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Diary of an Unforgettable Season
By Steve Snapp
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Steve Snapp
All rights reserved.
Hope Springs Eternal
Thursday, March 30
Spring practice opens today. In many ways it is the time of year that Jim Tressel enjoys most, because it is a time for teaching. Whenever the Buckeye football coach is queried as to what profession he would be in if he were not a coach, he always replies, "I would be a teacher; teaching is what I really enjoy."
Tressel is the consummate teacher. His meetings are like classrooms and his practices are like labs in which his players put into practice what he has taught them. When practice is over, it is back to the classroom to review the day's subject matter.
Tressel and his staff need to be on their "A" game this spring. Nine starters from what was arguably the best defense in the nation are gone, including the trio of Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel. On offense, left guard Robbie Sims, center Nick Mangold, and split end Santonio Holmes, all of whom had been three-year starters, need to be replaced. Additionally, kicker Josh Huston, who tied a school record with five field goals against Texas and earned All–Big Ten honors, has graduated, leaving a giant question mark in the place-kicking department.
But while the losses are significant, the Buckeyes are not short on talent. Tressel's goal is to develop that talent during the 15 spring practices allotted by the NCAA.
Saturday, April 1
During the traditional "hoot and holler" drill on the first day of pads, true freshman running back Chris "Beanie" Wells flattened a veteran senior defender in a show of raw power. In the drill, an offensive player gets three chances to go 10 yards. Beanie only needed one try. It is evident that the former USA Today All-American is the real deal.
The 6'1", 225-pound Wells was one of three true freshmen to enroll early. The other two are linebacker Ross Homan and defensive back Kurt Coleman.
Saturday, April 8
The Buckeyes held their jersey scrimmage, pitting the offense against the defense. The winning unit will wear the home scarlet-colored jerseys through the remainder of spring ball and into fall practice. The losers will be clad in the white away jerseys until they get a chance to redeem themselves in the fall.
Much of the media discussion leading into the spring was about the inexperience of the defense. In stark contrast to recent years, it appears that early on at least, the offense will have the edge.
On this day, though, the defense was having none of that. Jim Heacock's young, but undeniably talented and surprisingly fast defensive unit forced five turnovers and came away with a 69–68 victory, using a unique scoring system that Jim Tressel's father, the late Lee Tressel, used when he coached at Baldwin-Wallace College.
Several young players stood out on the defensive side of the ball, including, but not limited to, linebacker Ross Homan, safety Anderson Russell, defensive end Lawrence Wilson, and linebacker James Laurinaitis.
"You can tell these young guys want to be good and uphold the tradition of excellent Ohio State defense," said Tressel, who deep down inside probably did not mind the outcome. "This will help their confidence."
The defense won the scarlet jerseys even though tackle Quinn Pitcock, one of just two returning starters on that side of the ball, did not play.
The offense was without two of its top linemen, right tackle Kirk Barton and Doug Datish, who, after starting at guard in 2004 and 2005, is sliding over to center this fall as a replacement for departed All-American Nick Mangold.
But Troy Smith would not use that as an excuse.
"We got our butts whipped and I don't like that feeling, whether it is in a practice or a scrimmage," he said.
The scrimmage came down to a 58-yard field-goal attempt by Ryan Pretorius on the final play of the game. When the defense blocked the kick, it was worth one point and broke a 68–all tie.
Friday, April 14
Football is a violent game. Over the years, players have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster. Sometimes the collisions on the field are unnerving.
Ohio State has been fortunate to have never suffered a fatality in either a practice or a game. And up until this spring, the Buckeyes had never had a serious neck or spinal cord injury.
That changed during a scrimmage in Ohio Stadium today.
Walk-on Tyson Gentry, who made the squad as a punter and for the first time this spring was also working at wide receiver, was running a square-in when he was tackled by freshman defensive back Kurt Coleman. The hit was clean and was not one of those bone-jarring tackles that make fans cringe. But when the two players hit the ground, Tyson was completely motionless. Everyone in the stadium — the coaches; the players; the doctors and trainers; and the family members in the stands, including his parents, Bob and Gloria Gentry — knew it was serious.
As the team doctors and the Gentry family hurried to his side, the training staff called 911.
All the while there was an eerie hush in the stadium. Everyone was praying and thinking, "Come on Tyson, just move something." Although Tyson was conscious and talking the entire time, there was no movement.
Once the ambulance left for the Ohio State medical center, Tressel called the team together. After a brief prayer, the coach canceled practice and sent the team home for the Easter holiday.
