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Anatomy of a Powerhouse: An all-time all-star Ohio State football team

Ray Stein
Buckeye Xtra

It has been 130 years, nine months and 10 days since the Ohio State football program was born on a patch of grass near Henry Street and Delaware Run, just west of where Selby Field now sits on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus.

Buckeye history:We look back at what made Ohio State a national power

In that time, the Buckeyes have seen their original home venue, Recreation Park in Schumacher Place, converted from an athletic-events facility to a gas station to a grocery store to, someday soon, a multi-story space for apartments and retail.

Ground was broken for construction of Ohio State’s current home on the east bank of the Olentangy River in April 1921, and Ohio Stadium hosted its first game 18 months later.

Linebacker Chris Spielman flies over a teammate to make a tackle in a 1987 game against West Virginia.

In the 98 years since, Howard Dwight Smith’s design has morphed from an open-ended horseshoe to a mostly capped south end, with luxury boxes and a massive press box affixed to the top of the west-side stands, and overall seating for more than 100,000.

And yet the average attendance for three Ohio State home games in this pandemic-ravaged 2020 season has been 1,085. Go figure.

Times change and the world spins but the thirst for Ohio State football lives on, not only in central Ohio but throughout the nation and world thanks to the power of the Internet.

Former Ohio State tackle John Hicks holds a signed football commemorating his 2009 induction into the Rose Bowl hall of fame.

This fall, The Dispatch has chronicled many factors that have contributed to the rabid nature of the OSU fan base, from the first seeds of the program’s success, to its remarkable consistency over the years, to the 25 men who have stepped into the cauldron as coaches, to the hate and respect the program engenders.

We conclude our “Anatomy of a Powerhouse” series today with an audacious task, the selection of an all-time Ohio State football team: 24 players as they are on the field, 11 each on offense and defense and two specialists.

Anatomy of a Powerhouse:In a divided state, Ohio State football is a unifier

Such an undertaking is a potentially futile exercise, given not only the changes in the ways football has been played over the past 130 years but also among the players themselves. For instance, history will show that Ohio State did much better than many other schools in integrating its program, but it was still the 1960s before more than a handful of Black players populated the Buckeyes roster.

Also, football in America is a business far more so than it was even 40 years ago, let alone 100. Players today are more athletic, and pay far more attention to nutrition and training, many with a professional career in mind.

Bill Willis was a slight but disruptive two-way tackle for Ohio State in the early 1940s.

So how would All-American center Gomer Jones, who measured 5 feet 8, 210 pounds, have dealt with All-American defensive tackle “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson, who went 6-5, 300 on his skinniest days? We’ll never know, but we can’t assume Wilkinson’s size would have overpowered Jones’ quickness and guile.

Horseshoe history:Iconic Horseshoe has grown with, become synonymous with the Ohio State football program

Each was a product of his era, and should be judged as such. Fair enough?

Let’s break down this team, with apologies in advance to the literally dozens of deserving players who will not be mentioned:

Tackles

John Hicks

Years at OSU: 1970, ’72, ’73. Hometown: Cleveland (John Hay HS).

John Hicks in 1973

The skinny: Perhaps the greatest testament to Hicks’ dominance is not the Buckeyes’ 28-3-1 record in his three seasons (he was injured in 1971 and was awarded a medical redshirt) but in the awards he accumulated in 1973. He won the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, the last lineman to finish among the top two.

Orlando Pace

Years at OSU: 1994-96. Hometown: Sandusky, Ohio.

Orlando Pace

The skinny: The massive (6 feet 6, 330 pounds) Pace made an impact from his first game as a true freshman and never stopped. Pace become the first sophomore to win the Lombardi Award, in 1995, and a year later became the first player to win it twice. He also won the Outland Trophy in 1996 and finished fourth in voting for the Heisman before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Guards

Warren Amling

Years at OSU: 1944-46. Hometown: Pana, Ill.

Warren Amling (90) in 1944

The skinny: Originally a member of Ohio State’s freshman class of 1942, Amling first played for OSU’s undefeated team in 1944 after receiving a deferment from military service. He was an All-American at guard in 1945, when he finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting, and then moved to tackle and became an All-American the next season.

Jim Parker

Years at OSU: 1954-56. Hometown: Macon, Ga. High school: Toledo Scott.

Jim Parker in 1955

The skinny: Large for a guard in his era at 248 pounds, Parker also had quickness and footwork skills that allowed him to start as a sophomore on OSU’s national championship team. A year later he opened holes that helped Howard “Hopalong” Cassady win the Heisman Trophy and by 1956 he was a unanimous All-American and the first Buckeye to win the Outland Trophy.

