If all goes according to plan – well, two of them – Ohio State football head coach Urban Meyer will be in New Orleans on Monday night to watch the men’s basketball team battle for the national championship.
That would require two things to go right, of course – first, the Buckeyes will have to beat Kansas on Saturday night in an Elite Eight matchup, then Meyer’s fourth spring practice as head coach of the Buckeyes that day will have to go according to plan, as well.
But the fact that the first-year football coach is even considering such a hastily organized trip to the Big Easy to support Thad Matta’s Buckeyes shows just how tight the bond between high-level coaches can be at a place like Ohio State.
“It’s awesome,” Meyer said of the basketball run. “I love the way they play. To see them pick up the slack when our big man got in foul trouble (Saturday in the Elite Eight vs. Syracuse), that tells you it’s a good team.
“I don’t know a lot about basketball but I do know a lot about teams, and when one of our big dogs goes down because he’s in foul trouble and you see a team play like they did – I’ve always been a fan of Coach Matta, but to see that team rally like that, that impressed me.”
To hear Meyer rave about the way the basketball team is playing has to be music to the ears of the Ohio State fanbase, and it’s not just lip service out of Meyer. When he was at Florida, he developed a close bond with Gators cage coach Billy Donovan. Meyer and the two-time national champion Donovan were even neighbors on the so-called “Cul-de-sac of Champions” in Gainesville.
While at Florida, the ever-observant Meyer said he gained an appreciation for what it took for a coach to get to the top in basketball, and he’s seeing the same things out of Matta’s squad.
Whether it’s luck or something bigger at play, Meyer has ended up at each of his last two stops at institutions on the short list of those that can compete for national championships. Some schools, such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, are the blue bloods of college basketball but have struggled to have lasting success on the gridiron. On the other hand, such longtime football powers as Nebraska and Alabama have struggled to find a consistent foothold on the basketball landscape.
Then there’s Ohio State.
“I think there’s only a handful of schools in the country that have the resources and tradition, and this is certainly one of them,” Meyer said. “Florida is one of them. This is one of them as well.”
That’s a message echoed by Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith, who credited Matta for restoring the rich tradition of Buckeye basketball since being lured from Xavier nearly a decade ago.
“For eight years now that Thad has been here, he’s elevated our program to a point where people recognize you can do both,” Smith said. “You can have an institutional platform like ours, a brand like ours and a city like ours where you can do both. It’s exciting that we have a coach like this and are able to get kids like we get. When you look at all the kids that have gone pro in the NBA or Europe in the past seven years, it’s phenomenal.”
Now, there’s no doubt that Ohio State is first and foremost a football school. From its seven claimed national championships to seven Heisman Trophy winners, Ohio State is a behemoth among behemoths on the gridiron; after all, there’s a reason Ohio Stadium seats 100,000-plus fans and there’s a rendering of Chic Harley located on the façade of a restaurant on High Street. And much like a place like Indiana doesn’t apologize for its rich basketball heritage, Ohio State shouldn’t have to apologize for the Buckeye State’s fascination with the oblong spheroid as well.
But there’s no way the men’s basketball tradition can be ignored. Fred Taylor took the school to three national title games in a row from 1960-62, winning the first, while the legacy of outstanding players from Jerry Lucas to Evan Turner – both national players of the year – is impressive. This year’s Final Four is OSU’s 11th, good for sixth among Division I programs and first among Big Ten schools.
While that program is often overshadowed by football, a poll recently conducted here on BuckeyeSports.com showed OSU fans are looking forward to the Final Four. In results compiled in the print edition of BSB, 82.2 percent of fans said they were more excited about the Final Four than the start of Meyer’s first practice as he tries to reinvigorate that program.
At the very least, the timing – the way spring practice has fallen at the same time as the Final Four – is interesting to Smith.
“There is a little irony,” he said. “It’s a great situation where I know our fans can embrace both. We’re the 15th largest city in the country, 60,000 students – we’re capable of embracing both. We have one of the largest basketball arenas in the country at 19,000. We sold it out 11 or 12 times. We can embrace both. I don’t think there is any challenge with that.”
Smith also sees the success of the basketball team, which went through trouble with NCAA sanctions in the mid-2000s for violations committed under Jim O’Brien, and the bright future of the football program – emerging from the shadow of its own major scandal under a recently hired two-time national championship coach in Meyer – as a testament to what Ohio State is capable of.
“There are very few schools that could go through what we went through and recover like we recovered,” the AD said. “A lot of schools in that environment would fold. But we have a great leader in our president and we have good coaches. … It just an amazing place where we are able to attract outstanding leaders in our coaches and Thad is representative of that.”
The hope is the NCAA won’t have any reason to return to Columbus in the near future. Neither Meyer nor Matta has any history of violations, leading no less an expert than Hall of Fame basketball coach and national television analyst Bob Knight to praise the current leadership at OSU.
"I think right now, it's something very unique I believe in college athletics today that you are going to have two people – one coaching your basketball team, the other your football team – that are as absolutely adamant about playing by the rules and in doing so have both won more than a whole slew of guys that don't play by the rules," Knight said while visiting his alma mater for a salute in December.
"Rather than just be proud of the score and winning, you should be very, very proud that you have these two coaches coaching your football and basketball teams."
Of course, winning is nice, too, and the Buckeyes figure to do plenty of that in the coming seasons. Meyer sees a similarity between what happened at Florida – when he won the crystal football in 2006 and ’08 – and Donovan cut down the nets in ’06 and ’07 as well.
“Imagine being a student at Florida in 2006,” he said. “Four times, running out in the street acting like a nut within a two-year period. That’s what they do down there, run out in the street and act like a nut.
“I imagine High Street would do the same thing.”