Rob Oller | Ohio State enjoying rare football-basketball excellence

Rob Oller
Ohio State fans can celebrate the men's basketball team's No. 3 ranking in the AP poll this week while the Buckeyes football team is ranked No. 2 in the playoffs. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

These are heady times for Ohio State fans, with their football team headed to the Fiesta Bowl as the No. 2 team in the College Football Playoff ratings and the men's basketball team ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.

Football school or basketball school? Hint: forced to choose, the ball is oval, not round. That said, why can't a school with a top-five football program double up with a top-five hoops program?

Well, it can, but history shows it's not easy.

An look at the best combined football and basketball programs — based on all-time winning percentages entering the current school year — revealed that even the No. 1 school came out nearly 10 spots better in one sport than the other.

Notre Dame topped the findings with a No. 3 football ranking (.727) and No. 12 basketball ranking (.649). But few contend the Fighting Irish currently own the best two programs.

Who does? Ohio State, at the moment. OSU, which placed No. 6 in the combined football-basketball NCAA rankings behind Notre Dame, Texas, UCLA, Alabama and, um, Western Kentucky, is the rare school to reach top-three status simultaneously.

But it's not unique. On Dec. 19, 2007, Ohio State was ranked No. 1 in football and No. 3 in basketball. In the 2006-07 season, the Buckeyes lost to Florida in the BCS championship game in January and to the Gators in the NCAA basketball championship game in April. Chomp, chomp. OSU also was top three in both sports in December 2012.

To be sure, the Buckeyes don't have a monopoly on dual-sport excellence. Michigan State was No. 1 in basketball and No. 3 in football in December 2015 and a handful of other schools have moved in and out of the top-five rankings in both sports over the past decade, including Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, but not often in the same week.

There are challenges to achieving dual success, ranging from unequal financial resources to institutional favoritism. Football recruits know Kentucky alumni care more about basketball. Alabama fans can live with an average hoops team, so why should five-star ballers sign with the Crimson Tide?

ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas takes a pragmatic view.

“Before you're good at two things you better be good at one,” said Bilas, who played at Duke.

Still, Bilas doesn't totally buy the broad-brush view that football programs are naturally hindered from reaching elite levels because they operate at basketball schools, and vice versa.

“Certain places have a better chance, because they're really good at one thing,” Bilas said. “But it's really hard to finish at the tops of these sports. Ohio State is a traditional football power and traditionally has always been very good in basketball. Florida did it for a period. You can be good at both, but you're not (automatically) going to be.”

Hiring elite coaches plays a huge role in schools achieving combined program success, but that, too, is easier said than done. It makes sense that the best coaches from Sport A would shy from taking a job at a school that favors Sport B. Urban Meyer isn't going to re-enter coaching at Dayton any more than Mike Krzyzewski is leaving Duke to join Clemson.

Rare is the top-of-the-line coach who does not need to be first among equals. Thad Matta, the winningest coach in Ohio State history, did not need to outshine his football counterpart. Likewise, Chris Holtmann seems content being the No. 1a to Ryan Day's No. 1.

Credit Ohio State for finding a recipe for success. Hire an A-plus football coach while employing an excellent basketball coach who is comfortable scoring off the bench. Voila.


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