SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

Ohio State football’s consistent success unmatched among college programs

Bill Rabinowitz
brabinow@dispatch.com
Coach Urban Meyer and running back Ezekiel Elliott hold up the trophy following a College Football Playoff semifinal win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 2015. Not every Ohio State season ends in a title, but they rarely end with losing records. Not since 1922-24 have the Buckeyes had consecutive losing seasons.

In a normal year, today would be a day of celebration for Ohio State football and excitement about the potential of another loaded Buckeyes team.

It is, obviously, not a normal year. No. 2 Ohio State didn’t kick off its season on Saturday as originally scheduled against Bowling Green in what almost certainly would have been another victory over an in-state opponent. Nobody alive can remember the last time, in 1921, the Buckeyes lost to a team from Ohio.

Ohio State also didn’t open their season on Thursday at Illinois, as was the plan a month ago when the Big Ten announced that its schools would play a conference-only schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Barring unforeseen developments, this will be the first autumn since the football program began in 1890 that the Buckeyes won’t play. The pandemic has upended this football season as it has so much else in 2020.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

But Ohio State football is never far from the hearts of so many Buckeyes fans. It is ingrained in the culture and an integral part of the state’s fabric.

So even if there is no Buckeyes football this fall, The Dispatch is embarking on a series that each week will examine various aspects of Ohio State football history that turned Ohio State football into a Buckeye Nation.

We’re starting with the most obvious reason: success. No program in college football history in the past 70 years has been as consistently good as Ohio State.

Ohio State has avoided the extended slumps that have befallen every single other powerhouse. Only three times in the past 73 seasons has Ohio State lost as many as six games. Not since 1922-24 have the Buckeyes had consecutive losing seasons.

“That, seriously, might be the most impressive statistic in college football,” said John U. Bacon, a best-selling college football author based in Michigan.

Other programs may have won more national titles, and heartbreak is an all-too-familiar feeling for OSU fans lamenting championships that slipped away.

But the Buckeyes’ excellence almost every season is unparalleled.

“When you start listing top programs, Ohio State’s going to be on the first hand,” said ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, a longtime national college football writer who led the network’s “College Football 150” project exploring the sport’s history.

Coaching consistency

Think about college football’s other blue bloods — Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan, Southern California, Notre Dame, Penn State. All have had fallow stretches.

Before Nick Saban revitalized Alabama after its longtime success under the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Crimson Tide endured lean years under Mike DuBose and Mike Shula. From 1997-2007, Alabama won more than seven games in a season only three times as it was beset by NCAA probation issues.

Oklahoma went from 1988-99 without winning 10 games in a season, including three straight losing years under John Blake. Southern California has alternated stretches of dominance with those of mediocrity.

Notre Dame was once a dominant program, in part because of its status as the only truly national program.

“Everyone else was regional,” Maisel said.

That changed when the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that individual schools and conferences could negotiate their own rights. Until then, the NCAA severely restricted the number of games that could broadcast.

“There’s a reason Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship in 32 years, which nearly doubled the longest previous drought of 17,” Maisel said.

It didn’t help that the Fighting Irish has employed numerous coaches — Gerry Faust, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis — who didn’t pan out.

Coaching failure also has dented the resume of Michigan, which has the most victories of any major program. Under Bump Elliott, the Wolverines had a dry spell in the 1950s and ’60s. As for this century, well, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke won’t have statues outside the Big House.

Penn State has had seven seasons with six or more losses this century. Nebraska has fallen off the map after its long dominance. As for Clemson, until Dabo Swinney arrived, its very name was used as a synonym for underachievement — “Clemsoning.”

The Buckeyes have been impervious to such slides. They’ve had the occasional down year, but those could mostly be chalked up to unusual circumstances.

Its only losing season in the past 32 years came in 2011. That’s the year Luke Fickell was thrust into the job following Jim Tressel’s forced exit because of NCAA violations, and Ohio State had to play without several suspended stars, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

“The hardest thing to be, especially in college football, is to be consistent,” Bacon said. “You’re getting new players every year. It’s not the NFL.”

Talent pipeline

The reasons for Ohio State’s continuous success are not a big mystery. Alone among top programs in populous states that regularly pump out talent, Ohio State essentially has the state to itself. The University of Cincinnati has had sporadic success, especially lately, but Ohio State doesn’t lose blue-chip prospects to the Bearcats.

“The entire state of Ohio is behind that program,” Bacon said. “Columbus is in the center of it, literally and figuratively. Although Cleveland and Cincinnati have major league teams and now so does Columbus (with the Blue Jackets), there’s only one Big Ten school.

“Almost any kid who can play in the state of Ohio, no doubt his coaches and teachers and friends are directing him to the Horseshoe.”