Center

LeCharles Bentley

Years at OSU: 1998-2001. Hometown: Cleveland (St. Ignatius HS).

LeCharles Bentley in 2001

The skinny: A three-year starter, Bentley started the final seven games of the 1999 season at guard or tackle, then switched to center for the 2000 season. He started all 12 games and was named second-team all-Big Ten. A year later under Jim Tressel, Bentley was named first-team All-American and the second recipient of the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center.

Tight end

John Frank

Years at OSU: 1980-83. Hometown: Mount Lebanon, Pa.

John Frank in 1983

The skinny: No tight end before or since has caught as many passes at Ohio State as Frank, a mainstay of Earle Bruce’s early teams and a two-time all-Big Ten player. Frank finished his time at OSU with 121 receptions for 1,481 yards and nine touchdowns before embarking on a five-year NFL career in which he won two Super Bowls with San Francisco before becoming a doctor.

Wide receivers

David Boston

Years at OSU: 1996-98. Hometown: Humble, Texas.

David Boston in 1998

The skinny: Ohio State has thrown and completed a lot of passes in the 22 seasons since Boston last played for the Buckeyes, yet he still holds program records for yards in a season (1,435), 100-yard games in a season (nine, in 1998) and a career (14) and is second in career receptions (191) and receiving yards (2,855). He also made big plays in big games (see: 1997 Rose Bowl).

Cris Carter

Years at OSU: 1984-86. Hometown: Troy, Ohio. High school: Middletown.

Cris Carter in 1986

The skinny: The first Ohio State receiver to be named All-American, in 1986, Carter’s star dimmed around campus when he was ruled ineligible for his senior season for signing with an agent. But Carter has owned his mistakes, and his talent was evident. He set a Rose Bowl record with nine receptions for 172 yards as a freshman and left OSU with 164 catches for 2,725 yards.

Running backs

Archie Griffin

Years at OSU: 1972-75. Hometown: Columbus (Eastmoor HS).

Archie Griffin, with his second Heisman Trophy, in 1975

The skinny: As close to a sure thing as there can be on an all-anything OSU team, Griffin is in a galaxy all his own among Buckeyes greats. There are the two Heisman Trophies, of course, and the 5,177 career yards, an NCAA record at the time, and the four Rose Bowl appearances and the 31 consecutive 100-yard games and much more. He is Mr. Buckeye.

Charles “Chic” Harley

Years at OSU: 1916, ’17, ’19. Hometown: Chicago. High school: Columbus East.

Chic Harley in 1917

The skinny: Anyone who can knock the likes of Eddie George, Vic Janowicz and Ezekiel Elliott off a list of Ohio State’s best two running backs had better be special. Harley was. He is the Babe Ruth of OSU football, a three-time All-American whose teams went 21-1-1, igniting a passion that led to the construction of Ohio Stadium. He was a member of the inaugural College Football Hall of Fame class, in 1951.

Quarterback

Troy Smith

Years at OSU: 2003-06. Hometown: Cleveland (Glenville HS).

Troy Smith in 2004

The skinny: Among Smith’s five starts as a sophomore was a 37-21 victory over Michigan in which he accounted for 386 yards of offense. Things took off from there, and he left OSU with a 25-3 record as a starter, including three victories over the Wolverines, and the 2006 Heisman Trophy. He passed for 2,542 yards that season with 30 touchdowns.

Kicker

Mike Nugent

Years at OSU: 2001-04. Hometown: Centerville, Ohio.

Mike Nugent in 2004

The skinny: Kicker was an important position under coach Jim Tressel, and Nugent came through way more often than not. Nugent made 72 of 88 field-goal attempts (81.8%) and 140 of 143 extra-point tries to finish his career with 356 points, an OSU record. He was a two-time All-American and in 2004 captured the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker.

Defensive linemen

Joey Bosa

Years at OSU: 2013-15. Hometown: Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (St. Thomas Aquinas HS).

Joey Bosa in 2015

The skinny: Of Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa and Chase Young – the three recent Buckeyes defensive ends to be selected among the top three in the NFL draft – none had a more impactful college career than Joey Bosa, who racked up 50½ tackles for loss and 26 sacks in 41 games. He was a two-time All-America selection and the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year in 2014.

Jim Stillwagon

Years at OSU: 1968-70. Hometown: Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Jim Stillwagon

The skinny: Like all of the Super Sophs, Stillwagon’s teams went 27-2 in his career. The middle guard was among the most decorated of them. After helping the Buckeyes win the 1968 national championship, he was a consensus All-American in 1969 and ’70. In his senior year became the first player to win the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in the same season.

