John Cooper had an inkling in early 1993 that his Ohio State football program had finally turned the corner.
There were still no victories against Michigan, no bowl wins, no Big Ten championships or trips to the Rose Bowl, and the withering criticism the coach had endured during most of his first five years in Columbus was still around. But years of solid recruiting and one of country's finest weight and conditioning programs had seemingly put the Buckeyes back on equal footing with the rest of the elite teams in college football.
Cooper didn't know it at the time – and his critics would never have believed it – but Ohio State football was about to embark upon one of the most successful six-year periods in program history.
"When you talk about Coach Cooper and his legacy, naturally people are going to bring up his record against Michigan," longtime OSU football historian Jack Park told BSB. "But to be fair, you also have to look at the way the team performed throughout the mid-1990s. Ohio State was a solid top-10 team throughout that period and just missed out on two national championships during that time. That all began with the 1993 season."
During his first five seasons with the Buckeyes, Cooper posted a 35-21-2 record and never finished higher than No. 21 in the final Associated Press rankings of any season. Beginning with the 1993 season, Ohio State went 62-12-1 over the next six years, captured three Big Ten championships, won the 1997 Rose Bowl with a thrilling last-minute rally and twice finished No. 2 in the final AP poll.
"We were a pretty good football team in the mid-'90s," Cooper told BSB recently. "We were as good as anybody in the country during that stretch. We weathered a lot of storms in those first few years, but we kept going, stuck together, worked hard and built a foundation for some pretty good teams."
Ohio State had finished 1992 by forging a 13-13 tie against Michigan to break a four-game losing streak against the Wolverines. Unfortunately, that game was followed by a fourth consecutive bowl defeat, a 21-14 loss to eighth-ranked Georgia.
Cooper was armed with a new four-year contract that ran through the 1995 season, but skeptics of the coach and his program were still in abundant supply. Those critics received a fresh supply of ammunition when national experts could not agree how to rate Ohio State's '93 recruiting effort. The 22-member class was rated as high as eighth in the country by one recruiting service and as low as seventh in the Big Ten by two others.
It didn't take long for Cooper to take exception to the disparity in the rankings.
"I don't know about these analysts," the coach said on National Signing Day. "These guys are making a living. You know that. But sometimes I question what a guy from California, for example, knows about recruiting in the state of Ohio. I don't put a lot of stock in that.
"I think these guys are more interested in national recognition and in selling their recruiting publications than they are in anything else. … I'll bet you there isn't a recruiting service – Tom Lemming, Max Emfinger, any of those other guys – who has had a chance to see a single one of these guys play during the season."
The Buckeyes enjoyed a last-minute flurry around signing day, getting a trio of commitments in the final 72 hours of recruiting season. That included signing defensive back Shawn Springs of Silver Spring (Md.) Silverbrook, who postponed his decision several times before finally declaring for Ohio State. Springs, the son of former OSU running back Ron Springs, became a three-year starter for the Buckeyes and earned All-America status as a junior in 1996.
Springs wasn't the only future All-American in the class of '93. Defensive lineman Mike Vrabel of Stow (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit, who rewrote the OSU record books in terms of career sacks and tackles for loss, earned All-America status in 1995 and '96 before embarking upon a 14-year NFL career. Vrabel is currently in his third season as an Ohio State assistant coach.
Also signing with the Buckeyes in 1993 were a host of future starters, including linebacker Greg Bellisari, defensive end Matt Finkes, safety Anthony Gwinn, quarterback Stanley Jackson, flanker Dimitrious Stanley and fullback Nicky Sualua.
Still, national recruiting experts couldn't get together on just how well Cooper and his staff had done. Rick Kimbrel of California-based Blue Chip Illustrated rated the class the eighth best in the country, while Lemming and SuperPrep magazine, another California-based publication, downgraded the Buckeyes' efforts and placed them only seventh best in the Big Ten.
"We thought they really came on real strong at the end," Kimbrel said. "For example, we feel that Bellisari is very underrated. He was among the top five linebackers in Florida, but you have to realize that Florida had a lot of outstanding linebackers. Bring Bellisari out here to California, for example, and he's the No. 1 prospect without question.
"We just think it's a darn solid class. I don't see how anyone couldn't rate this class right up there."
