Big game week: Behind the scenes at Ohio State as it prepared for Oklahoma
From Woody Hayes' grave site to Urban Meyer's office, here's a closer look at the Buckeyes
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Big game week here isn't much different than at other college football powerhouses.
Except for the dead.
"I love talking about the cemetery," says Mary Rodgers, historian and sales rep at Union Cemetery. "So many interesting people here."
None of them, it should be noted, able to tell their stories.
That's why the amiable Rodgers is here this week of the Oklahoma game to shepherd the interested through headstones and gravesites. Union Cemetery was founded in 1806. It contains the remains of a couple of revolutionary war heroes, business leaders, athletes of all stripes.
But they come mostly to see the grave of one Wayne Woodrow Hayes. In Section 12, Lot 37, Space 4 perpetually lies the great Woody Hayes.
The coach's career may have ended ignominiously, but his headstone is a must-see for any walking tour of Ohio State football the week of a big game.
I was there last week gauging the temperature of one of the most football-crazed cities and fan bases in the sport.
On the surface, this town may not be different than Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Gainesville, Florida, or --blasphemy! -- Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is, but it isn't.
Rodgers swears she has seen Urban Meyer drive through and visit Woody's grave on game day. She has definitely seen Archie Griffin, the only back-to-back Heisman Trophy winner, pay respects to his old coach.
"We will have [former] players that stop by, people that knew him from the neighborhood," she said. "They feel really connected when the season starts, maybe reach out for a stronger connection."
That connection includes leaving talismans on Woody's headstone. Candles, nuts from a buckeye tree, even bags of Tostitos back when the Frito-Lay product sponsored the Fiesta Bowl.
One of the most common deposits -- pennies -- a reference to the 1936 movie "Pennies From Heaven."
"We kind of make a drive by multiple times a day to make sure there isn't something inappropriate," Rodgers said.
It's a busy week. Hundreds will pass through Union Cemetery the day of the Oklahoma game. They will also come to see Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's. They will come to see the grave of Chic Harley, whose popularity in the early 1900s caused the school to build Ohio Stadium in the first place in 1922. Call him the Tim Tebow of his day.
Critics of that time said college football was too big for its own good. Another sign of the times: Harley reportedly suffered multiple head injuries.
Columbus was anything but … dead during the run up to Oklahoma. By the end of the week, the Buckeyes were upset, J.T. Barrett was under fire, Baker Mayfield had planted a flag and the national landscape had changed.
What follows is a series of vignettes from big game week at one college football's capital cities.
Urban Meyer's office, Tuesday morning
"Hey, are you Paul Finebaum?"
That's how Urban Meyer greets me in the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. The thing about the Woody is, at times, pretty much anyone can wander in to the Buckeyes' football facility.
Ohio State doesn't advertise that fact, of course. It has to leave the doors unlocked so players, staff, etc. can get in. So while waiting for player interviews, I'm approached by a fan off the street and asked if I'm Finebaum, the SEC Network's talk-show host. There is no resemblance in our paychecks. So, certainly this fan has made the connection between our two bald heads.
After repeating the fans' question and having a good chuckle, Urban and I meet briefly. Meyer can sympathize with the coach he's not facing this week.
Oklahoma's Bob Stoops may be retired, but his actions are not forgotten. Stoops left the game June 7 at the age of 56. Meyer, 53, is three years younger than former OU coach, but he's already been there.
Meyer stepped down at Florida, twice. He returned for the last time in 2010 before moving on the broadcast booth.
"I knew within a month I had made a mistake," Meyer said of his first Florida departure. I did talk to Bob quite a while [after his retirement]. I gave him his space then I talked to him afterward. Bob has always done it his way. Not many people get to do it his way."
As for now, Meyer is preparing to take on a coach 19 years his junior. Lincoln Riley is serving as head coach for the second game of his young career. Riley recently turned 34. At that age, Meyer was a Notre Dame wide receivers coach and asserts, "I was a nut job."