Mike Vrabel

Years at OSU: 1993-96. Hometown: Akron (Walsh Jesuit HS).

Mike Vrabel in 1995

The skinny: Even with Ohio State’s recent run of dominant defensive linemen, Vrabel still holds six school records, including career marks for sacks (36) and tackles for loss (66). He set the single-season mark in each category as a sophomore in 1994, then topped them both in ’95. Vrabel was a two-time All-American and twice was named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year.

Bill Willis

Years at OSU: 1942-44. Hometown: Columbus (East HS).

Bill Willis

The skinny: Skinny is right. At around 200 pounds, Willis was small for a lineman, even in that era. But he fit perfectly in coach Paul Brown’s system that demanded quickness from his down linemen. Willis was a member of OSU’s 1942 national championship team, an all-Big Ten player the following season and as a senior became the first Black player to be named All-American.

Linebackers

Tom Cousineau

Years at OSU: 1975-78. Hometown: Fairview Park, Ohio (St. Edward HS).

Tom Cousineau in 1978

The skinny: Cousineau was a tackling machine for Woody Hayes’ final teams, averaging 5.5 solo tackles and 12.1 total tackles per game in his career. His 211 stops in 1978 still stand as a single-season school record and his 569 career total ranks second. Cousineau was a two-time All-American and in 1979 became the first OSU player selected No. 1 in the NFL draft, by Buffalo.

Randy Gradishar

Years at OSU: 1971-73. Hometown: Warren, Ohio (Champion HS).

Randy Gradishar in 1971

The skinny: No defense in the modern history of Ohio State football was as dominant as the 1973 team, which allowed a mere 64 points in 11 games. The versatile Gradishar was the anchor of that defense, recording 60 solo tackles and 74 assists to lead the Buckeyes. He ended his career with 320 tackles, a school record at the time, and was a two-time All-American.

Chris Spielman

Years at OSU: 1984-87. Hometown: Massillon, Ohio (Washington HS).

Chris Spielman in 1987

The skinny: Spielman became one of Ohio State’s most popular players during his four years in Columbus, and he still holds the school career record for solo tackles, with 283. Spielman was a consensus All-American in 1986, when he had 205 total tackles (105 solo) and six interceptions. He was a unanimous pick in 1987 with 156 stops; he also won the Lombardi Award that season.

Defensive backs

Mike Doss

Years at OSU: 1999-2002. Hometown: Canton (McKinley HS).

Mike Doss in 2001

The skinny: Probably the best true safety in program history, Doss was a three-year starter who was named All-American each of those three seasons. He made 40 career starts who had eight career interceptions but made his mark with his ability to stop ball carriers. Doss finished with 331 career tackles, standing 11th in school history, and led the Buckeyes in tackles as a sophomore and junior.

Malcolm Jenkins

Years at OSU: 2005-08. Hometown: Piscataway, N.J. (Piscataway Township HS).

Malcolm Jenkins in 2008

The skinny: The 2008 Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, Jenkins was a vocal leader on a Buckeyes defense that played for the national championship in back-to-back seasons, in 2006 and ’07. He finished his Ohio State career with 11 interceptions, 28 pass breakups and 194 tackles in 49 games, and has won two Super Bowl titles in the NFL.

Jack Tatum

Years at OSU: 1968-70. Hometown: Cherryville, N.C. High school: Passaic (N.J.).

Jack Tatum

The skinny: Before he earned a reputation as the NFL’s hardest-hitting defensive back, Tatum was a force on three Ohio State teams that were among the best in college football. Tatum came to OSU as a running back before he was switched to defense, where he often lined up on the wide side of the field and made jarring tackles. He was a unanimous All-American in 1970.

Antoine Winfield

Years at OSU: 1995-98. Hometown: Akron (Garfield HS).

Antoine Winfield in 1997

The skinny: Of all the players to wear scarlet and gray, perhaps none so small (5 feet 8, 175 pounds) could tackle so surely as Winfield, a mainstay of four excellent Buckeyes teams, who went 43-7 in his four years. Winfield finished his career with only three interceptions, including none in 1998, but he was still named All-American and the school’s first Thorpe Award winner.

Punter

Tom Skladany

Years at OSU: 1973-76. Hometown: Bethel Park, Pa.

Tom Skladany in 1975

The skinny: The first kicking specialist to receive a full-ride scholarship for the Buckeyes, Skladany saw the field early, handling punts and kickoffs as a freshman. He blossomed as a punter the next season, averaging 45.6 yards on 31 punts. He improved his average to 46.7 as a junior and dipped to 42.4 as a senior, but was still a three-time All-American.

And who would coach this team? We'll talk about it another time, perhaps.

rstein@dispatch.com