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Anatomy of a powerhouse: Expectations at Ohio State now go beyond the Big Ten and Rose Bowl

Rob Oller
roller@dispatch.com
Ohio State running back Archie Griffin picks up 12 yards and a first down against UCLA in a 1975 regular-season game. Ranked No. 1 entering the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes were upset by the Bruins in a rematch.

Editor’s note: How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU’s evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience.Today: Chase

Not even two Heisman Trophies can bookend the regret that slides off the shelf of Archie Griffin’s most painful Pasadena memory, when undefeated Ohio State lost to underdog UCLA in the 1976 Rose Bowl, costing the Buckeyes a national championship.

“That’s the one that haunts me,” Griffin said, grimacing more from the recollection of that 23-10 loss than from the sore back that now hampers his golf game.

The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls, had defeated the Bruins 41-20 in the Los Angeles Coliseum earlier in the season and entered the New Year’s Day game as two-touchdown favorites.

Yet despite coming up short again — Griffin finished 1-3 in Rose Bowls, with two lost chances at national titles — the former tailback would not describe 1975 as a failed season just because the Buckeyes were not voted No. 1.

“It can’t be national championship or bust,” he said.

It can’t? Try telling that to Ohio State fans too young to recall when a successful season could be defined by a win over Michigan and playing in the Rose Bowl. These days, anything short of a College Football Playoff appearance, culminating in a national championship, leaves many fans, players and coaches feeling frustrated.

Before the Big Ten reinstituted football on Wednesday, Ohio State coach Ryan Day tweeted “… we still have an opportunity to give our young men what they have worked so hard for: a chance to safely compete for a national championship this fall.”

Woody Hayes did not think that way. The former OSU coach considered a national championship the outcome of a special season — not the goal. Win the Big Ten and Rose Bowl and the chances of being voted poll champions were pretty good.

But there were no guarantees, which explains why Hayes and the next two Buckeyes coaches, Earle Bruce and John Cooper, focused their attention more on winning the conference than winning a national championship that was decided by media and coaches poll voters. During Hayes’ time, and before, voting to determine the “national champion” took place before the bowl games were played.

As Griffin explained it, “You could win your bowl game and might win the national championship, but it in the end it was still up to the voters.”

Cooper learned that the hard way in 1996 — the penultimate season before the Bowl Championship Series began — when the Buckeyes’ lone blemish was a 13-9 loss to Michigan in The Slip game. Ohio State dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 in the polls, then defeated No. 2-ranked Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl.

Cooper hoped voters would bump the Buckeyes to No. 1, but OSU finished No. 2 to Florida after the Gators defeated No. 1 Florida State 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl.

“I’m envious of the (playoff) system,” the 83-year-old Cooper said. “I had a couple teams that, I’m not saying they would have won it but they would have played for the national championship.”

Cooper admitted, however, that such wishful thinking fails to consider context and a changing win-at-all-cost culture.

“Times have changed,” he said. “The goal back then seemed like it was win your games, beat Michigan and go to the Rose Bowl. It used to be you win the Big Ten, you’re going to play in the Rose Bowl.

“I coached at Oregon State and UCLA, and even out there the goal was to go to the Rose Bowl. Bowls were a reward for a good season. Later on, it became you had to win the Rose Bowl.”

The BCS changed everything when it arrived in 1998, pitting No. 1 vs. No. 2 in a championship game that removed some subjectivity from the equation. Schools still had to be voted into the top two spots, but the title was decided on the field.

By the time Ben Hartsock arrived at Ohio State, in 1999, the tight end already had put most of the Rose Bowl mystique in his rearview mirror. He grew up listening to his father rave about “The Granddaddy of them All,” but as a player, Hartsock knew there were bigger fish to fry.

“The importance of the Rose Bowl felt to me like something my dad focused on,” Hartsock said. “I knew how big it was because I was raised in a house that taught that curriculum, but I transitioned away from it.”

When Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State in 2001, he immediately replaced “Rose Bowl” with “national title.”

“When Tressel came in, the main focus was Michigan. It starts with beating Michigan, then winning the Big Ten and the national title,” Hartsock said. “And winning the Big Ten was the only way to get to the national title. You could argue that’s not the case today.”

A team now can fail to win its regular-season conference championship and still win a national title, as Alabama did in 2011 (BCS) and 2017 (College Football Playoff). The playoff selection committee emphasizes that its only mission is to choose the four best teams.

Left unsaid is the reality that any team outside the top four — and any bowl outside the two semifinals and championship game — becomes an afterthought.

It’s now all about making the playoff. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer in 2014 even gave a name to the quest: The Chase.

That doesn’t mean coaches minimize conference championships. Meyer stressed in 2014 that “we wake up every day to compete for championships in November.” But those conference titles are more a means to an end than the ultimate goal. In Ohio State’s case, the first job is to win the Big Ten East Division, which gets you into the conference championship game, then win in Indianapolis to hopefully earn a playoff berth.

As for the players, today’s Buckeyes are more aware of the drive for a national championship than their predecessors. With 24/7 sports media, tuning out the playoff noise is impossible.

Of course, some things never change, no matter the ultimate goal.

In early August, when the Big Ten was adjusting its schedules to eliminate nonconference games during the coronavirus pandemic, OSU quarterback Justin Fields tweeted, “I don’t care when we play Michigan, I just want to play them and beat the brakes off them.”

roller@dispatch.com

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Former Ohio State coach John Cooper said the goal used to be simply getting a spot in the Rose Bowl. He made it twice: once with Arizona State in the 1986 season, and once with OSU 10 years later.