‘Circle of greatness’
Ohio State football players from six decades gathered last fall, sharing memories and lifelong lessons they gleaned from winning national championships with the Buckeyes.
Fifty-five years ago this summer, Ohio State’s 1961 football team convened for practice and established the same goal every Buckeye team before and after has chased: Win a championship. These players pulled it off, earning coach Woody Hayes his third national title.
Memories of that season haven’t faded for the men on that roster. Dave Tingley is one reason. He’s kept the men connected, organizing reunions and gatherings that keep the bonds strong and the memories alive. “Dave always brings our group together,” said John Mummey, a quarterback for the ’61 Buckeyes.
For Tingley, a defensive back, his role as point person is almost a responsibility. He views his time at the university as a gift.
“I think back on all the guys I met, people who have been some of the best friends of my life and best people I’ve ever met,” he said. “So many of those guys I met here. I won a championship with them here. Coming to Ohio State is the smartest thing I ever did.”
This past fall, Tingley was one of 12 former Ohio State football players — all members of national championship teams — who gathered at Ohio Stadium for a conversation about what it takes to win the most coveted crown in college football. The players represented seven of the university’s eight national championship teams, and they discussed the past, the present and the people who helped their teams stand on top of the college football world.
Leading the way
Ohio State’s most accomplished championship coach was the great Woody Hayes. His teams were responsible for winning five of the university’s eight national crowns — in 1954, ’57, ’61, ’68 and ’70. Hayes’ reputation is well-established and, according to his former players, well-earned. He was a taskmaster on the field but a caring and learned man off it. They still lovingly refer to Hayes as “The Old Man.”
“Woody was probably as different a person on the field and off the field as you could ever imagine,” said Mark Stier, a starting linebacker and captain for the 1968 champs. “I mean on the field, he was just a tyrant. Off the field he was like a father figure. He was concerned about you as a person and was always asking about your family or your grades. It made me want to play for the guy.”
Dick Brubaker: A great example of the influence Woody had on us was the story of one of my friends, Dick Schafrath, who played a few years after me. About 10 years ago, I ran into Dick and he told me he was back in school at Ohio State. Dick was 70 or 71 at the time. I said, “What’s that all about?” He said, “You know, I promised Woody I would graduate from Ohio State, and it has haunted me all these years that I didn’t fulfill that promise. And I’m here, and I’m going to get a degree.” [Schafrath earned his bachelor’s degree in 2006.]
Larry Stephens: We had a great staff in 1961. Bo Schembechler was on that staff. Esco Sarkkinen. A number of others. These men showed us how to make the right decisions, not only on the football field, but in life. As you were trying to move from the third right end to second to starting, it was a march that was also teaching you other things. Woody set a teaching tone that translated to other areas.
Phil Strickland: Woody had a great mind. He did a lot to make sure we understood the tradition here on a historical level. Over time you learn, and you buy in, and you become a part of the family. You know, you’re not just passing through, dusting stuff off or moving from here to there.
Branden Joe: Listening to you guys, I hear a strong correlation between Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel. Coach Tressel has this thing called a Winner’s Manual, and it’s a collection of poems, spiritual readings, things of that nature. We were highly resistant to it during his first year here, because we thought, “Why are we reading about Walt Whitman if we have to go out there and run isos in the next hour?” We just couldn’t tie it together, right? And, you know, once we stopped questioning why, we focused on the message. The results started speaking for themselves. Coach understood we had to be complete people, not just football players.
Will Allen: I learned a lot from Coach Tress that is still part of me. I was maybe a sophomore or junior, and he had us do these goal sheets. How do you achieve a short-term goal? How do you achieve a long-term goal? There was a list on the side: spiritual, moral, athletic, academic, family and community. And you had to have goals for all of them, and he made everybody do it. And he made me do mine three times. I’d bring it in and he’d say, “This isn’t good enough, Will Allen. I need more than a one-word answer.” The third time I finally understood it, how the short-term connected to the long-term and how all these dimensions of your life were interconnected. Coach Tress cared about me and knew more about who I was than I even knew at the time.
Ohio State’s Super Sophs burst onto the scene in 1968. Led by quarterback Rex Kern, the class of sophomores was talented and confident. And teamed up with an experienced base of players, they brought Woody Hayes his fourth national title. Defensive back Ted Provost, who was a junior in 1968, knew before the season started that the Buckeyes were going to get a big talent infusion.
“We knew these guys coming in were good. We’d scrimmage against them and they were scoring touchdowns on our first-team defense. We knew they had talent.”
Talent is a key part of any championship team, and some of Ohio State’s all-time great players have etched themselves in history during their teams’ title runs.
Jan White: When you talk about leadership, Rex Kern was really the guy for us. He was just a character and a natural leader. Back then, we’d have a guard or somebody run in with the play — usually 26 or 27, which were running plays. Rex would look at Woody and give him the thumbs up: “Yeah, that’s a great play.” Then he’d turn to us and say, “We’re not running that play. Here’s what we’re gonna do.” Rex was the only guy who could get away with that kind of thing with The Old Man.
