The Ohio State University is synonymous with football success, with eight national championships and counting. Author Paul Keels, as the radio voice of the Buckeyes, has witnessed more than his fair share of that history up close and personal. Through singular anecdotes only Keels can tell as well as conversations with current and past players, this book provides fans with a one-of-a-kind, insider's look into the great moments, the lowlights, and everything in between. Ohio State die-hards will not want to miss this book.
About the Author
Paul Keels is the radio play-by-play announcer for Ohio State University's football and men's basketball teams. He is a four-time NSSA Ohio Broadcaster of the Year and a member of the Ohio Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He is also the author of Tales from the Buckeye Championship Season. Zack Meisel is an award-winning journalist and Ohio State graduate who currently writes for The Athletic Cleveland. He is the author of The Ohio State Buckeyes Fans' Bucket List and 100 Things Indians Fans Should Know and Do Before they Die.
Read an Excerpt
1998 — An Eventful Rookie Year
John Cooper had presided over the Ohio State football program for a decade when Paul Keels started his gig in Columbus in 1998. With Cooper at the helm, Keels (and broadcast partner Jim Lachey) had access to the team's closed practices, where he met coaches and former players, including two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the country to start the season. Cooper had recruited all-world talent at virtually every position on the field. They returned senior quarterback Joe Germaine. Linebacker Jerry Rudzinski and cornerback Antoine Winfield anchored the Silver Bullets on defense.
Ohio State had been ranked in the top four at some point in each of the three previous seasons, but that maize-and-blue thorn in their side kept derailing things in late November.
This was the year to put it all together, the first year of the BCS system. The Buckeyes were oozing talent on both sides of the ball. Cooper ran the program like a CEO. Keels can remember attending practices and hearing assistant coaches doing the yelling and the instructing. They were the loud ones, the intense ones. He can still hear Jon Tenuta, Tim Spencer, and Fred Pagac shouting today. Spencer, the running backs coach, looked like he could still carry the ball and evade some tackles.
Meanwhile, Cooper wandered the field, hopping from position group to position group and making the occasional pit stop to talk to some visitors on the sideline.
The Buckeyes began the season with a road game at West Virginia, a marquee matchup in Morgantown on a Saturday night in the first week of September. The Mountaineers, behind quarterback Marc Bulger — an eventual two-time Pro Bowler with the St. Louis Rams — and running back Amos Zereoue — who played for seven years in the NFL — owned the No. 11 ranking in the nation.
Keels had traveled to Morgantown in the past, since Cincinnati played West Virginia on occasion. He drove to the campus for West Virginia's media day so he could familiarize himself with members of the Mountaineers' staff and roster. There, he interviewed a few players and head coach Don Nehlen.
Keels and the rest of the broadcast crew drove to West Virginia early that Saturday afternoon for the opener. While Ohio State's players and coaches were focused on the pivotal game, Keels was wondering what it would be like to work with a different group of people on a grander stage. How would everything flow? Where would everyone be positioned? Would they be accommodating to him? Would it be a seamless transition? Producers were giving him hand signals and other directions that were a bit confusing, a bit different from what he was accustomed to at his previous gig. During the first commercial, he told them to hold off on the procedures, that they could figure things out and get comfortable with each other as they went along.
From there, he was able to fixate on the game. And West Virginia was charged up to host the top-ranked team in the country.
There was a buzz around the stadium.
It didn't last.
The last University of Cincinnati basketball game Keels called came against West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March 1998. The No. 2 seed Bearcats met the No. 10 seed Mountaineers at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho (the same building in which the Buckeyes' men's basketball team played its two NCAA Tournament games in March 2018). D'Juan Baker nailed a three-pointer with seven seconds left to hand Cincinnati a 74–72 advantage, but West Virginia's Jarrod West answered with a definitive three-pointer off the glass with 0.8 seconds remaining.
So when Keels ran into Tony Caridi, West Virginia's radio broadcaster, six months later at Mountaineer Field, Caridi said: "Last time we saw you, your team lost to the Mountaineers. Maybe it'll work out this day."
