Friday night in downtown Columbus was always a gas before an OSU game, but those helium-filled carnivals of school spirit and civic destruction that used to levitate High Street and irritate local merchants have gone the way of the raided panty. Hotelkeepers don't even bother to lock up the lobby furniture anymore, and the talk in Ohio State hangouts like the Thirsty I and Crazy Eye is about the backward drift of society rather than the wayward fortune of OSU football. Oh, the kids do get excited now and then. For example, last spring 34 of them were arrested after they invaded an administration building and held an uneasy university vice-president hostage for six hours. Recently a coed set fire to a brand-new 22-story dormitory, and that led to a noisy campus demonstration over sterner fire-prevention measures. And, to the delight of OSU's antiwar population, a young professor tore up his draft card before his class one day in April.
The spirit of emotion and stimulation has, unfortunately, not spread to football. One reason could be that, because of the school's mighty building boom, Woody Hayes has had to move his practices from an easily accessible mid-campus point to Siberian isolation in a far-off corner of university property. Another could be that the Buckeyes have not won a Big Ten championship since 1961. Nevertheless, Ohioans do have a Pavlovian tendency to file into OSU's 81,000-seat stadium every Saturday, and this year, although almost everyone seems woefully unaware of it, Woody Hayes just might be about to please these habitual crowds with his best team in a decade.
There are 13 starters returning from last year's team, one that had a disappointing 6-3 record but which finished by winning five of its last six. Hayes also has an unusually strong group of sophomores coming up, and as many as 10 of them could be first-stringers this season. Whether there is a Big Ten title abloom among all that talent, young and old, will probably come starkly clear early in the season, on October 12, to be exact, when the Buckeyes play Purdue. Hayes is still smoldering over the 41-6 pasting his team took from the Boilermakers in 1967, the worst day in his 18 years at OSU. "Never," he says, "have I had a team beaten so thoroughly or so badly." If, by some combination of pluck and luck, the Buckeyes defeat Purdue, they would have fairly easy sailing toward a Big Ten title because they do not play either Indiana or Minnesota, two of the conference's best.
Although a stony defense is still Hayes's idea of a perfect football foundation, he has a good offensive superstructure, including a surfeit of backfield men. If he wished, Hayes could platoon two full backfields and still have enough runners left over to handle broken-field rescue missions for besieged school administrators.
First, the veterans. Quarterback Bill Long was a starter for two years, and despite Woody's aversion to the forward pass he completed plenty of them. Dave Brungard, a '67 regular as a sophomore, can play both halfback positions, and there are two seasoned fullbacks, Jim Otis and Paul Huff. Along with returning Halfback Ray Gillian, these veterans totaled 1,500 OSU yards last fall.
Nevertheless, all of them are in danger of being replaced by sophomores. The most important of the newcomers is Rex Kern, a red-haired quarterback of modest size (6', 185 pounds) who has probably won Long's starting job. Kern is no more than an adequate passer and is not terribly fast, but he runs OSU's option roll-outs with enormous verve and authority and once he is in an open field he moves with a deception that is far more effective than raw speed. He is intelligent enough so that Hayes may even let him call his own plays now and then, and he has a knack for inspiring his teammates. "There is never any doubt in Rex's mind that he can do anything," says one assistant OSU coach, "and that attitude seems to carry over to the rest of the team." Woody Hayes himself is willing to pay full tribute to young Kern. "He is," says Woody, "the best quarterback prospect we've had since Tom Matte."
After Kern, the rest of the rookie back-field can be described in the usual press-release superlatives. Flashiest and fastest: Halfback Leophus Hayden, 205, who does the 100 in 9.7. Steadiest and strongest: John Brockington, 215, who can play either fullback or halfback and is odds-on to start at one of those positions. Most versatile: Larry Zelina, who can play at either halfback, has the hands and moves to be a fine flanker and also punts and placekicks. So deep and diversified is OSU's backfield that Hayes, long an advocate of the battering-ram approach, says, "We'll do more things than we've ever done." Even more passing? "I'd be an idiot to try that with the backs we've got," growls Hayes. "But, by God, we're going to run at people."
The offensive line should fulfill the demands made on it. Tackles Dave Foley and Rufus Mayes, each 6'5" and 250 pounds, rank with the best in the Big Ten. Mayes has performed at tight end for the past two seasons but tackle is his natural position. There is talk among OSU coaches that he might make All-America in his first varsity year at that spot. The tight end will be sophomore Dick Kuhn and the split end will be Jan White, a rookie who was the high school hurdling champion of Pennsylvania. Two '67 starters, Guard Alan Jack, 220 pounds, and Center John Muhlback, only 195, will hold the middle of the line, along with either Dave Cheney, a sophomore, or Tom Backhus, a '67 reserve.
And the defense? Woody is a man who has spent most of his career specializing in splendid defensive units, and like Bear Bryant he is formidably optimistic this season as he observes: "These are the best boys we've ever had." Four starters will be sophomores, including Jack Tatum, a 215-pound high school All-America fullback from Passaic, N.J. who enjoys his new cornerback position; Deep Backs Tim Anderson and Mike Sensibaugh, and Middle Guard Jim Stillwagon, who beat out regular Vic Stottlemyer. The rest of the defense returns from last year's first string. Dave Whitfield and Nick Roman will be the ends, Brad Nielsen and Paul Schmidlin the tackles, Dirk Worden and Mark Stier the linebackers, and Ted Provost, who intercepted seven passes last year, will be at one of the halfback posts.
The best measure of his team is that Woody Hayes is not even pretending it won't be hard to beat. "You're darn right, we're a Big Ten contender, and a strong one," he says. Along about midseason Columbus hotels may start locking up the lobby furniture again. The problems of society as seen through the Crazy Eye might have to wait until winter.