In his fifth year with the Buckeyes, Meyer is one of the best coaches in the game, chasing his fourth national championship and a second Big Ten title. Riley is 1-0, having beaten Texas-El Paso in his first game.
"It's not by accident he got that position," Meyer said. "Those are smart people."
Smarter than the fan boy who now is practically stalking Meyer. He is positioned in the Woody's parking lot when Meyer emerges for his daily walk.
The fan approaches the coach, shakes his hand and gets in his car. Then he gets out, drops into a squat, whips out his cell phone and calls someone who cares that he just shook Urban Meyer's hand.
I think he's crying.
Weather watch, all week
Both teams are trying to wipe out the memory of last year's 21-point Ohio State victory in Norman, Oklahoma. OU wants revenge. Ohio State knows it will be judged always by what it does lately.
Last year's game in Norman was delayed at least an hour by a thunderstorm. That took the edge off one of the best nonconference games of the season.
At least it did for Ohio State.
"A lot of guys took a nap during that time," Barrett said. "Coach Mick Marotti, our strength coach, told us you can take a nap if you can."
The Fixer, Tuesday afternoon
Kevin Wilson is a baller. That's at least what they would call the Ohio State offensive coordinator if he had a crossover dribble or his own record label.
Here in Columbus, he is the 55-year-old former Indiana head coach who was brought in help fix the offense. In nine years at Oklahoma, Wilson developed two Heisman Trophy winners and worked at Stoops' side coaching six Big 12 champions from 2002-10.
And by "fix," I mean improve a unit that got shutout in the College Football Playoff -- for the first time in 295 games at Ohio State and for the first time ever in Meyer's career.
Wilson comes proven and anticipated. Dude is a baller.
"The swagger and the confidence," said offensive tackle Jamarco Jones.
"You think about swagger and confidence, it's the vibe around kind of oozes out of him," Barrett added.
"He's a player's guy. He's got some swagger to him," Meyer said.
Wilson speaks quickly, which figures. He's one of the game's masters of tempo. That's part of the reason Meyer identified him last year after Wilson resigned at Indiana due to what were termed "philosophical differences."
Meyer groups Wilson with a collection of coaches who helped develop the spread offense that we see being used widespread today about 15 years ago. Meyer picked up on Wilson about 2001 when he was at Bowling Green and Wilson was working under Randy Walker at Northwestern.
"The spread didn't really exist before that," Meyer said.
Meyer went on to Utah and Florida. Rich Rodriguez, another spread founder, made his way to West Virginia. Wilson went to Oklahoma.
"At Oklahoma, I grew a lot as a coach," Wilson explained. "A lot of mistakes that kids made, I thought it was their fault. I started to realize I wasn't coaching well. I didn't capture them in the meeting room. I didn't capture them on the practice field."
Quite a self-assessment from a guy who was part of 98 wins and two national championship runs in nine years at OU.
In a quiet moment, the Buckeye Baller pulls out his wallet to show off his family: five beautiful kids, three daughters, two sons. In that sense, he's like every other shlub in Ohio Stadium watching on Saturday.
"I'm not trying to be a head coach," Wilson said. "I'm just trying to do this job."
After an emotional "reunion" beating his old team at Indiana in Week 1, Wilson is much more relaxed this big game week.
Climbing into his SUV at the end of the workday at the Woody, Wilson spots a reporter waiting for an Uber.
"You want a ride?" he says.
Billy Price is priceless, Tuesday afternoon
We know this because Ohio State's center is joking the moment he sits down.
"I've got all the time you need," he starts, "as long as the coaches don't run us into the ground again.
"Oh, you're recording. Just kidding."
He doesn't exactly lead a band, but he is a leader. After an All-American season at guard, Price was asked to switch to center. He did not hesitate, lost 10 pounds. NFL scouts continue to drool over him.
