As we sat before a dinner plate of Sicilian meatloaf, relaxing with a glass of the grape, the discussion drifted to where it typically does with friends during off hours.
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I hear the question enough to know it already has been answered in the minds of those asking. They simply want to confirm their opinion, with help from boots-on-the-ground information.
My insider intel? Absolutes are hard to find, especially this season, when Ohio State trots out a new quarterback and rookie coach — not counting the three games Ryan Day ran the show last season.
That said, the thing to look for as the Buckeyes move through the fall is whether their quarterback and coach have the “it” factor.
In a little more than two decades covering Ohio State, I can count on two hands and 10 toes the number of players who showed an amazing ability to play loose in the tightest moments.
Topping the list would be Maurice Clarett, who changed games just by jogging onto the field. His ball strip of Miami defensive back Sean Taylor in the 2002 national championship game serves as Exhibit A of what it means to have “it.”
Coaches need to have it for their teams to win championships. Woody Hayes had it. Jim Tressel had it. Urban Meyer had it.
Doug Plank, the former Ohio State and Chicago Bears defensive back — for whom the Bears’ vaunted “46 defense” derived its name; Plank wore No. 46 — played for Mike Ditka and with Walter Payton, who both had the special something that set them apart.
“It’s not always the smartest coach … sometimes it’s guys who get into your mind and heart and get you to play 100% all the time,” Plank said, referencing Ditka and Hayes. “There are three types of coaches: aspirin, penicillin and chemo. The aspirin coaches’ words have small effect; the penicillin is a good coach who knows about the sport but doesn’t have ‘it.’ The chemo coach comes in — like Ditka or Hayes — and they command attention. You feed off their energy. You have no choice because they take over the room.”
Does Day qualify as a chemo coach? We won’t know until we see the product under extreme pressure.
And it must be extreme.
Rob Bell, a sports psychologist from Indianapolis, compared an athlete excelling in the biggest moments to the Apollo 13 aborted moon mission.
“You have to have adversity for it to come out. Apollo 13, the reason people remember that one is because of the adversity,” Bell said. “We remember the first moon landing, but not the others, because we remember (performance) under adversity.”
Bell teaches that the ability to maintain poise and make plays under pressure can be learned.
“I don’t believe anyone is innately born with it, but it’s something you experience and are trained for,” he said, crediting upbringing and work ethic as contributing factors.
Does Justin Fields have it? He better, because the Buckeyes will not reach their ultimate goal of a national championship without the sophomore throwing or scrambling for a big play when absolutely necessary.
I caught up with former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer for his views on the importance of finding “it” players.
“Hell yeah, you try to recruit it,” the college Hall of Famer said. “But not everybody has it, that true self-confidence.”
Switzer listed his top three go-to players from Oklahoma: tight end Keith Jackson and running backs Billy Sims and Joe Washington. Switzer also mentioned quarterback Troy Aikman, who he coached for two years at Oklahoma and later with the Dallas Cowboys.
“You’ve got to have a quarterback with the “it” factor,” Switzer said, “because they win games.”
Fields can have a strong arm and show expertise in eluding tacklers, but how will he fare on third-and-long when Ohio State trails by four with 35 seconds left?
I don’t know. My dinner friends don’t know. No one knows. But we know the Buckeyes’ hopes ride on their coach and QB having it. If they do, it could be a special season.