COLUMBUS - For the second year in a row, the head coaches of both teams in the BCS national championship game have more in common than just wins and rankings.
Once again, both were born in Ohio - the conveyor belt of big-time college coaches.
LSU's Les Miles and Ohio State's Jim Tressel aren't alone either, with favorite sons also heading the programs at several of the top teams in the nation, including Oklahoma (Bob Stoops), Florida (Urban Meyer), Missouri (Gary Pinkel) and Illinois (Ron Zook). All will be busy over the coming days in major bowl games.
Several other coaching megastars also have Ohio on their resume, including Pete Carroll (USC), Nick Saban (Alabama) and Mark Mangino (Kansas).
So what is it about Ohio that seems to produce successful college coaches?
"I don't know if there is any special water in the area," said Miles, a native of Elyria. "My town was a steel town and Friday night football was as exciting and enjoyable as anything viewed in the area. It had its own identity. The community came out for it and supported it fully. On Saturday, it was all about college football."
Many of the most famous names in college coaching have either been born and raised within the state's borders or have passed through on their way to making history elsewhere.
The list includes John Heisman, Red Blaik, Fielding Yost, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Paul Brown.
"Culturally, Ohio is very interested in football," said Tressel, a Mentor native who played for his father, a legendary coach in his own right, at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. "I just think it's the lineage of people who have been around the game. We've got two pro franchises and high school football is very important, and 35 or so colleges that play football in the state. It's a place that really values its football."
Make no mistake about it: Football is king in the state's high schools.
This past season, 721 high schools fielded football teams in Ohio. There are mammoth, boys-only campuses such as the one at Cincinnati St. Xavier, which has 1,173 students enrolled. There are also tiny farm towns where everyone supports the local school, such as tiny Marion Catholic, with just 43 boys in the upper three grades.
Regardless of whether there are 200 kids on the team or 20, Friday night lights isn't just a Texas phenomenon. Ohio high schools had more than 47,500 participants this fall.
No wonder football is such an integral part of Ohio's culture.
"We've just been fortunate that driven people have chosen that [football] to be passionate about," Tressel said.
If autumn Friday nights belong to high school football in Ohio, then the next day is all about the college teams. There are eight Football Bowl Subdivision teams in Ohio (Ohio State, Cincinnati, Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami, Ohio, Toledo), two Football Championship Subdivision teams (Youngstown State, Dayton) and 29 more schools playing in Division II or III or NAIA.
Those teams include perpetual Division III powerhouse Mount Union, which has captured nine of the last 15 national titles while running off winning streaks of 55 and 37 games. The coach of the Purple Raiders is Larry Kehres, who has the best winning percentage of any coach ever at any level. He's a jaw-dropping 260-21-3 in 22 years at the small college in Alliance, surrounded by several larger cities in northeastern Ohio that provide a feeder system to the program.
Whether it's a tiny, rural school near the Indiana border, or a colossal suburban program, there's something about football that just seems to appeal to the hardy people of the state. And that love of the game doesn't waver over the years.
"You walk into my home now and there's a picture of Woody Hayes. There is - a big one too," Florida's Meyer said before last year's national title game. "I don't want to tell you I genuflect in front of it, but darn close. That's the way I was raised."
That has been true for generations. Rooting for your local high school team and also the Browns, Bengals and Buckeyes is as much a part of growing up in Ohio as hard work, hay rides and backyard hoops.
The Cotton, Capital One, Rose, Fiesta and Orange bowls will all have at least one coach with an Ohio background working on the sidelines, not to mention the two native Ohioans in charge of the teams in the Bowl Championship Series finale.
LSU's defensive coordinator in the big game is Bo Pelini. He added his name to the list of prominent major-college head coaches when he took the job at Nebraska earlier this month. Pelini and the Stoops brothers (Bob at Oklahoma, Mike at Arizona) all have the same alma mater, Youngstown's Cardinal Mooney High School. And Pelini also played at Ohio State.
Talk about your three degrees of separation.
"It just shows the importance of football [in Ohio]," Miles said. "That importance is reflected in the sincere want to do well in coaching. I am sure there are a number of coaches not from Ohio that have the same burning desire to succeed."
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