"They got a lot of the top players they wanted in Ohio, but their out-of-state recruiting didn't really come around like they probably hoped it would," he said. "If you look at it in a fair way – and that's what we're all trying to do – I think they had a good year, but not a great one."
John McCallister, publisher of Prep Football Prospects of Ohio, told BSB he placed the Buckeyes somewhere between second and fourth in the Big Ten. When told Lemming and SuperPrep had the effort rated seventh in the conference, an incredulous McCallister replied, "You've got to be kidding. No way. No way are they seventh in the Big Ten. Seventh? I think that's crazy."
NFL Losses, Staff Changes
Ohio State was ready to build upon its incremental success and field a veteran team in 1993 that featured 14 players returning who had started in the Citrus Bowl against Georgia. But that number quickly changed when tailback Robert Smith decided to forgo the final two seasons of his college eligibility to enter the 1993 NFL draft. Smith was the team's leading rusher in 1992 with 819 yards and 10 touchdowns. One day after Smith's announcement, strong safety Roger Harper followed suit.
Those departures came about the same time Cooper suffered another defection from his coaching staff when Larry Coyer left to become assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at East Carolina. Coyer, who had coached the secondary at Ohio State for two seasons, was replaced by the similarly named Larry Coker.
Coker was a high school coach in his native Oklahoma before landing his first job as a college assistant in 1979 on Cooper's staff at Tulsa. He eventually became offensive coordinator for the Golden Hurricane before leaving for rival Oklahoma State in 1983. Coker served seven seasons with the Cowboys, working with such running backs as Thurman Thomas and 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, and then spent three years as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma before rejoining Cooper at Ohio State.
The staff was also undergoing a change in the recruiting office. J.D. Graham left shortly after signing day and after only one season as recruiting coordinator and was replaced by Larry Petroff, who had been in charge of recruiting at Pittsburgh.
As the Buckeyes got ready for spring practice, Cooper did something out of character. Unlike the previous two springs when he preferred a springtime battle to sort out who would start at quarterback, the OSU head coach proclaimed sophomore Bobby Hoying his starter come fall.
Hoying had served as Kirk Herbstreit's backup in 1992 but never seemed to gain much trust from the coaching staff, getting only mop-up playing time during which he completed 8 of 14 passes for 58 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The prevailing thought leading into the spring was that Hoying was going to have to prove his worth against senior transfer Bret Powers, especially considering Powers had started eight games at Arizona State in 1991 before transferring.
Hoying said being named the starter heading into spring drills took most of the pressure off him to do something spectacular to solidify the starting job.
"It really helps to know that I can go into this summer knowing I'm the starter," he said. "I have all summer to concentrate on that first game."
The two had comparable stats in the annual spring game. Hoying completed 10 of 19 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, but Powers was at the controls of the victorious Gray team. On a blustery, overcast day, the senior transfer connected on 10 of his 20 attempts for 150 yards, two scores and one interception during his team's 17-10 win.
In addition to Hoying being named the starting quarterback, senior Raymont Harris had locked up the tailback position despite an ongoing ankle problem that limited his availability during the spring. But whatever snaps Harris missed simply provided more opportunity for classmate Butler By'not'e as well as sophomore Eddie George, who led all rushers in the spring game with 52 yards on 12 carries. George had shown flashes of brilliance during his freshman season, but after rushing for 176 yards and five touchdowns in the early going of the '92 campaign, he had been relegated to special teams duty for most of the rest of the year.
While the starting backfield was set, it was a decidedly different situation in the receiving corps, which had lost to graduation sure-handed Brian Stablein as well as capable backups Greg Beatty and Allen DeGraffenreid. A pair of juniors – Joey Galloway and Chris Sanders – seemed ready to take over as the starters, but both players missed most of spring practice. Galloway was held out of contact drills as he continued rehabbing following knee surgery that cost him nearly all of the 1992 season, while Sanders was keeping his usual springtime appointment with the men's track team.
Their absences paved the way for youngsters such as sophomore DeWayne Carter and redshirt freshman Terry Glenn, who wowed observers throughout the spring with one acrobatic catch after another. Carter led all receivers in the spring game with three catches for 54 yards and one touchdown, after which he broke out in a wild celebration dance that brought the Ohio Stadium crowd of 24,920 to its feet.
