DALLAS, Texas – History, in football as in life in general, sometimes has a way of repeating itself. If we don’t learn from it, scholars say, we are doomed to repeat it.
Many Ohio State football fans probably aren’t old enough to remember the 1968 team, but if those players from yesteryear could talk to today’s Buckeyes, they would urge them to seize the moment in Monday’s inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game – because it may never come again.
You see, 46 years ago, things were much the same entering that Rose Bowl as they are today.
Woody Hayes had a very young team, made up mostly of extremely talented kids only a year ago of high school who became Buckeye legends. Names like Tatum, Kern, Stillwagon, Provost, Zelina, Brockington, Sensibaugh and Anderson … known as the “Super Sophomores.”
After each big win down the stretch this season, against Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Alabama, and ignited by huge plays and performances from a sophomore or a junior or even a redshirt freshman, Urban Meyer has repeatedly said the past two months: “The future is bright at Ohio State” … or ….“I really thought we were about a year away from being ready for the big stage.”
Woody Hayes probably thought the same thing back in ’68.
On the other side of the ball in Pasadena almost a half-century ago stood the USC Trojans, more mature age-wise and probably physically as well. Although USC was ranked No. 2 and Ohio State No. 1, the Trojans still were a slight favorite in the Rose Bowl, probably because of their experience edge as well as the fact Rose Bowls are played in their own backyard, so to speak.
During a team trip to Disneyland along with USC just days before the matchup, Kern figured his Buckeyes may be in trouble.
“I remember thinking they were the San Diego Chargers,” he recalled. “I mean, they were huge! We were undersized on the line of scrimmage and I remember wondering what would happen during the game.”
USC was loaded with seniors, especially Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson, who had rushed for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Monday, another West Coast team from the same conference, Oregon, a six-point favorite to defeat Ohio State, will start seven seniors and nine juniors. Marcus Mariota, also the reigning Heisman winner and regarded as the greatest player in Oregon history, is a redshirt junior making his 41st career start.
The contrast to these relatively young Buckeyes is undeniable. Cardale Jones, a redshirt sophomore, will be making his third career start at quarterback. Tailback Zeke Elliott, who has blossomed down the stretch with 220 yards against Wisconsin and 230 against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, is a sophomore. Next season, it is likely the Buckeyes will return as many as 15 starters.
“We’ve been younger than most of the teams on our schedule,” Meyer admitted. “That’s why I thought we may not be fully ready to compete for a national championship this season.”
So the parallels are there to Ohio State’s fourth national championship season, a year in which Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office and Vietnam War protests dominated campuses across the country.
A year earlier, the 1967 Buckeyes would have been a lot better than their 6-3 record (losses to Arizona, Purdue and Illinois) and surely a Big Ten contender if not for one simple NCAA rule – freshmen were not eligible (until 1972). The fact is, during practices that fall, the varsity had trouble competing with a group of freshman that coaches labeled “The Baby Bucks.”
“’The Baby Bucks’ kicked the varsity’s butt in practice every day,” Brockington said recently. “We could have played with anybody, even as freshmen.”
By the time camp was completed the following August, many of those now-Sophomores had supplanted the upperclassmen in the starting lineup.
The ’68 Buckeyes opened the season ranked No. 11, beat SMU by two touchdowns and Oregon by eight points but quickly jumped to No. 2 after shutting out top-ranked Purdue 13-0 at Ohio Stadium to start 3-0.
The Ohio State coaching staff, by the way, was a who’s who of future head coaches: George Chaump (offensive coordinator), Earle Bruce (offensive line), Hugh Hindman (who later became OSU athletic director), Lou Holtz (defensive backs), Rudy Hubbard (future longtime Florida A&M head coach), Bill Mallory (future Miami of Ohio and Indiana head coach), and Woody’s most-trusted assistant, Esco Sarkkinen, in his 23 season at Ohio State.
It was likely one of the greatest staffs in college football history.
Soon after the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes dusted off rival Michigan 50-14, a few hours later, the No. 1-ranked Trojans tied Notre Dame 21-21. The Rose matchup was still set, but the teams would switch rankings.
Hayes took no chances on what the weather would be New Year’s Day in Pasadena. As the Buckeyes practiced in December in French Field House next to St. John Arena, they sweated their you-know-whats off.
“Woody turned up those heaters,” fullback Jim Otis said. “I remember it being so hot in there that we could hardly breathe – and it was snowing outside. Ask anybody on that team and they will remember the heat. Woody turned out to be right on that one – it was 90 degrees on game day in Pasadena.”
By the time New Year’s Day rolled around in Pasadena, it was hot alright. As the Buckeyes warmed up on the Rose Bowl grass, Otis told Rex Kern, “I am sweating so bad … these jerseys are too hot.”
