Although it has been nearly 34 years since Woody Hayes prowled the sidelines in Columbus, he continues to cast a long shadow that subsequent coaches have had a hard time shaking. Every head coach who has followed (not counting Luke Fickell who was basically a one-year interim) has had moments when it looked like they might finally get fans to forget about Woody. But in the end, none of them has managed to close the deal. Briefly let's take a look at the three men who had the unenviable job of following the legend, and notice why they came up short. Then, we'll discuss the reasons Urban may succeed where others failed.
Earle Bruce: Some were surprised when the Buckeyes raided Iowa State to nab Bruce, who had never won more than 8 games with the Cyclones, or won a bowl game. In his first year, though, Bruce nearly led OSU to the promised land, when the team headed to Pasadena undefeated as Big Ten champs, ranked number one in the nation. Until the final minutes of that game, it looked like Ohio State would come out on top, but a late touchdown allowed USC to win 17-16, causing Bruce to come one point shy of his dream. Little did he know that life would never be that good again in Columbus. Had Bruce won that game, it would have gone a long way toward climbing out from under the shadow of Woody Hayes, but alas the football gods did not favor Earle. In fact, the next six seasons all ended with a 9-3 record, giving Bruce the nickname of "Old 9-3 Earle."
In 1988 he did manage to go 10-3, as OSU played one more game than usual, but the problem was that he could never quite get over that hump. His teams played pretty well against Michigan (5-4 for his career against UM) and in bowl games (5-3 record) but always seemed to stub their toe against a mediocre team or two each season. Bruce lacked the kind of charisma needed to deal with continued 3-loss seasons, and due to that lack of magnetism, failed to attract the nation's top talent. Since most of the best Ohioans still found their way to Columbus, Bruce survived for nine seasons, but when his final team finished 6-4-1 it was too much, and Earle was given the boot. Although he twice led the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl, Earle lost both contests, and nine years without a win in Pasadena was simply too much for the man who followed Woodrow Wilson Hayes.
Of course his failure to beat Michigan (2-10-1 in "The Game") or win many bowl games (3-8 for his career) has been well documented. Pity, because Cooper was likable and quotable, even if he never did seem to completely understand Ohio State traditions.
Truth is, he came incredibly close to returning Ohio State to the top. In the plus column, his teams were able to thrash Notre Dame two years in a row and did win the one Rose Bowl he managed to guide the Buckeyes to - in dramatic fashion, too! But the numerous late season melt downs against TSUN (plus an unforgivable one in 1998 to Michigan State) made it impossible for Coop to shake Woody's lengthy shadow. When things went sour on and off the field, it wasn't hard for the powers that be to fire John Cooper, and in his 13 seasons in Columbus he failed to get fans to forget Coach Hayes.
Jim Tressel: Earle lacked the charisma or ability to recruit out of state, and Cooper couldn't win the big game. Enter Jim Tressel, who did a pretty good job of accomplishing both. For one thing, he "got it" when it came to "The Game" and the hallowed traditions of Buckeye football. He cherished everything scarlet and gray and that automatically endeared him to the fan base. Then in only his second season he did something that neither of his predecessors were able to accomplish, namely the winning of a National Championship.
Although that was good enough for some fans to crown JT as the new king, others weren't quite so impressed. Some said that Tress won with Cooper's talent, and to shed the shadow, he needed to prove he could do the same with his own recruits. Well, Tressel came about as close as you can get to doing just that, twice returning to the National Championship Game. Even the media, who found him too conservative and full of cliches, was ready to embrace JT at the end of the 2006 season, when OSU marched through their schedule undefeated, led by Heisman winner Troy Smith. Then came the embarrassing 41-14 loss to Florida, and Tress was never able shake that loss, despite plenty more success.
His teams succeeded in the classroom and on the field, and despite a few hiccups, played in a way that Woody would have applauded, including going 9-1 against Michigan. So what kept Jim Tressel from totally coming out from under Hayes' shadow? In the end, it was the off the field issues, beginning with Maurice Clarett, and ending with the Tat Five. Sure it would have helped if Tress could have added one more crystal football, but it was the sad ending that kept him from being mentioned in the same breath with Woody in Buckeye lore.
Urban Meyer: Enter the Urban Legend! This is a man who grew up in love with OSU football, and who cut his teeth coaching in state. This is a coach who already has two National Championships to his credit, and who has the charm and charisma to lure top talent from coast to coast.
So will he finally be the man to come out from under the shadow of Woody Hayes?
He just might be, although it will take a few years to know for sure. Here is what will help him: 1) It has been so long since Hayes coached, that many no longer remember the icon; 2) Buckeye fans are tired of the negative press of the past few years, and want to write a new chapter; 3) He has the kind of bigger-than-life personality that allows someone to thrive under pressure and build their own legend. I am not saying that Urban will succeed in getting fans to move past Woody. To do so he will have to stay for a number of years, and that hasn't been his MO. But I think he has the best shot so far. Let's hope he is up to the challenge.