Plenty of Buckeyes supporters made the trek from Columbus. The crowd of 68,409 is the third-largest in the venue's history. Ohio State won the game 34–17, without too much trouble. Joe Germaine, the senior quarterback and co-captain, threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Michael Wiley rushed 17 times for 140 yards and a score. It would be the closest game they'd play until early November, as they continued to clutch the No. 1 ranking until their November 7 matchup against Michigan State at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes blasted their first eight opponents by an average of 29 points per game.
"In my opinion, that 1998 team was one of the best teams to ever play college football," said running back Jonathan Wells. "We were very explosive."
Then came Black Saturday.
The Buckeyes were a 28-point favorite on November 7, 1998. They carried a 24–9 lead in the third quarter. Michigan State head coach Nick Saban told his team to prepare for a 15-round fight and "to be Rocky in that 15 round." The Buckeyes couldn't get back to their feet after the Spartans delivered a knockout punch in the fourth quarter for the TKO heard 'round the nation. Five Buckeyes turnovers spoiled what should have been a serene Saturday afternoon at the 'Shoe. Instead, a team that Saban described as "the squirts in the neighborhood who had to pick a fight with the bully" rattled off 19 unanswered points to slam the door shut on Ohio State's title hopes.
In November 2015 Wiley and former offensive tackle Orlando Pace watched another shocking Ohio State loss to Michigan State at the Columbus home of former receiver Dee Miller. The three played together under Cooper in the late '90s. Pace, now a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, routinely flattened defensive linemen and hapless pass rushers. He created gaping holes for Wiley and other ball carriers, and he bought time for Ohio State's quarterbacks so they could sling the ball downfield to Miller.
Pace had departed for the NFL before Ohio State hosted Michigan State in 1998, but his buddies saw the field in Columbus that day. As the trio watched Mark Dantonio's squad rewrite that script 17 years later, they reflected on that miserable afternoon in 1998.
"Aw, Mill, I was so sick when you all lost it," said Pace, the No. 1 overall draft selection in 1998.
"How did we let that slip through our hands?" Wiley asked.
In 2015 a similar story unfolded. The Buckeyes, the reigning champions, appeared destined for a second straight College Football Playoff berth. And then, a seemingly overmatched Michigan State team, missing its starting quarterback and playing on the road, dashed those dreams.
"Sometimes ... at Ohio State, it's like, 'Who can beat us in this conference?'" Miller said. "'We're going to show up and we're going to be wearing the scarlet and gray, and on paper we know we're better than this team.' And at the end of the game, you're on the losing end, and you're like, 'Man, did this really happen?' And it kind of wakes you up. It was really difficult, to be honest. We knew that we had lost a really, really special opportunity. We all come in every preseason wanting to win the national title game. You look at your Ohio States, Florida States, Alabamas, and it's almost sad to say that anything less than a national championship is not really good. You have your coaches who are paid $5–6 million. You're coming in with the best recruiting classes. So everybody expects you to get to the top."
Bill Burke, a graduate of Howland High School in Warren, Ohio, directed Michigan State to the upset in 1998. He had been named the Northeast Ohio Division II Player of the Year in 1994, but he ended up in enemy territory for college.
"I think it was somewhat of a panic by everybody," Miller said.
Germaine, under duress, hurried a pass toward Miller in the end zone on the Buckeyes' final play. Michigan State defensive back Renaldo Hill stepped in front, intercepted the pass, and sealed the 28–24 upset. Years later, Miller's wide receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers, Charlie Baggett — who served as an assistant under Saban at Michigan State — told Miller that the Spartans knew the exact route he was going to run on Ohio State's last attempt. That added salt to Miller's wound.
"Maybe if it wasn't me they threw the ball to on the last play, I'd be like, 'Oh, well. We lost,'" Miller said. "But, no, I'm somewhat responsible for not making the play that we needed to make to stay undefeated and ranked No. 1."
