COLUMBUS: Ironically, a coach was hoisted to the shoulders of his Ohio State players, and it was not the one who completed a 12-0 season Saturday.
There seemed something inherently wrong with that.
Jim Tressel received the triumphant ride from his 2002 national champions when their group of over 60 was feted after the first quarter of OSU’s 26-21 victory over Michigan.
The man who lied to the NCAA and paid for it with his job on Memorial Day 2011 received a standing ovation. The man whose cover-up of his players’ violations is a major reason Ohio State is banned from the Big Ten championship and a bowl game returned to Ohio Stadium a hero.
“I kind of teared up a little bit,” OSU senior receiver Jake Stoneburner said. “That’s who I came here to play for. He’s a legend. He’s an incredible guy. Still loves me to death, loves my family to death. Seeing him up there and the crowd giving the ovation it did, it was pretty awesome.”
A long television timeout gave many players a chance to see what was going on with Tressel.
“I wish I could have been a part of it,” said senior defensive end Nate Williams, ready to shoulder his part of the load.
Junior left tackle Jake Mewhort caught a glimpse on the Jumbotron.
“It was cool to see him back in Ohio Stadium just because of everything he’s done for this program,” Mewhort said.
No one who heard that line batted an eye.
Tressel deserved to be part of the reunion and to join his team on the field, a deal-breaker for some of the players who returned. He took the Buckeyes to three BCS title games and capped a heart-stopping 14-0 season in 2002 with a stunning, double-overtime victory over Miami.
In hindsight, the reunion might have been better suited for another Saturday. This one should have been all about Urban Meyer.
Meyer had every right to feel cheated, even though that selfish thought surely didn’t cross his mind afterward. He was more intent on fighting his way through students who stormed the field, trying to find daughters Nicole and Gigi, son Nathan and wife Shelley amid the masses. He arrived late to the traditional singing of Carmen Ohio.
“Obviously, the nut-job students won’t let me find anybody, so that’s OK,” Meyer said. “But to be with my wife and children on that field is something special.”
He called it “a very emotional time,” understandable considering the challenge he faced as he returned to coaching following a year off.
Gene Smith, OSU director of athletics, didn’t believe NCAA sanctions would include a bowl ban when he hired Meyer on Nov. 28, 2011. Less than a month later, Meyer and his team were blindsided with the news.
But as he replaced interim coach Luke Fickell, Meyer did more than clean up Tressel’s mess. He took a team that in 2011 lost seven games for the first time since 1897 and finished below .500 for the first time since 1988 and restored the players’ battered faith.
Though punishing them with hard work — “All the things we do in the offseason, it’s crazy. I’ve never been through anything like that,” quarterback Braxton Miller said — Meyer got them to buy in.
The result was just the sixth unbeaten and untied season in Ohio State history.
“We all believed we had something special the moment coach Meyer walked through the doors and took charge,” Washington said. “We all responded to his demanding style. He knows how to get the job done, obviously. It was a such a great privilege to be coached by such a great coach.”
Even though Meyer won two national championships at Florida, Stoneburner sounded blown away by what Meyer accomplished in his first year at Ohio State.
“I don’t think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did,” Stoneburner said. “For coach Meyer to take a program who lost the most games ever, probably, going 6-7 to going undefeated just shows what great coaches we have. It’s crazy to think we went undefeated. Who would have thought that?”
Junior safety Christian Bryant called last season “devastating,” which makes what Meyer was able to coax out of the 2012 Buckeyes even more impressive.
“When coach Meyer came in, I knew it was going to be a whole different tempo, a whole different motivation,” Bryant said. “He’s done an incredible job coaching us. I think we work harder than any team in the country. It showed this season.”
Meyer wouldn’t say where his first victory over Michigan to cap an undefeated season ranked on his list of accomplishments.
“I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to say 1A, 1B, 1C, but I can tell you that’s as good as it gets,” he said. “You name a game we didn’t have to deal with adversity.”
Against the Wolverines, the Buckeyes were without senior defensive end John Simon, their emotional leader who suffered a right knee injury while recording a school record-tying four sacks last week at Wisconsin.
Meyer continued to teach the Buckeyes how to handle adversity, even as the program’s personification of it was being carried around the north end zone.