Tressel immediately headed to the hospital along with several members of the team. Gentry had suffered a fracture of the C4 vertebra. He had surgery tonight to fuse the vertebra.
Thursday, April 20
The Kick Scrimmage. The kicking game has always played an important role in the success of Tressel's teams, both in his 15 years at Youngstown State, where he won four Division I-AA national championships, and at Ohio State, where in just his second year he captured the 2002 national championship.
Tressel, who calls the punt "the most important play in football," has had a remarkable string of kickers since coming to Ohio State.
Mike Nugent was a three-year starter at place-kicker during the 2002, 2003, and 2004 seasons, and garnered first-team All-America honors in '02 and again in '04. In the latter season he also won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top place-kicker. In 2005, Josh Huston took over Nugent's duties and the Buckeyes never missed a beat.
Huston graduated following the 2005 season. The job is wide open.
Ryan Pretorius, a 27-year-old sophomore from Durban, South Africa, and Aaron Pettrey, a redshirt freshman from Raceland, Kentucky, are competing for the position. Both are untested, although Pretorius appeared in two games in 2005.
Tressel hoped to get an answer in the kick scrimmage, but with Pretorius hitting six of seven tries and Pettrey drilling a 60-yarder to give the Gray team a 28–27 win, the Buckeyes coach heads into the fall still looking for a clear-cut number one.
"Looks like we have a pretty good battle going on," he said. "We will just have to wait until the fall and see what happens."
Saturday, April 22
The public got its first look at the team at the annual Scarlet and Gray Game in Ohio Stadium. The spring game routinely attracts numbers in excess of 30,000, but on this day that figure more than doubled with an announced crowd of 63,649, not counting children ages six and under. The game was broadcast by WBNS Radio and televised locally and around the state by WBNS-TV and the Ohio News Network.
The game was won by the Scarlet team as Smith directed a nine-play, 80yard touchdown drive on his team's opening possession. Smith completed four passes on the march for 62 yards. Erik Haw scored the only touchdown of the day on a four-yard run.
The Scarlet team scored five points in the second quarter on a safety and a 38-yard field goal by Ryan Pretorius to complete the scoring.
Freshman Beanie Wells gained 48 yards on the ground for the Scarlet, and Brian Hartline had seven receptions for 88 yards to lead all receivers. Maurice Wells (34 yards rushing) and Roy Hall (five catches for 66 yards) led the Gray.
Spring practice was over.
"We have had a good winter conditioning program and a good spring," said Tressel, addressing the media after the game. "What is most important now is how hard our players work during the summer leading up to fall camp."CHAPTER 2
Outside the Lines
Saturday, April 29
Five Ohio State players were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Not surprisingly, linebacker A.J. Hawk was the first Buckeye taken, going to the Green Bay Packers with the fifth overall pick — a perfect fit. Hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner, to the surprise of many, was the next player chosen, going to Buffalo with the eighth pick. Linebacker Bobby Carpenter went to Dallas (No. 18), followed by Santonio Holmes to the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 25), and center Nick Mangold to the New York Jets (No. 29). Overall, the Buckeyes had nine players taken.
Monday, May 1
The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious individual award in college football. Named for legendary coach John W. Heisman, it was established in 1935 and is awarded each December to the "outstanding player in college football."
Prior to the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001, the trophy was presented at the Downtown Athletic Club, a cathedral to football located on the Lower East Side. Now the presentation is held in midtown Manhattan.
Heading into the 2006 season, six Ohio State players have won the Heisman, including Archie Griffin, who in 1975 became the first two-time winner of the prestigious award. Forty years later, he is still the only person to have bookend Heismans sitting in his trophy room.
Each spring, the Athletics Communications staff meets with the head coach and develops a game plan for promoting players for postseason honors. In my opinion, and in Coach Tressel's, All-America honors and individual awards should be won through performance on the football field. But we both concede that exposure is necessary to ensure that your players are not overlooked.
How to promote has changed dramatically over the years.
My first football season at Ohio State was 1972. It was the beginning of a truly golden era of football in which the Buckeyes won four Big Ten titles, played in a still unprecedented four Rose Bowls, and compiled an overall record of 40–5–1. Names like Gradishar, Hicks, Skladany, DeCree, Colzie, and Griffin dotted the roster. All earned first-team All-America honors. Hicks won the Outland and Lombardi Awards and finished second in the Heisman voting as a senior in 1973. Griffin, of course, remains to this day one of the most celebrated players in college football history.
Back then, there were no major promotional campaigns for players. In the days before television deregulation, teams were limited to two appearances a year. Ohio State always had two, one of which was the annual regular-season finale with Michigan. If the Buckeyes fared well in those televised games, and they usually did, they were going to get their fair share of All-Americans.
