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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

Toledo's Columbus connection weighs in on Jim O'Brien, Bob Knight, and OSU's sullied basketball program

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Some former Ohio State basketball players are skeptical that athletic director Andy Geiger could work together with Bob Knight because their personalities are too much alike. Some former Ohio State basketball players are skeptical that athletic director Andy Geiger could work together with Bob Knight because their personalities are too much alike.
TERRY GILLIAM / AP Enlarge

Dennis Hopson is Ohio State's all-time leading scorer.

Kelvin Ransey is the school's top assist man.

And Jim Jackson is arguably the second-best basketball player to have worn a Buckeyes uniform, behind only Jerry Lucas.

Ransey left Columbus in 1980 for the NBA. Hopson departed 17 years ago for the pro ranks and Jackson 12 years ago.

Even so, the three Toledo natives remain closely connected to the now-troubled Ohio State program, which is reeling from the recent dismissal of coach Jim O'Brien for giving $6,000 to a recruit five years ago who never enrolled at the university.

The NCAA is investigating O'Brien's admitted rules violation, and other allegations of wrongdoing alleged in a lawsuit filed by former nanny Kathleen Salyers. The Buckeyes' sullied program will likely face NCAA sanctions as a result of the probe.

"Any time anything happens that damages the reputation of your school, it is bothersome," said Ransey, who today is a pastor at Spirit of Excellence Church in Tupelo, Miss. "It's kind of disappointing and disturbing to see things go downhill so quickly.

"I thought coach O'Brien had the program going in the right direction there for a few years. I mean, they reached the Final Four in 1999 for the first time in a long time, and it seemed like the excitement was back in Ohio State basketball.

"Just like that they fell on hard times the last two years and are back near the bottom of the Big Ten again. Things probably aren't going to get any better anytime soon, not with the accusations that are out there."

Jackson, who plays for the Houston Rockets, said he was shocked by O'Brien's firing 12 days ago. O'Brien had won 133 games in seven seasons - the fourth-best total in Ohio State history - but was just 31-31 the last two years.

"I thought Jim O'Brien was a great guy," said Jackson, who resides in Toledo in the offseason and runs The JAJ Co., which includes Jackson's Lounge & Grill on North Huron Street. "Through our conversations, we really connected. He asked me to talk to the team a few times in the past, and I did.

"Without knowing all of the facts, it's hard for me to give any kind of an assessment on what happened. Only coach O'Brien knows what the real situation was. I just know it puts the school in a tough spot, especially at this time of the year. They need to get a coach rather quickly and start getting ready for next season."

Hopson, who works as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, believes basketball will always play second fiddle to football at Ohio State.

"It's not a basketball school and nobody will ever be able to convince me it is," said Hopson, who also dabbles in real estate and used car sales in the Columbus suburb of Powell. "They need to hire someone who is committed to giving the program some continuity and making it a consistent winner.

"They have been up and down too much the last 15 or 20 years."

Hopson, Ransey and Jackson each earned All-American honors at Ohio State, and all were high first-round NBA draft picks.

Jackson, from Macomber High School, just completed his 12th pro season with the Rockets, who are his 10th NBA team. Ransey, also from Macomber, played six seasons in the NBA; Hopson, from Bowsher, played five before going overseas to continue his career.

All three Buckeyes greats agree that Texas Tech coach Bob Knight - who was a member of Ohio State's only national championship team in 1960 - is an intriguing candidate to replace O'Brien, but none expects athletic director Andy Geiger to hire Knight.

"I think coach Knight would be a great pick, but I just don't see it happening," Hopson said. "He and Geiger, their personalities are the same, but I don't think they would work well together. Bob Knight would want all of the control, and I don't see Geiger giving him that."

Knight, 63, won three NCAA championships and 11 Big Ten titles in 29 seasons at Indiana. But he was fired in September of 2000 for what then school president Myles Brand called a "pattern of unacceptable behavior."

The controversial Knight was hired at Texas Tech in 2001 and has won at least 20 games each of the last three seasons. He has 832 career wins and needs just 48 more to break the NCAA record held by former North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

"Bob Knight would be a good coach for any school," Ransey said. "I played against him for four years. Coach Knight is one of the best, if not the best, coaches there is - if you can deal with him. I think it would be the perfect set-up and situation for him, him being an Ohio State alumnus.

"I'd love to see him at Ohio State, but I'd be very surprised if it happens. I don't think Andy Geiger likes him."

A day after O'Brien's firing on June 8, Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers announced that Knight had agreed to a three-year contract extension through 2009. But Knight, who has expressed interest in the OSU job, has not yet signed the deal.

His current package at Texas Tech pays him $900,000 per year. O'Brien's compensation package this past year was worth more than $1.2 million.

"Bob Knight's been in the Big Ten before," Jackson said. "He's from Ohio. He played at Ohio State. He could help bring some notoriety back to the program. He really does bring a lot of positives."

They are plenty of negatives, as well.

"Maybe too many, " Jackson said.

Besides Knight, other coaches who have been mentioned as possible replacements for O'Brien include former NBA coach George Karl, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach and former OSU star Jim Cleamons, North Carolina State's Herb Sendek, Xavier's Thad Matta, Clemson's Oliver Purnell, Marquette's Tom Crean, Rutgers' Gary Waters and Gonzaga's Mark Few.

"I think they're going to hire a big-name coach," Ransey said. "I don't think they're going to hire some no-name guy."

Hopson thinks Cleamons, who played for the Buckeyes from 1969-71 and was an assistant with the Bulls when Hopson played for Chicago in the early 1990s, would "fit in great at Ohio State."

Regardless of who the next coach is, Hopson said that person needs to do a better job of getting former players involved in OSU's program, as well as the recruiting process.

"They don't seek my input, or many other former player's input, on anything," he said. "It's like they don't want us around. I know we could help this program a lot - I know I could help - if they'd just let us.

"We could talk to recruits and tell them what is important about the school, about the tradition of playing basketball there, and about how to prepare for life after basketball. And we could do it without giving them any money."

Jackson also has a suggestion for the Buckeyes' new boss: Start recruiting the Toledo area again.

"It is strange that three of the best players who ever played at Ohio State - Dennis, Kelvin and I - are from Toledo, yet for some reason, they don't recruit here anymore," he said.

"There are kids around here who are good enough to play at Ohio State, but for some reason, they go unnoticed or they don't get looked at. It's hard to understand."

Contact Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.



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