Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Urban Meyer admittedly gets emotional when talking about this season’s seniors.
Tears, hugs and smiles all are commonplace between coaches and their outgoing players in collegiate athletics. But for the 48-year-old OSU coach, this year’s group of Buckeye seniors is far more than a typical graduating class.
They helped save the Buckeye football program, Meyer says.
“We’re forever indebted to them because they didn’t have to do what they did,” Meyer said Monday in a press conference previewing Saturday’s game against Michigan.
What the first-year Buckeye coach is talking about is this: OSU’s 2012 senior class didn’t have to be here, playing for a team ineligible for the postseason even though they’re 11-0 and ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press.
When OSU was hit with a bowl and conference championship ban in December 2011 because of the “Tattoo-Gate” scandal that rocked Buckeye Nation to its core a year before, this class of seniors was given a way out.
They could have transferred to another school – a bowl-eligible one at that – and played immediately. That fact concerned Meyer greatly.
“I still remember the day we walked in, and (OSU athletic director Gene Smith) said, ‘You’re not going to a bowl game,'” Meyer said. “I thought, ‘We’re not what?’ And then my mind started thinking about this year’s team.”
Above everything else, Meyer began to strategize how he would compel the seniors-to-be to stay at OSU.
He said he called a team meeting 15 minutes after the Buckeyes learned they were banned from the 2012 postseason. After the meeting, Meyer kept the seniors-to-be in the room to try to convince them to stay at OSU.
It was easier than he thought it would be.
“I had no idea who they were, and they didn’t know me, so it was a leap of faith (for them to stay),” Meyer said. “I think it was also their love for their school.”
Almost a year after that meeting, Meyer realizes he was right.
“Now that I know them, I know exactly why they stayed,” Meyer said. “Their love for Ohio State.”
Most of this season’s OSU seniors didn’t consider leaving Columbus for a second.
Defensive end John Simon could have left for the NFL and been an early-round draft pick. A handful of other then-juniors had favorable other destinations, too.
They remained Buckeyes.
“I don’t think it crossed anyone’s mind to leave,” said senior defensive back Zach Domicone.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t upset when they realized their final season as college athletes would be bowl-less, however.
Most of the OSU seniors were together when they heard the ill-fated news.
“Looking back, we were in the hospital visiting patients and stuff and that’s when it broke. So, it was on the TV’s and on ESPN and people were like, ‘How do you guys feel that you can’t play in a bowl game?’ and we were like, ‘What are you talking about?'” Domicone said.
When they returned to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to hear the news again as a team, there was anger, confusion and disbelief spreading throughout the meeting room.
“It was kind of one of those things where you sit down and just let it sink in for a little while,” said senior linebacker Zach Boren.
The team was, after all, repeatedly told by OSU athletic personnel that a postseason ban was not going to be inflicted.
“We were kind of told that we weren’t going to get a bowl ban, that everything was going to be OK,” Boren said. “We had heard from people who had done investigations and stuff that we were going to be all right and that what we already imposed was going to be more than enough.”
It wasn’t, and OSU now sits as one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the country – Notre Dame being the other – with one game to play in the regular season.
Unlike the Fighting Irish, though, the Buckeyes’ season will end after its game Saturday, and with it, the careers of 22 OSU seniors.
That last game on Saturday should be special, however.
OSU faces its archrival, No. 20-ranked Michigan, or, as those associated with the Buckeye football program call them, ‘that school up north.’
With a win against the Wolverines, OSU would attain its first undefeated season since 2002 – the most recent Buckeyes’ National Championship squad, which will be honored at half time of the game Saturday.
A shot at an AP national championship would remain possible, too.
Not a bad way for OSU’s seniors to go out, especially after the 6-7 season the Buckeyes had last year.
“We wanted to leave our mark and leave a legacy and last year didn’t really go how we planned and I don’t think anyone wanted to go out like that,” Domicone said.
Along with possibly leaving OSU following a 12-0 season, the 2012 seniors have the Buckeye football program headed in the right direction, and that is something they are proud of.
“We were just talking about that, a couple of (the seniors). We were just saying how different it’s been. Just the way this program has grown in the last year and stuff. We’re in a lot better position this year and we like where we’re at,” Boren said.
Meyer, and likely the rest of Buckeye Nation, are forever grateful.
OSU is scheduled to play Michigan (8-3) at noon Saturday in Ohio Stadium.