Up front, OSU was as strong as it had been in years along the offensive line with center Jack Thrush, guards Dave Monnot and Jason Winrow, and tackles Alan Kline and Korey Stringer. It was the first unit that had spent its entire career under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy, and it was acknowledged as the most physical front five in the Big Ten.
"We wanted to get stronger, more physical, and that's why we hired Dave Kennedy," Cooper said. "After a couple of years in his weight and conditioning program, you could see that our hard work was playing off. We were much stronger, much more physical, especially up front. We were a better team because of Dave Kennedy."
Defensively, the Buckeyes were seeking a replacement for Harper as well as two-time All-America linebacker Steve Tovar and All-Big Ten nose guard Greg Smith. Smith's graduation was going to be mitigated by the fact longtime defensive coordinator Bill Young had elected to scrap his 3-4 alignment in favor of a 4-3 stack, hoping that would lead to more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
That was music to the ears of sophomore tackle "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson and defensive end Jason Simmons, who had combined for 11 sacks the year before. They celebrated the new alignment with two sacks each in the spring game.
"Big Daddy can dominate a ballgame," Cooper said following the spring contest. "Jason Simmons had a great spring for us, too. We want to be able to pressure the other team's quarterback, and based upon what we saw today, we're encouraged that we can do that."
Back In The Top Ten
There seemed to be a special feel to the atmosphere surrounding the Woody Hayes Athletic Center when Ohio State kicked off fall practice sessions in 1993, and that was aided by the fact the Buckeyes were going to wear special commemorative jerseys all season to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1968 national championship.
The Buckeyes got another boost when former OSU running back Tim Spencer returned to campus to finish work on his degree and joined the football team as a student assistant coach. Spencer had retired following an eight-year professional football career, including six with the NFL's San Diego Chargers, and at the time was still Ohio State's second-leading career rusher behind Archie Griffin.
"I think Timmy adds a lot to our staff," an enthusiastic Cooper said. "He certainly has the respect of our players. They look at him and see a guy who was a star here and then went on to a productive professional career. They look at him and know he is what could happen to them if they work hard enough."
While the Buckeyes were welcoming Spencer to the staff, several players were missing in action as preparations began for the season opener. The most notable was junior defensive tackle Matt Bonhaus, who would miss the entire season after being diagnosed with a debilitating sleep disorder.
Also gone was two-year starting cornerback Foster Paulk, who had lost his academic eligibility for the second year in a row. Other academic casualties included tight end Steve Langenkamp, nose guard Therone McQueen, receiver Jesse Prewitt and defensive lineman R.C. Jones.
But those losses did little to dampen the spirit of Cooper, who had dropped his usual preseason wait-and-see attitude for an optimism that all but guaranteed a Big Ten championship for his team.
"Last year, I think most people realized we were a pretty good team down the stretch," he said. "We came within a couple of points of being an undefeated football team – two points against Illinois, four against Wisconsin and a tie with Michigan. I realize close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies, but we felt we were right there last year. This year, I think we'll be even better. I believe this could be and should be the best team we've had since I've coached here."
The coach's sunny disposition had rubbed off on his players, too.
"I know every year that we say we're going to win the Big Ten and we're going to the Rose Bowl," Simmons said. "This year, really, I believe we're going to make it happen. We've had the talent the past couple of years, but something has always happened to us. Maybe we weren't mentally tough enough. This year, we're going to be mentally tough enough."
Ohio State got to prove that mettle early in the season opener against Rice. Hoying started the game at quarterback and led the team to a 10-0 advantage before being relieved by Powers, who was able to add another seven points to the lead. Hoying returned and led a drive late in the first half to get an insurance field goal, and then the two divided time in the second half as the Buckeyes rolled to a 34-7 victory.
After the game, offensive coordinator Joe Hollis insisted it was a luxury to have enough confidence in two quarterbacks to be able to play them both. But when asked if using Hoying and Power interchangeably could lead to a dreaded quarterback controversy, a wide-eyed Hollis replied, "This is not a contest. Don't start that. Bobby Hoying is our quarterback, guys, and Bret Powers is the backup quarterback, but he's going to absorb some snaps occasionally. It's as simple as that. This is a luxury for us. I can't put it any better than that. And it's a heck of a lot more luxury than any controversy."
