The legendary Woody Hayes took a solid Ohio State program and turned it into one of the elites. Earle Bruce took over in a time when many great programs were slumping and was promptly fired for having the best winning percentage in the Big Ten during his tenure. The Buckeye leadership decided a hokey guy from Tennessee that had just coached Arizona State to a win over Michigan was the right man for the job, because, you know, he could beat Michigan. The fans, many still upset the way Bruce was fired, resented this outsider. I was in this camp. Winning 4 games his first season didn’t help endear Cooper to the Buckeye faithful.
After a rough start, talented players started to fill the roster, and the wins started piling up. However, wins against Michigan and a mythical national championship never materialized. After yet another loss to the team up north in 1996, crushing any hope for a national championship, the realization was starting to sink in to my head, and many other Buckeye fans. Maybe Ohio State would never be what they once were. The Woody Hayes era just might be it. While Ohio State was headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1984, there was a defeated presence lurking as my friends and I headed to Vegas and then on to LA for the game.
We partied like it was 1999, year 2000, end of time. A major part of that is we were in our 20s and aspired to be rock stars, even though none of us really played in a band. However, another factor was that whenever we started talking about the game, it would end in depression. Ohio State, craving a national championship that was now an impossibility, would probably not be giving 100%. Their opponent, ironically enough Arizona State, still had a solid shot. It was about the same drive time for Arizona State fans as fly time for Ohio State fans, thus the there might be a lot more Sun Devils fans, we thought. (It ended up being 60/40 Buckeyes by my estimation) Jake Plummer was a heck of a gamer at QB for ASU, while Ohio State was alternating between Joe Germain and Stanley Jackson.
There was some rain when we finally arrived in Pasadena however I started to believe once we joined the throngs of other Buckeye fans. Then I talked myself out of it, thinking Arizona State would love to stick it to the guy that abandoned them. Much like the game itself, my mood fluctuated the entire time. When we got to our seats, there were a couple of drunk Buckeye fans about our age behind us. The thought of beer made me want to puke at that point. You know what sucks when you are hungover as fuck? Airhorns, and they both had them. They both were also wearing these ridiculous Cat in the Hat hats, but in Buckeye colors. That might have been the moment I truly died on the inside. However, in a neat twist, comedian Richard Lewis was seated somewhere near them, which was kinda cool.
The game was a back and forth affair, that I never thought for a minute we would win. Every time Ohio State made a move, Jake the Snake answered. Arizona State thought they had it wrapped up, even though I was on the other side of the field, I could see it in their body language. I couldn’t blame them, I felt like there was no way Ohio State was going to win this game. Things like missed extra points helped validate my pessimistic view. As a younger fan that didn’t live through the Woody era, I was used games like this ending in crushing defeat. Even the greatest win I had witnessed to that point, over Michigan, was still a defeat, as Earle was still fired. There was no miracle comeback for him, and I didn’t expect one in this game. As Jake the Snake dove into the endzone to take the lead with little time remaining, I kept thinking, “Of course.”
Joe Germain led Ohio State down the field, and David Boston walked in with 6 seconds to go, giving Ohio State the lead. My mind raced with scenarios where Ohio State was still going to lose this game, and I came up with 685. I looked around, and all the Scarlet and Gray were on the edge of their seats as the Sun Devils faithful made their way to the exits. After an eternity, it was finally over, and Ohio State had won this supposedly meaningless game. I hugged my buddy. I hugged the two dudes with the airhorns. Had Richard Lewis not moved to the press box, I am sure I would have hugged him, too. Even though Ohio State didn’t quite pull it out in 1998 and slipped a bit before the 2002 championship, this one game made me, and many other fans, believe again.