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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Ohio State a reminder of Big Ten’s glory days

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An open date on Georgia’s schedule allowed for a sojourn to the Buckeye State, where The Ohio State University hosted Penn State in a game that was as one-sided as a bootlegger versus the IRS.

Members of the Southeastern Conference have become the overachievers of late, but the Big Ten is the storied conference in college football. Certainly in the minds of Ohio State fans.

Big Ten football in its heyday was power and brawn. You go to the theater in towns across our great landscape, where the Movietone News flashed scenes of packed houses—up to 70,000, which then was mindboggling — with he-men slugging it out on the field. All the league’s teams were good. Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and, of course, The Ohio State University.

If you wanted to play on a team most likely to succeed when it came to a national championship, you dreamed of playing for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. The Buckeyes fought it out with Michigan and the others every year for the right to play in the Rose Bowl.

The Big Ten was a big deal. Southern schools contributed to the dominance of the conference by not recruiting the black athlete. As Auburn’s Pat Dye, ever the man who will say what is on his mind, says about the SEC’s dominance of late: it has come about for one reason and one only.

“We are the best in college football because of the black athlete,” Dye said. “We simply have more of the outstanding payers than other schools in the country.”

Jim Parker, who played at Ballard-Hudson High in Macon, enrolled at Ohio State, became an All-American, and then played 11 years for the Johnny Unitas Colts. (At Baltimore, Parker was picked for the All-NFL team for eight straight years).

No SEC school would have considered offering Parker a scholarship. Michigan has one of the most celebrated histories in college football, but Duffy Daugherty took over at Michigan State and recruited players like Bubba Smith from Texas and George Webster from South Carolina to elevate Spartan football to a level never before experienced in East Lansing. Michigan State was able to compete with the Wolverines and to contend for national championships.

Recruiting attitudes changed in the Southeastern Conference in the ’60s, and suddenly the outstanding black athletes began staying home. Eventually there would be dominant players like Herschel Walker taking Georgia to a national championship and the versatile Bo Jackson leading Auburn to the SEC title.

In another day, those players would have helped the Big Ten remain dominant in college football.

You may discover from the vast television coverage of the college game that the enthusiasm and commitment to college football knows no bounds — which means that in every section of the country, there is the view that nowhere is the game so appreciated than at the fan’s own alma mater.

The SEC may have won the last seven national titles, but Buckeye fans won’t concede that the game is more important than the brand played in Ohio Stadium, the horseshoe facility built in 1922.

The parking lots pre-game resemble what you see in Athens or Tuscaloosa or Clemson or Austin or Norman or Ann Arbor. SUV’s with wide-screen TVs filling the back of the vehicle. Food spreads as varied as anywhere in college football. Kids tossing a football. Libations in abundance and a monitoring of other games across the country.

Last weekend, there was unabashed cheering for UCLA as the Bruins played Oregon.

“Somebody has to knock off Oregon and Florida State,” said a chic lady fan with buckeyes painted on her cheeks.

No doubt she was cheering lustily in the fourth quarter when Urban Meyer, the new coach in residence in Columbus, keenly aware of the importance of style points, was pouring it on hapless Penn State, 63-14.

Earl Bruce, the coach who succeeded Woody Hayes, once told me about visiting a fraternity at Ohio State in January. There was elevated toasting, singing, and celebration, which caused the bemused coach to ask what had brought about the excitement. “Coach,” he was told, “there’s only 349 days left till the Michigan game.”

Another former Buckeye coach, John Cooper, watched the Ohio State offensive line dominate Penn State from his seat in the press box.

“They love their football here without question,” Cooper said. “In fact, if you didn’t play here, you didn’t play football.”