Instead, it still eats at Miller today. Any reminder of Michigan State bothers him, including the school's colors. (Don't mention to him that he had to wear the renowned hues of the Green Bay Packers, who selected him in the sixth round of the 1999 NFL Draft.) "Man, I hate green," he said. "I hate green. My wife will get me socks to wear with my suits, and if they have any green on them, I'll be like, 'Take those socks back.' I never wear green. I wish they would change the color of money."
In December 2013, a few days before Michigan State again wrecked Ohio State's national championship chances, a friend texted Miller a picture from that 1998 letdown. It happened to be Miller's birthday. "I'm like, 'Dude, you just messed up my birthday,'" Miller said. "I can't block it out. Just that whole sequence, that whole drive. I'll never be able to block that out."
There was a somber atmosphere in the locker room after the game. Miller said it was like somebody had died. Keels said he remembers "a stunned silence."
"It was ugly," Wells said. "When you know that you're better than somebody, but unfortunately, on that day, they're better than you, you have to just live with it. It's a tough pill to swallow. It was tough. We were very disappointed. We were heartbroken. We had shown no signs of being beatable that season."
Neither Wells nor Miller has ever gone back and rewatched that game. Miller said he'll receive texts informing him that he's on the Big Ten Network when the broadcast re-airs, which irks him. "People think it's cool that you're on TV," he said, "but you're on TV for the wrong damn reason. I have never watched that game. Even the next day, watching it on film just made me sick to my stomach. Here we are with all of this firepower, being ranked No. 1. That was the first year of the BCS, so we found out that our mess-up let everyone know that if you lose, you better lose early in the season. If you lose at the end of the season, there's no way for you to get back into that national championship hunt."
Even Cooper admitted as much. After the stunning loss, he said, "Realistically, I don't think we have a chance of winning the national championship. A lot of things would need to happen, and I don't have a clue how far we'll drop."
The answer? Ohio State tumbled six spots, to No. 7 in the nation. Another crushing November defeat, only this time to the other team in Michigan. Perhaps the Buckeyes' reputation would have developed differently had they lost to, say, West Virginia in the opener, instead of Michigan State in November, with the bowl picture coming into focus.
I think it left people wondering, "Okay, what's going to happen next? Can they still win the Big Ten?" Had they lost to West Virginia earlier in the year, at least it was on the road, it was a team that had been ranked. Or, as difficult as it might have been, had they lost to Michigan at the end of the year, at least they'd seen that movie before. Had they lost in the BCS Championship Game, well, at least they got there. That was one that caught everybody off-guard, because it seemingly came out of nowhere.
The next week, a peeved Ohio State team walloped Iowa 45–14. The week after that, they conquered Michigan 31–16, tied for the second-largest margin of victory over their nemesis in 30 years. It was Cooper's second and final victory against Michigan. "We were like, 'Man, we can't lose this game after basically losing the national championship,'" Miller said. "So, it was just trying to get back and focused."
Ohio State's consolation prize was a date with Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes, ranked third in the country, bested the No. 8 Aggies 24–14. "Even though we won the Big Ten and we beat Texas A&M," Miller said, "we did not win the national championship and we felt like we were one of the best teams that ever came to Ohio State. It was just that one game. I never want anyone to feel what I felt."
Other teams would. The Spartans thwarted Ohio State's bid for a national title game berth in 2013. Michigan State gashed Ohio State's defense, dashed Ohio State's championship dreams, and crashed what appeared to be an inevitable clash between Florida State and Ohio State at the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's crew upset the unbeaten Buckeyes 34–24 in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Instead of a trip to Pasadena, the Buckeyes had to settle for a flight to South Beach, where they lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Two years later, Michigan State turned the trick again with a 41-yard field goal as time expired. The Spartans erased No. 2 Ohio State's unblemished record a week before the Michigan game with a 17–14 final score. Michigan State was without starting quarterback Connor Cook, which only added salt to the wound.
A couple of different times over the last 20 years, Michigan State has ruined some of their dreams.
