Ohio State team doctor James Borchers is in the middle of Big Ten football debate

Bill Rabinowitz
Dr. James Borchers, an Ohio State football team physician, played for the Buckeyes as a long snapper under coach John Cooper in the early 1990s.

As the Big Ten reconsiders whether to attempt to play football this fall, the most important person representing Ohio State in the discussions probably isn’t president Dr. Kristina Johnson, athletic director Gene Smith or coach Ryan Day.

It’s a doctor whom most people couldn’t have named days ago, or maybe even now. But if the conference presidents vote to try to play, Dr. James Borchers will likely have been as responsible as anyone for the change of heart.

Borchers is the Ohio State team physician who’s one of four members of the executive committee for the Big Ten’s Return to Competition task force. He is co-chair of the medical subcommittee.

Borchers’ presentation Saturday to the eight members of the steering committee consisting of presidents and chancellors was considered a potential game-changer.

“League sources tell me they’re very impressed with Borchers,” college football reporter Adam Rittenberg tweeted Saturday.

That’s no surprise to Urban Meyer and Kirk Herbstreit. Borchers has been a longtime team doctor for OSU and became the athletic department’s head doctor in 2016, during Meyer’s fifth season as coach.

“He's A-plus in every category,” Meyer told The Dispatch on Sunday. “He's an A-plus person, and he’s an A-plus in his job.”

Borchers played for Ohio State in the early 1990s under coach John Cooper as a long snapper. Meyer believes that experience is invaluable.

“Like with (former Notre Dame player) Gene Smith, we're very fortunate at Ohio State that we have people that actually played and were student-athletes,” Meyer said. “It's such a complex life as a student-athlete, and sometimes people make decisions or have opinions that have no idea what they're talking about because they’ve never stood in someone else's shoes. Dr. Borchers has.”

The Big Ten has faced widespread criticism for its Aug. 11 decision to call off fall sports as early as it did and for its lack of transparency in explaining that decision. On Aug. 19, commissioner Kevin Warren said the Big Ten would not revisit its decision. Clearly, it has.

When Meyer learned that Borchers would be making a presentation to the conference, he was heartened.

“I've just watched the way everything happened in the Big Ten,” Meyer said, “and you finally said, ‘OK, now there's going to be some very, very good transparency, very good conversation.’ And whatever decision they'll make now I think will be the right one, because he's involved. Whatever it is.”

Meyer credited Borchers for his care when the coach’s arachnoid cyst flared up in 2014 and again at the end of his coaching tenure.

“Just an incredible guy that's always on call,” Meyer said. “He's always very professional and always was a half-full kind of guy. He's always looking at you like, ‘Hey, we'll be fine and let's talk this thing through,’ as opposed to panic.

“I've been around those other ones, the half-empty guys, where everything is, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ Whether it’s been player issues, coaches, my issue, he's always been extremely compassionate and professional.”

Herbstreit, the ESPN college football broadcaster, has been close friends with Borchers since they were Ohio State teammates. Both are from the Dayton area, with Herbstreit a year older. They didn’t know each other well before coming to Ohio State but quickly bonded.

The first thing Herbstreit mentioned regarding Borchers was his sense of humor. Herbstreit said Borchers was a master at impersonating then-assistant coach Bill Myles’ drawl.

“He would stand up on the bus and imitate Bill Myles with Bill Myles’ voice and he would talk (slowly) like this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I got Bobby Olive here out of Atlanta, Georgia. Let me tell you about Bobby Olive.’ Guys would be, ‘Do me! Do me! Do me!’ So he would go through the entire program. Guys would be rolling around on the ground dying laughing.”

Herbstreit said it was well-known that Borchers planned to be a doctor, though he didn’t make a big show of it.

“He was always very studious, incredibly bright,” Herbstreit said “He was there for a purpose. He played football, but he was all about academics. He was next level in intelligence.”

Herbstreit said broadcasting was one career Borchers at least briefly considered before pursuing medicine. When Herbstreit began his career on radio in Columbus, Borchers sometimes joined his show.

“He thought he was actually going to get into talk radio because he enjoyed it so much before he ended up becoming a doctor,” Herbstreit said. “He's just a sports junkie.”

He’s now shaping decisions, not just talking about them. With the Big Ten possibly poised to reverse course and play this fall, Borchers has become a crucial figure.

“We could not be in better hands as far as a guy that's not just going to be pushing for football but for getting to the bottom of what's right,” Herbstreit said. “If science says hey, we're in a good place and we should be able to start to play football, he's going to say that. If it’s not, he’s going to recommend that.

“When I saw his name involved, it just made me feel really really (good). No. 1, I'm really proud of him for putting himself in that position. And then I think for Ohio State and for the Big Ten, the fact that Jim Borchers was in the middle of this with a presentation to the presidents and chancellors and talking to the ADs and the coaches, we can all take a big, deep sigh of relief knowing that the Jim Borchers is involved in this.”