“We had always practiced in those fish-net jerseys in camp but weren’t supposed to wear them in a game,” Kern explained. “We happened to have them in the locker room. Many players wore those fish-nets that day in the Rose Bowl, and it was the first time Ohio State had ever used them (in a game).”
In the coming years, the tear-away, fish-nets then became a staple of the Buckeyes’ uniforms during warm-weather games, until the NCAA outlawed them later on.
The build-up for the game was simply electric. it was only the second time the Rose Bowl had hosted a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup and the build-up for the game lasted weeks. Nixon and Bob Hope attended the game and both later became good friends of Hayes.
The game didn’t start well at all for Ohio State. With the Buckeyes trailing 3-0, Simpson ripped off the type of run that made him famous. Starting left from his own 20, he was trapped near the sidelines. He cut back to the right, hit the sideline and out-ran the secondary for an 80-yard touchdown that made it 10-0 with 6:38 remaining in the first half.
These days, Holtz loves to tell the story of Hayes’ biting question after Simpson ripped off that run.
“How could you let him run 80 yards like that?” Hayes screamed over the headset.
“Coach,” Holtz said, “that’s all the yards he needed.”
Of course, that surely is a Holtz-ism. Knowing Woody Hayes, no assistant coach, let alone a first-year, 31-year-old unknown assistant, would dare utter such a comment to the man who already had won two national titles and five Big Ten titles and ruled with staff with an iron first. But it always gets a good laugh.
At halftime, tied 10-10, the Ohio State defensive coaches decided to play more man coverage in the secondary and crowd the line of scrimmage to slow down Simpson. If USC quarterback Steve Sogge, a pedestrian passer at best, could beat them deep, so be it.
It worked. Simpson never had another break away run as Kern hit two touchdown passes to give the Buckeyes a commanding 27-10 lead.
“I knew if we could take him away, we would win the game,” safety Ted Provost said. “Mark Stier covered O.J. all over the field.”
Wherever Simpson went in the second half, Stier went. He followed him on draws, screens, passing situations and the famed Student Body Left and Right. By the end of the game, Simpson knew every grass-stain on the number 54 in white very well.
“We just shut them down,” Stier a senior linebacker on the team. “(O.J.) went down just like everybody else – he wasn’t exactly hard to tackle.”
By the time the game was over, Simpson had his yards – 171 but 80 came on that one touchdown. The Buckeyes had forced five turnovers and the 27-16 win earned Hayes his third consensus national title. And they had Simpson’s respect.
Soon after the game ended, he limped into the Buckeyes’ locker room, paused until the celebration died down and stated: “You are the best f----- football team I have ever seen! You deserved to win. Congratulations!”
“I never saw that before or since,” Stier said. “It was very classy.”
Twenty-five years later, the Juice would find his own troubles in nearby Brentwood, Calif., and today spends his time in a state prison outside Las Vegas.
After the game, Hayes directed his players: “Look around this room. Remember your teammates. This is the last team this team will be meeting together. Remember what it took to achieve the ultimate – the teamwork, preparation, hard work, dedication and perseverance. Keep those lessons and they will help you in whatever you do in life.”
“I always remembered those words,” said Dirk Worden, a linebacker and tri-captain of the ’68 team. “He was right.”
Hayes didn’t start working immediately on 1969, as today’s coaches do in recruiting, etc. – he flew to Vietnam soon after the game to pick up the morale of U.S. troops.
Kern would be named the Most Valuable Player, but found something more important to life’s happiness. He met the Rose Bowl queen that week and later married her. All these years later, Nancy and Rex Kern are still living in wedded bliss in Southern California.
“We had beaten USC, won the national championship and I met my wife,” he said recently. “I won’t forget that Rose Bowl.”
And as Worden indicated, his words rang true. Many players from that ’68 team are still very close, exchanging calls and texts and emails as they advance into their late 60s. On the 20th reunion of the Rose Bowl, they got together and contributed $1.2 million in an endowment to their alma mater in the name of their beloved head coach.
As for the coaches, of course, the legendary Hayes has been gone more than 27 years now. Holtz, who just turned 78, will soon retire from ESPN. Bruce became head coach at Ohio State 1979-87 and still lives in Columbus, offering radio commentary before and after Buckeye games.
The Super Sophs never won another national championship. Ranked No. 1 throughout 1969 and labeled by many as the best team in college football history, they were shocked as juniors 24-12 at Michigan in Bo Schembechler’s first OSU-Michigan game as head coach, before being upset by Stanford in the Rose Bowl as seniors.
They finished 27-2, with those two losses costing them three consecutive national titles.
“I’ll never get over the loss to the school up north in ’69,” Kern said. “It will haunt me forever. I know we could have gone undefeated in three years and won three national championships. We were that close.”
If anything, it is a history lesson for today’s young Buckeyes: Seize the championship moment Monday night, because it may never come again – no matter how bright the immediate future appears.