“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” – Common misquote of Grantland Rice
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” – Red Sanders, often attributed to Vince Lombardi
“Just win, baby!” – Al Davis
What matters more than anything in sports? Integrity? Principles? Playing the game the “right” way? Or is it simply winning?
I suppose it depends on who you ask. When it comes to the Ohio State Buckeyes, winning tends to be the only standard. Oh, make no mistake, for years OSU has tried to get away with the ruse that they do things the right way, that there’s some kind of standard of excellence that applies to a more broad stroke than simply winning.
But when it all comes down to it, Ohio State simply stands for one thing and one thing only in terms of their beloved football team: Winning. And if corners are cut in the name of winning, well, Ohio State hasn’t shied away from their share of shortcuts.
Something funny happened, though, in the last year as Ohio State was cruising along their road of victory and greatness. Someone decided to look under the hood.For years Ohio State asked their fans and the media alike to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Ignorance is bliss, they say, and oh how blissful our ignorance really was.
We all celebrated that 2002 National Championship. For many under the age of 40, that Ohio State Championship was our lone taste of glory. But beyond that National Championship, fans enjoyed a historic run of success in the decade with Jim Tressel at the helm.
Prior to The Senator’s arrival on campus, few knew what to expect of the man. Fewer still would have guessed that he would bring a 9-1 8-1 record against the most hated rivals up north. Or how about those seven six Big Ten Titles, with six five of them coming consecutively. And don’t forget the eight seven BCS Bowl Appearances, with a record of 5-3 4-3 in those big games.
Yet one unbelievably stupid mistake by an otherwise great leader brought it all crashing down. When Jim Tressel was forced to resign over Memorial Weekend, we all had to brace ourselves to some degree for this upcoming season. There was both a fatality and finality to the measure of success that fans of the Scarlet and Gray had grown accustomed to. Things were definitely going to be different.
In a perfect world, when a program like Ohio State changes leadership, there’s a succession plan in place. Or at least a formal nationwide search is conducted to find the best man for the job. Unfortunately, Ohio State handled their scandal so poorly that they gave themselves no such luxury.
When the scandal first broke, Ohio State had two choices. They could either cut ties with Tressel immediately, or else brace themselves and prepare to go through the storm with their captain still in place. Somehow, Ohio State tried to find a 3rd option in between the two logical choices.
They initially tried Option B. They suspended the coach, but made it clear he was going to be their guy going forward. Tressel was still recruiting, and everyone moved forward with the assumption that Jim Tressel would be their coach. OSU President Gordon Gee even made his embarrassing remark that he wouldn’t fire Tressel, and that he just hoped Tressel wouldn’t fire him.
Then a few months later, Gee fired Tressel. It sent an uncomfortable message to recruits, to current players, to the media, and to the fans. Everyone braced themselves for more violations to be unearthed. They had to be coming, or else the move to fire Tressel at that awkward time made no sense.
All we got, though, was a dud of an expose written by Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann, an article that accused Tressel of being an evil man who prayed to God in the morning and then went out and…fixed raffles. Dohrmann’s article was the impetus for the NCAA to levy a grand total of zero new allegations against the University.
So it was, then, that Luke Fickell was unfairly asked to step in and do a job that we was not ready for under circumstances that would be difficult for even the most experienced coach to go through. Ohio State announced that at the end of the season there would be a thorough coaching search. They failed to even schedule a press conference to show their confidence in their new coach. They waited over a week to do that. They made him “interim” coach, then put a loaded pistol to the back of his skull and demanded he go out there and win.
Then they ran off the team’s best player and the best offensive weapon in Terrelle Pryor. They gave Fickell a choice. On one hand he could have Joe Bauserman, a 25 year old senior who knows the system and knows how to limit turnovers and costly mistakes, but ultimately struggles throwing the ball. Or on the other hand, he could have Braxton Miller, an 18 year old true freshman who has more skills, but probably isn’t ready for this stage yet.
It’s hard to envy Fickell’s predicament. With that pistol still pointed squarely at his head, how is he to decide between the QB who can’t win because he lacks the skills or the QB who can’t win because he can’t limit his mistakes and turnovers? Fickell needs to win, and win now, but he doesn’t have the tools to succeed.
The easy answer, of course, is to play Braxton Miller. Every down, every snap, let the freshman play. Let him make his mistakes, let him take his lumps, but most importantly, let him learn how to win. Sure, the Buckeyes will lose more games along the way. At the very least, Wisconsin and Nebraska look like games that will give the Buckeyes serious trouble.
By the end of the season, though, the hope is that the Buckeyes will have a true freshman QB with experience, with confidence, and with the knowledge of how to play and win at Ohio State. It would be the ideal situation as the Buckeyes look to regroup and head into next season with a QB who knows how to succeed.
As all the frustration, all the despair, all the confusion, and all the animosity of the offseason from hell came to a head last Saturday in Miami, Luke Fickell looked like a coach who wasn’t ready for this responsibility. The players gave good effort, but it finally became painfully evident that losing a coach, the star QB, the top WR, the top RB, the best offensive lineman, and all the other surrounding noise and distraction was just going to be too much for this team to overcome.
The decision not to use his time outs at the end of the game was probably an unforgivable sin, as it seemed to show that he had given up on his team. Yet the decision fans seemed to be most angry about was his refusal to give Braxton Miller more playing time. Fickell said after the game that the decision of which QB to play and when was left up to offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. However, as head coach, the final decision is Fickell’s and Fickell’s alone. An experienced coach would have realized this and been unafraid to insert his authority.
That’s really the crux of this sad situation. Luke Fickell is a great man. He is such a loyal representative of the Scarlet and Gray. When he was put in this wholly unfair situation, he never complained or made excuses. He simply said “next man up”, implying that the motto applied to himself as well.
Unfortunately, Ohio State is not a place to learn how to coach on the fly. I like Fickell an awful lot and it makes me terribly sad to see him have to go through this. I don’t know what he will do about the QB situation going forward, but almost everyone knows the right thing to do is to play Braxton Miller and get him ready for next year.
Next year. That’s a funny thing for Luke Fickell to consider. The coach is now stuck in a situation where protocol demands that he prepare the star QB for next year. Next year, when someone else is coaching the team, ready to take over with a QB who has been groomed for success by the loyal coach asked to guide the ship in transition for the next captain.
Fickell deserves better. He deserves more patience from the Ohio State athletic department. He deserves more patience from the fans. He deserves a fair chance to prove that he can learn and just like his QB, make mistakes this year in order to be better next year.
But Ohio State isn’t about what you deserve. Right or wrong, Ohio State is about winning. We saw last Saturday that Luke Fickell is not the right coach to win at Ohio State now. I fully expect someone else to be coaching this team next year. If I were a Las Vegas handicapper, I’d peg Urban Meyer as the heavy favorite.
No matter who the next coach is, though, life will go on at Ohio State. A new coach, new systems, new traditions, new successes and failures. And left behind will be a forgotten year. A lost season in which one of the most loyal Buckeyes of all was put in the most unfortunate situation.
This job was supposed to be the dream job for Fickell. Everyone suspected Coach Tressel had at minimum five more seasons left, perhaps more. Fickell was waiting for the perfect head coaching job at a medium sized school where he could learn and be ready to be a serious candidate for the big job. I’m sure Fickell always envisioned himself someday being the coach of The Ohio State University. I just bet he never imagined it would be quite like this.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Terry Gilliam