Brubaker: Hop Cassady was really a guy who stood out for us. I remember our assistant coach Ernie Godfrey saying Hoppy always had one gear higher to meet whatever the challenge was. I remember us being tied with Wisconsin in 1954. Wisconsin was driving downfield, and Hop had an interception and ran it back 88 yards for a touchdown.
Galen Cisco: I marveled at the way (offensive lineman) Jim Parker played. He was a monster back then. He played professionally for Baltimore for I don’t know how many years. Just a terrific player and person. One of the guys who really put us over the top was a fullback named Bob White. We were playing [fifth-ranked] Iowa late that season and were down 13–10 in the fourth quarter. We got the ball on the 30, and Woody called Bob’s number six out of the next eight plays. They couldn’t stop him. He literally took the game over, and we went down and scored and won 17–13.
Allen: Craig Krenzel and Kenny Peterson showed great leadership on our team. And Maurice Clarett came in as a freshman and set the bar with his work ethic, demeanor and attitude about the game. His effort and energy were unreal. Mike Doss is another guy who just showed tremendous leadership.
So how do teams wind up winning championships? What mix is necessary for a group of young men to earn the ultimate prize?
Galen Cisco has a special perspective on those questions. He was a co-captain on the 1957 championship team and later spent nearly 40 years as a player and coach in Major League Baseball. Cisco was pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays when they won back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93.
While acknowledging the difference between the two sports, Cisco said he sees a common thread.
Cisco: You have to have the athletes. I don’t think that there’s been a baseball or a football team that won a championship that didn’t have great athletes. All those teams have strong leadership. They all know and remember where they came from. And you have to have communication between the coaches and the players. During my time here, I know that we had the best of all these things, and that culminated in a championship.
Grant: Week by week we just got closer and closer as a group, and then you would hear Coach Meyer talking to the media saying this is the closest team he’s ever been on. He didn’t necessarily say the best, but this is the closest team. And when you have a close team like that, magical things happen. We had to take care of each other, we had to take care of our brothers, and I think with that, just the love and hard work pushed us all the way to the end and got the job done.
Stier: We had this Super Sophomore class, which was just a phenomenal class. We knew how good they were, but I’m not sure anybody else did. So suddenly you take a little bit of experience of some of the upperclassmen and couple that with great athleticism of the sophomore class and team speed, and then great unity. I think about the love we had for each other, the unity.
Brubaker: I remember one occasion in the winter of 1954 before practice even started. I’m in the room studying and there’s a knock on the door. Hop (Cassady) comes in and we chatted a bit. His focus was clear: How can we make this next season unforgettable? That’s what he was focused on. It got me thinking of it. That was really the impetus and the general aura of the team for the following year.
Allen: One catalyst to our national championship team was the way Tress introduced all of us to the community. He allowed the community to understand who the Buckeyes were. We visited hospitals — service members, kids with cancer. We went out and read at schools and interacted with kids. I never had been a part of that. We were actually going out to the community and letting the community be a part of our team.
A lifelong impact
In some ways, Branden Joe never left his championship team. Today, he lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a short drive from Ohio Stadium. His neighbor, Jack Tucker, played football with him in 2002, as did the guy across the street, Simon Fraser. Down the road are Andy Groom and Bobby Carpenter, two other members of the ’02 champs. The friendships he built with his teammates have endured.
“We’re raising our families together,” he said. “We tailgate, and we travel to bowl games, and we’re just as proud as if we’re playing. I think that is the beauty and the tradition of a place like The Ohio State University. It still bonds us all.”
Wes Mirick: It’s a life experience that I cherish today. It’s an incredibly warm feeling to be part of the tradition that Ohio State is and has been over the last 100 years. It’s really special. That strikes me as we sit here talking — and many of these guys, I’ve never met before. But I’ve watched them play and heard about them. There is a common thread through everybody, a clear dedication and appreciation for the values we were given as players.
White: The better part of me is the better part of me because I had the opportunity to play football for The Ohio State University. I was a director of juvenile court for 30-some years before I retired, and the way I interacted with young people and their families was the kind of interaction that I recall The Old Man having with me or with my family. I wanted to be able to do the same thing as I met with kids and met with families. To say and do the right things and be the kind of person who set the right example.
Grant: I was 8 years old when I saw Ohio State win the national championship in 2002. All that confetti came down, and they were interviewing Coach Tressel. I was just like, “I have to do that one day. I’ve gotta do that.” Thinking back to then, and now today, I never thought I’d be sitting here in the circle of greatness talking about being an Ohio State Buckeye, a champion Ohio State Buckeye. And just thinking about it and listening to everybody here and their responses, I mean, you guys said it all. From adversity to just foundation to just taking the things here to make you men. Those are values that make you a man in my opinion. Those things propelled me to where I am at right now and hopefully for the future. I’m just glad to be a Buckeye. I’m so honored, I’m blessed, to be an Ohio State Buckeye.
Correction: This story was updated to remove a sidebar about a Woody Hayes quote because we incorrectly reported the timing and circumstances of the comment.
The next level: life after football
Take a closer look at the lives and careers of three former Buckeyes.
‘Be authentic, be honest’
Dick Brubaker recalls the lasting influence of Woody Hayes’ disdain for hypocrisy.
‘More to it than being a football player’
Will Allen says paying forward was among Jim Tressel’s expectations of his players.