The Ohio State basketball team may be in the Final Four, but they realize they’re sharing the headlines back in Columbus.
Spring football started this week.
But the beleaguered gridiron Buckeyes can thank their basketball brethren for helping repair the tarnished image of Ohio State athletics and, for a few months this winter, taking fans’ minds off a turbulent football season.
Football coach Jim Tressel was forced out last May for lying about NCAA rules violations that started with eight players taking a total of $14,000 in cash and tattoos in exchange for jerseys, rings and other Buckeyes memorabilia.
Star quarterback Terrell Pryor was suspended, ended up declaring for the NFL supplementary draft and was taken by the Oakland Raiders. The Buckeyes went 6-7 — just their second losing season since 1988 — including losses in their last four games.
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer was hired to revive the program, but the Buckeyes are banned from going to a bowl this year.
Enter Buckeye basketball.
Coach Thad Matta’s team took the attention away from the football team’s woes, and captured the imagination of Buckeye Nation, at least for a while.
“I’ve always felt we could always have the best of both at Ohio State,” Matta said. “I know with all the trials and tribulations that have gone on with football over the past year, I’m elated for the university, most importantly, that we’ve got some great things happening.
“With coach Meyer coming in, obviously things are really stepping up in that regard. … Spring football is obviously an exciting time as well. For our guys … over the last few years this program has identified itself. … I have always said this: There is no greater feeling than being on the field when 105,000 people are cheering for the Buckeyes to come out, and you’ve got a couple of recruits with you. That is the ultimate. “
Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger, a native of Columbus, understands the basketball team’s place in the hierarchy of Buckeyes sports.
“We’re never going to beat Urban Meyer,” Sullinger said. “He brought the most buzz to Columbus, Ohio. Big ups to coach Meyer. But the buzz we brought to Columbus, as not only a football school but as a basketball school, is great. … I think it’s an elite basketball school. …
“For fans, hopefully people don’t say we’re a football school — just a football school. Now they can switch that and say we’re a basketball school and a football school.”
The basketball program hasn’t been immune from problems with the NCAA either. Matta had to clean up a mess when he took over for Jim O’Brien in 2004. Ohio State fired O’Brien in June 2004 after he admitted giving the family of Yugoslavian recruit Aleksandar Radojevic $6,000 in 1998.
O’Brien had guided the Buckeyes to the 1999 Final Four, but Ohio State ultimately had to vacate the Final Four appearance and their wins from 1999-2002, including a Big Ten co-championship in 2000, a share of the 2002 Big Ten regular-season and tournament title, and a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament in 2002.
“To this day, I still don’t know what happened before I got there. Nor did I care,” Matta said. “Coming in when we did, it wasn’t as good as people thought it was. I still think Jim O’Brien did a tremendous job coaching that team. But eight years ago, we were ineligible for postseason play. The seniors gave us everything they had.”
The next season, Ohio State didn’t know if it would be allowed to participate in postseason play until minutes before tipoff of the first game of the 2006 Big Ten conference tournament. That team reached the Big Ten tournament title game, and received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament only to lose in the second round. The next year, the Buckeyes were Big Ten champions and reached the NCAA Tournament title game, losing to Florida.
“We got some guys to buy in and help us restore Ohio State basketball,” Matta said, “and got it to a position where we are today.”