past brick academic buildings with a hint of the Ivy League, past sweeping green lawns as well-manicured as any country club's. When he reached Peden Stadium on the banks of the Hocking River and looked at the sunlight bouncing off the stadium's redbrick facade, he was gripped by one thought: If I can just get players here to visit, I can do this.
Days later McDavis offered Solich the job. Before he said yes, Solich called three assistants who had coached with him at Nebraska—offensive coordinator Tim Albin, defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow and quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski—and asked them if they'd join him in Athens. In less than 45 minutes all three had signed on. Solich then told McDavis that he and his Lincoln gang were coming to Ohio. (All three assistants are with Solich today.)
"I was stunned when Frank got back to me so quickly and already had the core of his staff in place," McDavis says. "I knew then we had hired the right guy."
Solich immediately brought the Nebraska Way to Athens. He emphasized the walk-on program (which produced two of Saturday's starters), liberally redshirted (16 current Bobcats are in line for a redshirt), aggressively recruited players with high GPAs ("Smart guys get better," Solich says) and, more than anything, sought out young men in his image: tough. In a recent one-hour conversation Solich used the word tough more than a dozen times—an adjective often applied to him when, as a 153-pound fullback, he earned the nickname Flyin' Frankie.
Solich also pushed to renovate the facilities, which were among the worst in the MAC. "The meetings of the previous staff were held in the press box, and they had to put trash bags over the windows in order to see film," Solich says. "Things like that had to change immediately." And they did. The second level of Peden Stadium, which had housed a large parquet dance floor, was torn up and replaced by position meeting rooms and a team meeting room. The training facilities were expanded and the locker room refurbished to include a players' lounge. Some of the nearly $1 million cost was covered by Nebraskans who were longtime friends of Solich's. Next fall a new $12.5 million indoor practice facility will open its doors. "When we hired Frank, we got a coach who had name recognition and contacts around the country," says athletic director Jim Schaus. "Those contacts have been invaluable."
Especially in recruiting. Though the rosters at Ohio historically have been filled with in-state players, this year 54 Bobcats are from outside the Buckeye State, including a duo from Oklahoma that forms one of the top backfield combinations in the nation. How Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship landed in Athens is instructive because it illustrates precisely how Solich—who has a 56--40 record at Ohio and recently signed a five-year contract extension through 2017—has forged a new Midwestern power.
In December 2009, Albin traveled to Norman to visit one of his former teammates at Northwestern Oklahoma State, Lance Manning, who was a high school coach at Norman North High. Albin was there to put the hard sell on Blankenship, who would eventually sign with Iowa State. But before Albin left, Manning told him, "I've got a quarterback you need to check out."
Albin met Tettleton, the son of former major league catcher Mickey Tettleton. Tyler had torn his right ACL before his junior year and missed that entire season. As a senior he threw for 1,947 yards, rushed for another 547 and accounted for 29 touchdowns, but by then most schools had already filled their recruiting needs at quarterback. His only FBS offer was from New Mexico State. "Just come and visit," Albin told Tettleton.
"It felt like home the minute I got to Athens," Tettleton recalls. "It turned out to be an easy decision."
As Tettleton settled in to life in southeastern Ohio—he redshirted his sophomore year—Blankenship was struggling in Ames. He had suffered several injuries as a freshman and, heading into his second year, was buried on the depth chart. A few days before classes started in 2010, he phoned Tettleton and told his friend from peewee football that he needed a fresh start. "Come here," Tettleton told Blankenship. "You'll love it."
Without ever visiting Athens, Blankenship transferred. This season the 5'9", 202-pound Blankenship, a redshirt junior whose grinding running style wears down defenses (he rushed for 109 yards on 31 carries against Penn State), is averaging 140.5 rushing yards a game, third in the nation. "It was a 17-hour drive from home to get here, but now I can't image being anywhere else," Blankenship said recently as he sat in the bleachers at Peden Stadium. "I've known about Coach Solich for a long time. My dad and I used to watch him at Nebraska. The culture here is just like I imagine it was there."
After losing to Troy 48--21 in the New Orleans Bowl in December 2010, Solich issued a proclamation to his staff: Ohio would abandon the option—and Solich's own pound-the-rock roots—and adopt the spread offense. The next spring he sent two assistants back to Troy to learn the system from the coaches who'd used it against them.
Tettleton is the ideal quarterback for the offense. "I've been around winning teams all my life," says Tettleton, who this season has completed 95 of 152 passes for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 96 yards on 34 carries. "I remember getting sprayed with champagne as a kid with my dad in the Texas locker room after the Rangers clinched their division [in 1998]. I feel like I know what it takes to get the job done."
The most important play of Ohio's season highlighted both Tettleton's mind and his arm. Against Penn State on Sept. 1, the Bobcats had the ball on their own 49-yard line, third-and-two, with 5:40 left in the third quarter. They trailed 14--10. Solich paced the sideline. The last time he was in Happy Valley, with Nebraska in 2002, he lost 40--7. He knew he had a chance to be a part of the biggest win in Ohio history, and he and Albin called for a quick slant to wide receiver Ryan Clark, a former walk-on.
Before the snap Tettleton noticed that the cornerback opposite Clark was lined up to Clark's inside. With a hand signal Tettleton instructed Clark to change his pattern to a slant and go. The coverage was tight, but the pass was Xbox perfect: Tettleton hit Clark in stride down the right side for a 33-yard gain. Four plays later Tettleton ran for a one-yard touchdown, and the Bobcats took the lead for good.
Midway through the six-hour bus ride back to Athens, Solich received a congratulatory call from Osborne. It was one of the sweetest moments of Solich's career, a feeling of satisfaction and respect that even the most lifelike video game can't reproduce. Everything about these Bobcats—the players and coaches on the bus, the fans waiting back in Athens, the whiff of long-term success—is for real.
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