Rob Oller | 3 losses to Clemson have transformed Ohio State football

Rob Oller
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer walks off the field after losing 31-0 in College Football Playoff semifinal Fiesta Bowl against the Clemson Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Dec. 31, 2016. (Kyle Robertson / The Columbus Dispatch)

You can’t spell Clemson without lemons, and Ohio State’s history against the school is filled with them. Failures, flop jobs and duds. The Buckeyes are 0-3 against the Tigers, but given the small sample size, it is a reach to say that Clemson is OSU’s nemesis.

But it is no reach to call Clemson the graveyard of Ohio State coaches. The twist? The Tigers also are the Buckeyes’ birthing center, bringing life to ever-expectant fans.

Graveyard: All three of Clemson’s wins resulted in coaching changes at Ohio State, two of which were particularly significant. The most famous came after a 17-15 loss to Clemson in the 1978 Gator Bowl, in which Woody Hayes punched Tigers nose guard Charlie Bauman on the sideline after Bauman’s fateful interception of Art Schlichter’s fourth-quarter pass.

Ohio State fired Hayes the next day, and the dismissal dramatically changed the trajectory of the program. It was initially for the better — the Buckeyes finished 11-1 in 1979, having come within one point of winning the Rose Bowl — losing 17-16 to Southern California — and securing a national championship under Earle Bruce. But Ohio State soon settled into relative mediocrity under Bruce, who followed his sterling debut with six consecutive 9-3 seasons.

Birthing center: Bruce unknowingly set in motion the most successful stretch of Ohio State football — in a six-degrees-of-separation sort of way. In 1983, he hired Jim Tressel to coach Ohio State quarterbacks and wide receivers. Tressel served three years under Bruce before leaving for Youngstown State, where he enjoyed so much success that athletic director Andy Geiger plucked him out of northeastern Ohio to replace John Cooper in 2001.

Bruce’s other huge hire was in 1986 when he employed a green graduate assistant named Urban Meyer. Two seasons later, Meyer took his “It’s always fourth-and-1” coaching mindset to the first of a series of other stops, eventually winning two national championships at Florida before taking over at Ohio State in 2012.

Without Bauman getting in the way — ahem — of Woody’s right hook, Tressel and Meyer might never have been invited to Columbus . If not, who knows if they combine for a 189-31 (.859) record and coach the Buckeyes to national championships in 2002 and 2014?

Graveyard: Clemson 31, Ohio State 0. The 2016 Fiesta Bowl debacle was the first time a Meyer-coached team had been shut out. And the Urbanator didn’t take it well. Within a week of the embarrassing College Football Playoff semifinal loss, offensive co-coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck were out.

Meyer insisted he did not fire them, explaining that both wanted to pursue other opportunities. Tomato-tomahto. It didn’t help that quarterback J.T. Barrett was less than stellar against Clemson — Beck hinted in a glum postgame locker room that it is hard to make chicken salad with chicken … droppings — but all Meyer saw was the goose egg. And the coordinators’ gooses were cooked.

“Ohio State is not used to this,” Meyer said after the game. “I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this. That’s not going to happen again. So we’ll get things worked out.”

Birthing center: Things worked out. Meyer hired Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator and some NFL guy named Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach. Three seasons later, Day is 16-0 as a head coach, including 13-0 this season. Wilson is a steady influence who held Day’s hand through the head coaching transition. Out of the ashes …

Graveyard: Speaking of ash, the arrival of defensive co-coordinator Chris Ash in January 2014 after Clemson had throttled the Buckeyes defense for 378 passing yards — receiver Sammy Watkins had 16 receptions for 227 yards — in a 40-35 Orange Bowl win signaled the death of Luke Fickell’s shot at running the defense by himself.

Birthing center: Ash helped turn a pass defense that ranked 110th in passing yards allowed into a solid outfit that ranked 28th in 2014 and helped the Buckeyes win the national championship. Ash left for Rutgers after the 2015 season — talk about a graveyard! — and Meyer hired friend Greg Schiano to assist Fickell. Schiano got the job done … until he didn’t. Then Day, who probably wouldn’t be here if Woody’s punch had missed, took care of that.

Ohio State fans who curse Clemson should send the Tigers a thank-you card as well.


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