Fifty years ago today, a 14-year-old in the Eastmoor neighborhood of Columbus was struck by the thought that the 1968 Ohio State football team just might be “pretty special.”
“You listened to the games on WVKO radio back then,” Archie Griffin said. “And especially when you listened to that game against Purdue, which came in No.1 in the country. You knew Purdue had some great athletes. And to have the Buckeyes beat them the way they did, then all of a sudden you thought, ‘This Ohio State team could be pretty special.’ "
That’s the day, Oct.12, 1968, when the nation also started paying serious attention to the Buckeyes. Lifted by the mix of “super sophs” and veterans, they went on to dispel rumors of coach Woody Hayes’ demise. They delivered a 10-0 season — including a Rose Bowl win over O.J. Simpson and Southern California — and the school’s fourth national championship.
The team is staging its 50-year reunion this weekend, including introduction on the Ohio Stadium field Saturday during the No.3 Buckeyes’ game vs. Minnesota. One of the 1968 captains, linebacker Mark Stier, and backup quarterback Ron Maciejowski handled the planning. Stier said at least 50 players from the team, plus another 120 family members, were expected for the private banquet Friday night.
“When you consider we’ve had something like 12 members that team pass on, to get back 50 — it’s an amazing group,” Stier said.
What they’re commemorating as much as that title team is the launch of the modern era of OSU football, quarterback Rex Kern said. The program has seen two more national titles (2002 and 2014) and just two losing seasons since then.
“There’s no question it was a turning point, because they were hanging the ‘old man’ (Hayes) in effigy when we were freshmen, they were saying ‘Get rid of him,’ " Kern said. “Woody must have lobbied really hard for one more year, probably saying ‘Just give me an opportunity to see what we can do with these sophomores coming up.’
“I remember that Tiger Ellison, our freshman coach, wrote a note to the ‘old man’ at the end of the spring practice in 1968 that said ‘If we lose any of the 18 sophomores that we’re counting on, coach, we better start packing.’ "
There was no packing. Yet that statement spoke to a widely held impression about the 1968 team. It wasn’t all sophomores, but it seemed like it because that group was star-studded.
“Some of those became legendary names in Ohio State football history,” Griffin said.
They included 11 who had been consensus high school All-Americans — Kern; nose tackle Jim Stillwagon; running backs John Brockington, Leo Hayden and Larry Zelina; receivers Jan White and Bruce Jankowski; defensive backs Jack Tatum, Mike Sensibaugh and Tim Anderson; linebacker Doug Adams; and defensive end Mark Debevc.
“They brought some footspeed that made a big difference,” Stiers said.
But some of the veterans that included Stiers and fullback Jim Otis were no slouches, either.
“The pieces fit together very, very well,” Stiers said. “I mean, we’re having 170 people overall at the reunion, 50 of them players, and it’s 50 years later. What does that say about the group?”
“Our teammates were just great, great people, and we accomplished so much together,” he said. “It wasn’t one guy or two guys — it was a consummate team effort.”
He said he and Stier had the same recollection about one of the fun aspects of the season.
“We guys on the offense were eager to see what the defense was going to do to the opponent when they were on the field,” Kern said. “And he said it was likewise, that those guys were eager to see what our offense was going to do. So it was really a fun time.”
Current OSU coach Urban Meyer was just 4 years old then, but he knows of that team, especially what he considered to be an all-star group of assistant coaches that included Lou Holtz, Earle Bruce, Hugh Hindman, George Chaump, Rudy Hubbard, Lou McCullough and Esco Sarkkinen.
Meyer holds the ’68 team in such high regard that he said he has a picture of it hanging on a wall in his basement, and for one good reason.
“Because I like Ohio State stuff.”