Hoying completed 13 of 22 attempts for 144 yards and one touchdown, while Powers added a 5-for-8 performance for 102 yards, one score and one interception. More importantly, each quarterback downplayed the controversy angle.
"The two of us just want to win, no matter what," Powers said, while Hoying offered, "Both of us want to play the whole game, but both of us have accepted the roles we have. It really doesn't bother me that Bret's getting to play. If I was critical of something that improved us as team, I wouldn't be much of a team player, would I?"
By the time No. 12-ranked Washington came to town the following week for only the second night game in Ohio Stadium history, most of the talk had switched from the two-headed quarterback derby to whether the Buckeyes could stop a potent Huskies attack that featured strong-armed quarterback Damon Huard as well as tailback Napoleon Kaufman, a junior Heisman Trophy candidate coming off a 195-yard rushing performance the previous week against Stanford.
Hoying went the entire way at quarterback, throwing for 142 yards and a touchdown, Harris and By'not'e combined to rush for 182 yards and a pair of TDs, and the OSU defense bottled up both Huard and Kaufman, leading to an emotional 21-12 victory that ended with Simmons and fellow defensive lineman Luke Fickell hoisting Cooper onto their shoulders for a triumphant ride to midfield.
"He's gone through a lot for us," By'not'e said. "He gets a lot of flak even though he doesn't go out and play the games. But he's been through tough times with us. Whenever he gets criticized, we take it personally. That's why it made all of us feel good to see him so happy tonight."
By the time Cooper made it to the postgame interview room, his ear-to-ear smile lit up the night. "I've never been more proud of a football team than I was of our team tonight," he said. "We beat a real, real, real good football team. This victory means a lot."
Not only did the game serve as a signature early-season win for the Buckeyes, it moved Ohio State to No. 11 in both the AP and USA Today/CNN coaches' polls. One week later, after a 63-28 victory at Pittsburgh, the team jumped to No. 7 in both rankings, marking the first appearance in the top 10 for the Buckeyes since 1987.
Cooper could barely hide his giddiness after the 35-point victory over the Panthers at the same site his 1988 team had absorbed a 42-10 drubbing. When asked if he could compare his feelings now to the ones he experienced five years before, the coach smiled and replied, "Well, I don't want to have another press conference out there on that runway. That was brutal."
Despite the smiles, in the back of Cooper's mind, he couldn't help thinking that all of the important nonconference victories in the world were not going to matter if his team couldn't get off to a quick start in the Big Ten championship race. He had won only one of his first five conference season openers, and he desperately wanted that streak to end.
Cooper got his wish when the schedule-makers slotted Northwestern as OSU's opening conference opponent for 1993 and the Buckeyes sailed to a 51-3 victory over the Wildcats, who were headed for a winless 0-8 league record that year. Hoying and Powers combined to throw for 284 yards while the defense picked off five Northwestern passes for the most lopsided win thus far of the Cooper era.
Despite a 4-0 start, however, Ohio State was far from satisfied. It was headed for a showdown at Illinois the following week against a team that was feeling invincible against the Buckeyes.
"Ohio State has this prima donna attitude that it's only them and Michigan as the top two teams in the Big Ten," Illinois nose tackle Mikki Johnson said before the game. "Obviously, we have been proving them wrong the last five years."
Meanwhile, Fighting Illini head coach Lou Tepper added a little fuel to the pregame fire when he told reporters, "We're not chopped liver over here. You have to remember Ohio State's five straight losses weren't against doughboys."
Those dismissive comments made things especially sweet when the Buckeyes raced out to a 17-3 halftime lead and then held on for a 20-12 victory.
"You try to look at it as just another game, but when you consider all that's happened in the last five years, you can't really do that," said senior cornerback Tim Walton, who grabbed the game-clinching interception in the waning minutes. "I was really happy at the end of the game, and then it hit me what we'd done. We beat Illinois. It's kind of hard to describe your feeling when you reach a goal you've been trying to attain for five years."
