LOS ANGELES — The traffic in LA is terrible. Mile after mile of bumper to bumper. But it’s better than Cairo, where waiting hours behind the wheel is a national pastime.
“At least you have lanes here,” said Ragy, my Uber driver from Egypt. “In Cairo, there are no rules of the road. But that also is misleading, because somehow it just works.”
Kind of like Ohio State bowl game preparation. No rules — every coach does it differently — but somehow the Buckeyes have made it work in their last two trips to the Rose Bowl. How?Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
What makes one team perform like a champ and another crumble like a chump? That question percolated in my cranial coffee pot, sidetracked only when Ragy slammed the brakes while navigating the freeways — an oxymoron if ever there was — like Steve McQueen in "Bullitt" (Google the best chase scene in movie history.)
I’ve covered dozens of bowl games and watched hundreds more. I saw Ohio State often get outcoached in the Rose Bowl during the 1970s, thought Jim Tressel’s bowl teams were nearly invincible in the 2000s — until Florida proved me wrong — and have written about how Urban Meyer is a maestro come bowl season (except for that Clemson thing).
John Cooper couldn’t win Florida bowls but was 2-0 in Pasadena, where he coached the Buckeyes to a 20-17 win against Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl, 10 years after leading ASU to a 22-15 win against Michigan in the 1987 granddaddy of them all.
Cooper’s quick analysis of bowl prep?
“There’s a fine line between having fun and really working the team hard to get ready to try to win the game,” said the only coach to win a Rose Bowl with teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12, a feat that earned Cooper a place in the Rose Bowl hall of fame.
“The game has changed,” he continued. “In the old days, you went to a bowl game as a reward for having a great year. I’m not sure there was as much emphasis on winning the game in those days as there is now. You always tried to win the game, but the national championship was awarded before the bowls were played.”
(It’s true. From 1936 to ’64, and again in ’66 and ’67, the Associated Press released its final rankings before the bowls; the final coaches poll did not happen after the bowls until 1974.)
Maybe that explains why Woody Hayes had a heck of a time winning Rose Bowls in the 1970s. Hayes went 1-4 during the decade. He treated the game less like a reward and more like an attack against what then was called the Pac-8. His players did not respond well, to the point of openly revolting against Hayes’ heavy-handed rules and grueling practices.
Ohio State fans of a certain age recall the misery of the Buckeyes flying west only to lose Rose Bowls to Stanford (1971), Southern California (’73 and ’75) and UCLA (’76), the lone win coming against USC in ’74.
So distressing were those losses — three of which likely cost OSU a national title — that it is a challenge to recall that the Buckeyes have turned Pasadena into their winning playground their last two trips.
“I would say when we beat Arizona State, that was my best memory,” Cooper said. “That was a great ASU team with Jake Plummer, and we won it coming back after it looked like we would lose the dang thing.”
The No. 4 Buckeyes scored with 19 seconds left on a 5-yard pass from Joe Germaine to David Boston, handing the No. 2 Sun Devils their first loss and ruining their national championship hopes.
At the 2010 Rose Bowl, Tressel’s Buckeyes ended a three-game losing streak in postseason play. After losing to Florida, LSU and Texas in consecutive BCS games over three seasons, No. 8 Ohio State defeated No. 7 Oregon 26-17 in Pasadena.
“Tressel was a little more laid back in bowls than in a normal week,” former Ohio State wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “Obviously, he still wanted to win that game, but more rope was given. He saw the bigger picture of what it meant to be out there.”
Jim Cordle, who played center for the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl win against the Ducks, agrees that Tressel was great with the bowl games.
“He wanted guys to enjoy the bowl experience, but as far as on the field, I don’t think he was any different,” Cordle said. “Bowl practice and prep were exactly the same as regular season.”
Cordle also saw how Meyer handled bowl workouts while working under him in 2015-16.
“I’m sure coach Meyer is treating it the same way. I read that Ryan Day is doing more of the recruiting and coach Meyer the game-day stuff,” Cordle said. “With this being his last game before retiring, everyone knows the players will play hard for him. Hopefully, that will be the case.”