As a freshman, Price wanted to quit because, "I was getting my ass kicked." Talked off the ledge by Meyer, the Oklahoma game will mark his 43rd consecutive start. By the end of the season, Price may set the team record for consecutive starts (50) having already graduated in May.
"College is the best time of your life. If you can balance things, you'll be successful."
He is not kidding.
More J.T., Tuesday afternoon
The last time I spoke to Barrett one-on-one,. Sitting down for lunch during the spring of 2015, Cardale Jones had just coming off winning a championship. Braxton Miller was headed into his own fifth-year senior season (as a receiver). Barrett was coming back from that leg injury.
They laughed at one another's jokes.
"I think it was great for our friendship and what we had going on in our unit room," Barrett said. "On the outside, a lot of people thought we would be bitter to one another. Ultimately, what we wanted is for each other to succeed which is different. It's not natural."
They are still friends as Jones' keeps up a constant barrage of love for Barrett on Twitter.
The Nick Bosa Experience, Wednesday afternoon
Ohio State's talented defensive end has carved out a career following his brother Joey, a first-round draft choice of the Chargers. As a freshman All-American, Nick finished second on the team with five sacks. But on this day, he bops into a media session wearing backwards hat that seems to read "Los Angeles Raiders."
On closer inspection, it reads, "Los Angeles Reckless."
"Just a hat," he says.
The Fort Lauderdale native is concerned by fast-approaching Hurricane Irma. A buddy is back home riding out the storm taking care of his dogs.
"I've never been through a Category 4, but I've been through many bad ones," Bosa said. "When I was a kid, they were fun to me because I didn't have to clean everything up."
iHeart studios, Thursday morning
Bruce Hooley, morning host of 105.7 The Zone, takes a call from a fan. It's early. Too early. 7 a.m.
The caller suggests quarterback J.T. Barrett will never lead the Bucks "to the next level."
Hooley and co-host Maddie Spielman have heard it before. Like a lot of fan bases, Ohio State's is spoiled. Barrett is a fifth-year senior, 27-4 as a starter, a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year who has finished top 10 twice in Heisman voting.
In 2014, Barrett was a quarterback on a national championship team before being injured. You can't get much more next level than that.
Still, Hooley knows his constituency.
"He doesn't do anything that wows you," Hooley says, "and fans here want to be wowed. They don't want to win 20-14. They want to win 50-14. And when they do, some complain it wasn't 50-0 or 60-0.
"He's been around so long they've kind of gotten bored with him. Some of it is, statistically, he's more of a compiler than anything else. He's not fast like Braxton Miller. He doesn't have Cardale Jones' arm. He wins, but for whatever reason, the guys around him get more credit for that than J.T. does."
So much for Barrett throwing for the most touchdowns (72) and third-most yards (6,685) in Ohio State history. Never mind he is preseason All-Big Ten. Never mind Barrett throwing three touchdowns in the opener against Indiana.
These are Ohio State fans. Did I say spoiled?
Game day, Saturday
By now, you know that the 31-16 loss was Ohio State's worst at home in 18 years.
The defensive line largely thought to be the best in college football was dominated by Oklahoma's offensive line, until further notice the best such unit in college football.
The critics came out for Barrett, who couldn't make enough plays, mostly because of a surprisingly fast and sure-tackling Oklahoma defense.
Meyer had to stress he is not considering a quarterback change.
You've probably heard about Baker Mayfield.
Before Mayfield threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns, Bosa was already calling him "Tate Martell on steroids." Martell is a five-star freshman from Las Vegas, one of those considered next in line when Barrett departs.
In Week 2 of the season, it seems that everything changed because of this game. Oklahoma is now considered a College Football Playoff contender. Ohio State has plummeted in the polls.
"To come home and win in The Horseshoe was amazing," said Oklahoma linebacker Emmanuel Beal, a Columbus native. "We're not pretenders. No. 2 Ohio State lost in their house."
Another big game week passed for Ohio State, but there's always a chance for redemption.
When Mary Rodgers locks up for the day, it's always another day of eternity.
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