Eddie George more represents the return of Ohio State to the elite circle of college football than any other player of the past 20 years.
He signed with Ohio State before anyone knew where John Cooper was going to take the program, and he waited out the careers of several fine running backs before getting his shot. Even when he finally became a starter, he was far from an instant star.
George was mostly a spectator the first time one of Cooper’s teams made national noise, the 1993 campaign that peaked with a No. 3 national ranking but ended with a dud at Michigan. A year later, he took over the No. 1 running back spot and turned in a quiet 1,400-yard season as the team had an uninspiring four-loss season that at least featured Cooper’s first win against the Wolverines.
At that point, anyone who wondered if the 1993 season was an aberration was certainly justified in so doing. That was the first share of a Big Ten championship or 10-win season since 1986, and in the meantime the Buckeyes averaged fewer than seven wins per season and never totaled more than eight.
Doubts began to fade August 27, 1995, however.
George ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns that day as No. 12 Ohio State trounced No. 22 Boston College 38-6 in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.
That was the last game the Philadelphia freight train failed to gain at least 100 yards in an Ohio State uniform, and as he piled up yards week after week, the Buckeyes this time hit No. 2 in the national polls. Although another stunning loss at No. 12 Michigan knocked the Buckeyes out of the national championship race, the dye was cast.
They were no one-year wonders. A new cast, including George and receiving sensation Terry Glenn, had come along to rekindle the glory of the Woody Hayes era that faded a bit during Earle Bruce’s career (they called him ol’ 9-and-3 Earle for a reason: He followed an 11-win first season with six consecutive 9-3 records) and into the beginning of the Cooper era.
George’s star rose all season, starting with 200-yard games at home against Wisconsin and Notre Dame in September then reaching a crescendo with his magnificent 314-yard day against visiting Illinois on Nov. 11. That thrust him clearly into the Heisman Trophy race with Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier and Northwestern’s Darnell Autry, and though Sports Illustrated dubbed Frazier the worthy winner, voters disagreed.
Sure, other Buckeyes such as Glenn and transcendent left tackle Orlando Pace took home national awards as well that season, but this was the Heisman Trophy.
Ohio State had five of those stiff-arm statues, but no one under the age of about 25 would have had much of a recollection of seeing a Buckeye win one. A decade had passed since Keith Byars finished second to Doug Flutie.
I remember thinking I wasn’t quite sure I should believe an Ohio State player really could reach that pinnacle until George’s name was announced. But there he was in New York City, dropping his head into his hands then looking up in wide-eyed disbelief before officially joining the pantheon of Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and Archie Griffin.
The 1995 season ended with some unfinished business, but momentum was built.
The following year, Ohio State garnered its first preseason top-10 ranking since 1987 and went on to win the another Big Ten crown and appear in their first Rose Bowl since January 1985. The ’96 Buckeyes won the Granddaddy of Them All for the first time in over two decades, and Cooper’s vaunted recruiting efforts were in full force by that time, laying the ground work for more success to come.
Proving the strength of the program’s brand in the eyes of the nation’s pollsters, Ohio State began four consecutive seasons – 1996-99 – in the top 10. They finished there three of those four years, although a disappointing 6-6 season in ’99 marked the beginning of the end for Cooper.
Still, it was Cooper who in the midst of that run of success recruited many of the keys to the national championship Jim Tressel led the Buckeyes to in his second year at the helm.
In the 15 seasons since George won the Heisman, Ohio State has won or shared nine Big Ten championships and appeared in 11 BCS (or equivalent) bowls. From 1980-94, the Buckeyes won or shared four conference crowns. While postseason bids were determined differently in the earlier period, Ohio State went to five “major” bowls – one Rose, two Fiestas and one Cotton.
George, the first of Cooper’s Ohio State players to be selected for the College Football Hall of Fame, went on to grace the cover of one of the early NCAA football video games before headlining the Madden series for a year as well and embarking on a long NFL career, but he says he still is identified as a Heisman Trophy winner first and foremost.
Neither he nor his alma mater have been quite the same since 1995.
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