Jim Tressel asked Miller to speak to the team before its expedition to East Lansing, Michigan, in October 2006. The Buckeyes proceeded to smack around the Spartans 38–7. And yet, Miller remained dissatisfied. "I still didn't feel any type of payback feeling," Miller said. "We won as a university, but I wasn't like, 'Yeah, now take that!' I really feel like there's nothing anyone can do to make me feel like it's payback."
The 1998 wound remains fresh for those who endured it. That game seemed to spark the downward spiral of Cooper's tenure in Columbus. The following year, Ohio State finished 6–6 and did not participate in bowl season. They dropped their final three games, with a lackluster effort in a 23–7 loss at Michigan State, a 46–20 drubbing by Illinois at home and then another failure at Michigan, with a 24–17 loss. There was some hope entering that game in Ann Arbor that a victory could vault the Buckeyes to the Motor City Bowl at the Pontiac Silverdome. That provided a particularly peculiar perspective for Keels. He had called University of Cincinnati football games for a long time, and in his final year in that position, the Bearcats reached their first bowl game in 47 years. He can recall how thrilled those affiliated with the program and the fan base were that Cincinnati had been selected to play in the Humanitarian Bowl (in which it defeated Utah State 35–19). In his second year on the Ohio State radio broadcast, the Buckeyes did not appear in a bowl game, conveying to him the other end of the disposition spectrum.
The 2000 season proved to be Cooper's last at the helm. The Buckeyes were 8–3 heading into the Outback Bowl, where they squared off against South Carolina and head coach Lou Holtz, an assistant coach under Woody Hayes on Ohio State's 1968 national championship team, and running back Ryan Brewer, a native of Troy, Ohio. The day before the game in Tampa, Keels met with Cooper in the coach's hotel room to record a pregame interview. Cooper and his wife, Helen, and another couple were getting ready to head to dinner. Cooper introduced Keels to everyone and asked if he wanted to sit and have a drink. Keels politely declined and marveled at the idea that Cooper could be so calm and so courteous given that, if the Outback Bowl didn't unfold in his favor, he could very well find himself on the unemployment line.
Ohio State lost to South Carolina 24–7, with Brewer being named the game's MVP for his three-touchdown performance. After the game, Keels sat in the team hotel, as Ohio State's charter flight home was delayed. He was sitting with coworkers and athletic director Andy Geiger, who seemed to be visibly wrestling with the entire situation. Did a coaching change need to be made? Was the time right? Did Cooper deserve another year? Geiger chose his words carefully when speaking with Keels at the hotel. Sure enough, Cooper was fired the next day.
In a press conference following his dismissal, Cooper noted his 3–8 record in bowl games. He expressed that he had hoped he could hang onto his job for at least one more season. Geiger called the Outback Bowl shortcoming "a capstone on what we have seen as a deteriorating climate within the football program." Geiger cited concern about player discipline and academic motivation and overall team competitiveness as factors in his decision, and he painted the South Carolina loss as an all-encompassing portrait of the program's problems. Cooper finished with more wins in school history than any coach not named Woody Hayes, but he also finished with a 2–10–1 record against Michigan.
A few weeks after Cooper's exit, Keels called his house phone and left him a message. Cooper returned the call. The two thanked each other for making each other's jobs a bit easier.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If These Walls Could Talk: Ohio State Buckeyes"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Keels and Zack Meisel.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Thad Matta vii
Foreword Jim Lachey xi
Introduction: 20 Years in the Making xv
1 1998-An Eventful Rookie Year 1
Archie and Me 12
2 A Final Four Appearance No One Saw Coming 15
3 A National Championship No One Saw Coming 29
What Ohio Stadium Means to Me 49
4 The Thad Five 55
5 A Time for Transition 85
Meyer's Ever-Growing Coaching Tree 105
6 Woody, Bo, and That Team Up North 109
We Are Marshall 125
7 The Height of the Matta Era 127
8 Cardale's Coming of Age and Slaying the SEC Dragon 139
Troy Smith's Heisman-Worthy Maturation 161
9 Thad Matta 165
Covering Thad Matta 177
10 Keels' Favorite Players 181
11 20 Years in the Books 197