April 17, 2014

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Ohio State football: Bowl ban still hurts

COLUMBUS — Jack Mewhort loves college football. Yet he likely won’t go out of his way to watch a single bowl game in the coming days.

What’s the point, the thoughtful, red-haired Ohio State offensive lineman says, not really seeking an answer.

“Now that the season is over, you can sit around and think to yourself a little bit,” he said in a voice a lot softer than you might expect coming from a body measuring 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds. “Your mind kind of wanders. We accomplished everything we possibly could.

“But you’ve got to keep the demons out.”

The Buckeyes aren’t allowed, due to NCAA violations committed by those no longer with the team, to play in a bowl game. They did all they could during the 2012 season, going 12-0.

So while Notre Dame and one-loss Alabama fight it out for the national championship, and while lesser teams play in sunny climes and get maximum exposure, Mewhort and the rest of the Buckeyes are left with their thoughts.

Coach Urban Meyer is perfectly willing to move on, to cease all the talk about NCAA crimes and punishment.

But that doesn’t mean, the Ohio State coach still doesn’t have a lingering regret: What might have been.

“It’s very difficult,” concedes Meyer, not one to spend a lot of time dealing with the what-ifs of daily life. “After we won our last game (against rival Michigan) and we saw we couldn’t go play in the Big Ten championship game, and then if we would have won that we might have been playing for the national championship — you can’t help but think about it.”

There’s plenty of regret to go around at Ohio State these days. There’s regret that former coach Jim Tressel, who wrote books about integrity, morals and leading a Christian life, found out in 2010 that some of his best players took money from a suspected drug dealer and yet did nothing about it. He played those players anyway and they were later ruled ineligible for taking cash and free tattoos. A 12-1 season, including a Sugar Bowl victory two years ago, was wiped off the books.

Tressel was forced out of the job in disgrace after 10 years and all of the players involved either graduated, moved on to the NFL or went elsewhere.

There’s also regret that athletic director Gene Smith, who once worked on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, didn’t give up a meaningless Gator Bowl bid after the 2011 season as a pre-emptive strike to mollify the NCAA. The thinking is that, had he surrendered that game — what would be the seventh loss in an utterly forgettable year of suspensions, innuendo, investigations and sanctions — perhaps the current Buckeyes might still be pursuing that elusive national championship berth.

Smith, for one, refuses to play the blame game. He said he doesn’t feel any remorse for his decision whatsoever.

“No. As I’ve said before, with the information we had at the time we made the decisions at the time that we felt were the best decisions,” he said. “So we’ve moved on. I guess that’s the challenge. We’ve moved on. We’re looking at what we accomplished this year, we’re looking at the future and we’re recognizing the opportunities ahead of us that are exciting because of how we stayed focused on helping this team and this coaching staff be successful.”

Of course, the players affected the most by the bowl ban are Ohio State’s seniors. They overcame doubts and questions to post just the sixth unbeaten and untied season in the program’s 123 seasons. Yet, for the sins of others, they’re deprived of the reward of going on a good bowl trip.

“I can’t stay here and live in the past and wish and hope,” said a wistful Etienne Sabino, a senior linebacker. “There’s nothing I can control. I try not to think about it.”

But the underclassmen feel a void, as well.

Star quarterback Braxton Miller says it’s an injustice that the Buckeyes paid the price for others’ mistakes in judgment.

“I’m really disappointed,” said Miller, who will be a junior next fall. “They got in trouble before I got here. With the probation, it’s very disturbing for the players. We put in the hard work and went 12-0 and, you know, should have had an opportunity to go to the national championship game. It’s not fair.”

There are other considerations, of course. The lack of a bowl game denies Ohio State weeks of practice that even a mediocre bowl-bound team with a 6-6 record gets. It also denies a national stage to an unbeaten team, perhaps preventing the seniors from another opportunity to impress pro scouts. And it eliminates an additional high-profile chance for Meyer to show off the rebuilding project he’s overseen at Ohio State, one that might be very appealing to potential recruits who are glued to the TV during the postseason.

Meyer believes the players will just have to work harder to make up for those missed practices. And that the coaches must work even harder to reach recruits and spread the word of the rebirth at Ohio State in the wake of the Tressel trauma.

Those are still minor considerations, he believes, compared to what the seniors lost.

“Everybody has a dream of playing for a national title and our guys don’t get that opportunity,” he said softly.

Despite the premature end to their season, the players take great pride in that perfect record. NCAA rules allow players to leave a team — without having to sit out a transfer year — when a team gets hit with major penalties. Yet none of the Buckeyes left under those circumstances. They stuck around, and will be rewarded with rings for winning their Big Ten division and will be remembered as a unit that provided a cornerstone for what’s to come.

“This season just kind of sets a tone for the future years,” senior fullback and linebacker Zach Boren said.

That doesn’t mean being left behind isn’t painful.

“We’re really proud of what we did, going 12-0. We accomplished everything we could. We won our division, we won our big game (Michigan) at the end,” Mewhort said. “I want to stress how important that was to us to win every game possible for these seniors. They led us. It was all for them. But it does get a little frustrating as you get close to bowl season.

“Because you still have that fire burning, you know. You want to go out there and compete.”