Several in-state programs compete for players in California, Texas and Florida. Louisiana State and Georgia probably come the closest to dominating their state. But Louisiana has 7 million fewer people than Ohio. Georgia shares the state with Georgia Tech and has many programs from neighboring states — plus Ohio State — competing for its talent.

Having an ample talent pipeline might be the biggest factor, but it’s not the only one. Ohio State has had an amazing string of coaches starting with Woody Hayes.

When Hayes replaced Wes Fesler after the Buckeyes’ 1950 Snow Bowl loss to Michigan — Fesler’s fate was sealed when he ordered a third-down punt that was blocked for a touchdown instead of running out the first-half clock — Ohio State was known as the graveyard for coaches.

Yes, the innovative-but-mercurial Francis Schmidt in the 1930s and the pioneering Paul Brown in the early ’40s made their mark. But sustained success eluded the Buckeyes.

After a bumpy start, Hayes became a legend, winning national titles in 1954, 1957 and 1968. There were no Rich Rods among his successors. Hayes and the next three Buckeyes coaches — Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Tressel — are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Urban Meyer is a lock to follow them.

“It’s hiring the right coach,” Maisel said, “who then hires the right (assistant) coaches, who then recruit the right kids and coach those kids and treat them well enough that they produce and leave with the understanding of the history and the tradition and the legacy and feel proud to be a part of it.”

Ohio State’s coaches aren’t the only ones responsible for the Buckeyes’ success. The state’s high school coaches have earned a strong reputation as well for nurturing local talent.

“It is the football state,” Bacon said. “It’s where the sport grew up, certainly. It is the only northern state where the high school football can compete with the rest of the country. The high school coaching in the state of Ohio, I would maintain, is the best in the nation.”

With that excellence comes pressure, though. Meyer is the first coach to leave voluntarily since Paul Bixler resigned in 1946 after one year. Bixler cited the pressure of the job in leaving, and that certainly comes with the territory at Ohio State.

It is a place, after all, where unparalleled sustained success has been the standard for nearly a century. Failure isn’t an option. And for almost a century, failure hasn’t been a reality, either.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Winning ways

How the Ohio State football program compares with some other national powers in terms of sustained success over the past seven decades (all time frames from 1950-2019):

Ohio State

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: None (last time, 1922-24: 3-4 in 1922, 3-4-1 in ’23, 2-3-3 in ’24)

Seasons with six or more losses: Three (1988, ’99, 2011)

Alabama

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Once (2003-04: 4-9 in 2003, 6-6 in ’04)

Seasons with six or more losses: Nine (1951, ’55, ’84, ’97, 2000, ’03, ’04, ’06, ’07)

Michigan

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Three (2008-09: 3-9 in 2008, 5-7 in ’09; 1962-63: 2-7 in ’62, 3-4-2 in ’63; 1958-59: 2-6-1 in ’58, 4-5 in ’59)

Seasons with six or more losses: 10 (1958, ’62, ’65, ’67, ’84, 2008, ’09, ’10, ’13, ’14)

Notre Dame

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Two (1985-86: 5-6 both years; 1959-63: 5-5 in ’59, 2-8 in ’60, 5-5 in ’61, 5-5 in ’62, 2-7 in ’63)

Seasons with six or more losses: 14 (1956, ’63, ’81, ’85, ’86, ’97, ’99, 2001, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’16)

Oklahoma

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Two (1994-98: 6-6 in 1994, 5-5-1 in ’95, 3-8 in ’96, 4-8 in ’97, 5-6 in ’98; 1960-61: 3-6-1 in ’60, 5-5 in ’61)

Seasons with six or more losses: Six (1960, ’65, ’94, ’96, ’97, ’98)

Penn State

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Two (2003-04: 3-9 in ’03, 4-7 in ’04; 2000-01: 5-7 in 2000, 5-6 in ’01)

Seasons with six or more losses: Eight (1988, 2000, ’01, ’03, ’04, ’10, ’14, ’15)

Southern California

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Two (1960-61: 4-6 in ’60, 4-5-1 in ’61; 1957-58: 1-9 in ’57, 4-5-1 in ’58)

Seasons with six or more losses: 11 (1957, ’60, ’83, ’85, ’91, ’96, ’99, 2000, ’12, ’15, ’18)

Texas

Times posting consecutive non-winning seasons: Three (1954-56: 4-5-1 in ’54, 5-5 in ’55; 1-9 in ’56; 1988-89: 4-7 in ’88, 5-6 in ’89; 2014-16: 6-7 in ’14, 5-7 in ’15, 5-7 in ’16)

Seasons with six or more losses: 11 (1956, ’86, ’88, ’89, ’91, ’97, 2010, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17)

Ohio State's Kenny Peterson, left, and Matt Wilhelm kiss the championship trophy after the Buckeyes beat Miami 31-24 in two overtimes in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3, 2003.