More importantly than getting the Illinois monkey off their backs, the Buckeyes were 5-0 for the first time in the Cooper era. Victories against Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State followed to push the team's record to 8-0, but a mistake-filled performance at Wisconsin in early November cost Ohio State a ninth consecutive victory, and the Buckeyes were forced to settle for a 14-14 tie. The game was very nearly a loss, but OSU cornerback Marlon Kerner blocked a potential game-winning field goal with seven seconds left to secure the tie.
Had the Buckeyes beaten the Badgers, they would have gotten to within one victory of clinching their first Big Ten championship since 1986 and their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1984. With the tie, Ohio State now had to defeat both Indiana and Michigan to assure itself of a Rose Bowl bid.
The first half of that equation was accomplished with a 23-17 win against the Hoosiers, but with a trip to Pasadena hanging in the balance, the Buckeyes never put up a fight and absorbed a disappointing 28-0 loss to the Wolverines in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 106,867 fans at Michigan Stadium.
Entering the game averaging 406 total yards per game, Ohio State was held to only 212 against Michigan while Hoying and Powers were intercepted four times and sacked four more. The Wolverines got 201 yards rushing from tailback tandem Tyrone Wheatley and Ed Davis, while quarterback Todd Collins added 140 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
"They beat us every which way," a grim-faced Cooper said. "Offense, defense, the kicking game – you name it. It was one of the most embarrassing games, I think, since I've been coaching college football. Michigan is a good team, and I've been saying that all year, but to come in here and get beat like we did today is a total shock."
Despite the loss to Michigan, the Buckeyes still had an outside chance to get to the Rose Bowl, but they had wait 10 days and hope for Michigan State to upset Wisconsin in a game to be played in Tokyo. But when the Badgers took a 41-20 win over the Spartans, they secured for themselves their first trip to Pasadena in 30 years.
Meanwhile, Ohio State had to console itself with sharing the Big Ten championship with Wisconsin and a postseason trip to California – albeit not the one the Buckeyes had wanted. OSU accepted an invitation from the Holiday Bowl to play unranked BYU on Dec. 30 at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego.
Despite winning a piece of the conference crown and posting a 9-1-1 regular-season record, the shutout loss to Michigan took most of the shine off the team's accomplishments. Cooper began to feel the singe of criticism once again as his detractors began renewed calls for his ouster.
The storm clouds only got worse when bowl preparations began. Monnot suffered a pair of broken bones in his lower left leg during a Dec. 11 practice session, and several hours later, defensive end Jayson Gwinn was killed in an early-morning automobile accident near the OSU campus. Gwinn's car was traveling northbound on Olentangy River Road when it was stuck on the driver's side by a car traveling eastbound on Lane Avenue. The impact flipped Gwinn's car, which then hit a utility pole and guard rail on the opposite side of the intersection.
"This is very trying time for us right now," Cooper said. "First Dave gets hurt, a player who has been with us for five years, a hardworking player who means a lot to us. Then we lose a young man like Jayson Gwinn, whose life was spread out in front of him. It makes you take a step back and re-evaluate things. But we have to go on. We have to keep going, and that's what we'll do. It's hard, though."
During the Holiday Bowl, the Buckeyes wore a No. 49 decal on their helmets in tribute to Gwinn, while Kerner – a high school teammate of Gwinn at Columbus Brookhaven – switched his jersey from 46 to 49 in memory of his friend. The game itself was more a tribute to old-fashioned Ohio State football, however, as Harris carried 39 times for a game-record 235 yards, helping the Buckeyes to a 28-21 victory over BYU.
"They play a rough, tough brand of football, especially with that guy Harris," Cougars linebacker Shay Muirbrook said. "He's a load."
The performance from Harris and the first postseason victory on Cooper's watch at Ohio State did little to placate the coach's critics because of the way the game ended, however. The Buckeyes squandered an early 21-7 lead and nearly allowed BYU to come all the way back before a dropped pass in the end zone with only seconds remaining sealed the Cougars' fate.
Still, nothing was going to prevent Cooper and his coaching staff from celebrating only the eighth 10-win season in program history and the Buckeyes' first Big Ten championship in seven seasons.
"I think it's a little bit silly to criticize a team that finishes 10-1-1," Hollis said after the Holiday Bowl. "We won the game tonight and that's the bottom line."