Additionally, Woody Hayes was one of the most dominant personalities of his time. At his weekly press conferences, Woody, who could be extremely persuasive, never missed a chance to promote his players.
Griffin was already in the headlines every Sunday because of his streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing games Hayes's effusive praise of his star running back was icing on the cake. Once Archie won the first Heisman, all the talk the following season centered around whether he would become the first repeat winner. Griffin responded with another outstanding year as a senior and led the Buckeyes to an unbeaten regular season. Hayes continued to praise the diminutive running back, and Griffin made football history that December by becoming the first two-time Heisman winner.
By the time Eddie George won his Heisman in 1995, promotion was in full bloom. Sports information directors across the country were promoting their awards candidates in a variety of ways, including mailings, billboards, and gimmickry.
To help promote Eddie, we used a series of what we believed to be creative postcards that were mailed out weekly to members of the Football Writers of America. The picture on the front changed each week, as did the information on the back, which included updated stats, any records set, and quotes from opposing coaches and players.
Eddie won the Heisman, but not because of those postcards. He ran for 1,927 yards that year and had his biggest games on national television. Still, I would like to think we helped a little.
The following year, Ohio State's best football player was junior offensive tackle Orlando Pace. Pace was probably the best football player in the country, but realistically we knew winning the Heisman would be a long shot for him. Since offensive linemen don't have a lot of stats, we came up with a refrigerator magnet shaped like a stack of pancakes with Pace's name and a crown on top of it. Our not-so-subtle message was that Orlando Pace was king of the pancake block — which is when the offensive lineman deposits the defender across from him directly on his backside. And it was not an exaggeration; nobody did it better than Pace, who has gone on to become one of the dominant linemen in the NFL.
Pace did not win the Heisman but he did finish fourth. Had he stayed for his senior year, who knows?
Thankfully, the days of the gimmicky promotion seem to have gone by the wayside. Still, as I noted earlier, it is necessary to keep your athlete, or athletes, in the spotlight.
Entering this season, Ohio State appears to have two legitimate Heisman contenders in quarterback Troy Smith and flanker and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. Both are coming off strong showings last year and both play for a team expected to be in the hunt for the national title. Smith outplayed his Notre Dame counterpart, Brady Quinn, in the Fiesta Bowl, and has quarterbacked the Buckeyes to consecutive wins over Michigan. Ginn, who had nine catches at Michigan and eight against the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl, is considered one of the most electrifying players in college football.
There was a time when two candidates from a team was one candidate too many. The conventional wisdom was that if you had two candidates, you really did not have any because they would split the vote and someone else would win. A prime example of that was in 1973 when Ohio State had three players — John Hicks, Archie Griffin, and Randy Gradishar — finish in the top six of the Heisman voting. Together, they had more votes than winner John Cappelletti of Penn State.
But the University of Southern California blew that theory out of the water in 2005 by promoting both junior running back Reggie Bush and senior quarterback Matt Leinart. Bush won the award. Leinart, who had won it in 2004, finished third behind Bush and Texas quarterback Vince Young.
This season the coaches have decided to promote both Smith and Ginn for the Heisman Trophy. The voters will be inundated with information on both players, and the choice will be theirs to make.
The plan is simple. First we will try to get them as much preseason coverage as possible. That should be easy. Most magazines and major publications, including Sports Illustrated, Street & Smith, Athlon, ESPN The Magazine, and USA Today, come to us seeking either interviews or cover shoots.
Next, we will send out a preseason mailer to the 700 or so members of the Football Writers of America. A Web page will be set up for both players, and a weekly teleconference will afford the national media the opportunity to call in and interview them. Associate SID Dan Wallenberg is going to oversee the Web page and teleconference.
We also plan to send out another mailer the first week of November 2006. Diana Sabau, our director of publications, came up with the idea — a card on bronze-colored stock that features a raised replica of the Heisman Trophy. Across the top it will read: The Ohio State University. Down the sides will be the names of Ohio State's six Heisman winners. No mention is made of Troy or Ted. We hope it will be a gentle reminder at voting time.
We have a plan. Now we just have to wait and see how the season plays out.
Tuesday, May 16
The Big Ten released its early-season television schedule. The Buckeyes, as expected, will play Texas in prime time on September 9. Additionally, OSU's game at Iowa on September 30 will be played after dark. ABC will televise both games nationally and ESPN's College GameDay is scheduled to be at both sites.
Excerpted from Diary of an Unforgettable Season by Steve Snapp. Copyright © 2007 Steve Snapp. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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