COLUMBUS — The old teammates who will reassemble at Ohio Stadium later this month seemed guided by a once-in-a-generation cosmic streak.
Maybe they were, too.
Ohio State’s run to the 2002 national championship suspended wonder. The 15 losses during the previous three seasons. The recurring heart-trembling drama that summoned the divine for explanation (Holy Buckeye!). The double-overtime takedown of a Miami team favored to win the championship game by double digits.
“I’m not afraid to say it,” said Maurice Hall, a running back on that team. “I think it was destiny.”
But time has proven there was something more to the success of a team that renewed the romance between a school and its state.
“People say it was just one of those years where it was meant to be,” former coach Jim Tressel told The Blade in a phone interview. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, there was a bunch of work put into that.’ It wasn’t like they lined up at the beginning of 14 games and knew that something was meant to be. They made it to be.”
Ten years later, they continue to do so. The homespun narrative of a team that performed high over its head no longer holds the same weight.
In fact, the Buckeyes’ last national championship team has only gained esteem as a staggering majority of its players went on to enjoy success — inside and outside the lines.
Flood of success
Fifty-five players on the roster that season signed with NFL teams — 33 of whom were selected in the draft. Of those, 27 players earned at least $1 million in professional football, and 12 of them remain in the NFL. They include three Pro Bowl veterans — Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, New York Jets center Nick Mangold, and New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith — and a line of longtime starters from receiver Michael Jenkins, to kicker Mike Nugent, to cornerback Chris Gamble.
“At the time, everyone thought that we were a slow Big Ten team that couldn’t play with anybody,” said cornerback Dustin Fox, a third-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005 who now co-hosts a popular drive-time sports talk radio show on Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan. “But as time went on, and all of those guys got drafted, now you look back and it's like, ‘Man, that’s one of the greatest teams to ever play in college football.’ ”
The achievement carried off the field, too.
The 2002 reunion during Ohio State’s Nov. 24 game against Michigan could include a firefighter and a police officer, a high school teacher and a psychology professor, a hedge fund manager and a real estate broker.
Mike DeMaria, a walk-on running back from Cardinal Stritch who started on special teams in 2002, is an attorney with his own practice. Defensive end Simon Fraser is attending medical school at Ohio University after playing four seasons in the NFL. Three-time All-American safety Mike Doss balances work as a sales representative for Zimmer Orthopedics in Columbus with raising his 10-year-old brother, Anthony, who has lived with him and his wife since their mother died in 2008.
While some paths detoured — star running back Maurice Clarett, for instance, served time at Toledo Correctional Institution for armed robbery — 86 of 113 players on the 2002 roster received a degree from OSU. (Seventeen of the non-graduates either left for the NFL or transferred.)
DeMaria said it was a team that refused not to make it.
“What I think 2002 boils down to is our leadership that year,” he said. “No matter what scenario we were in, we had faith in our guys. There was never any time that season where we were ever down and out.”
The road begins
The path to 14-0 and a national championship began on the first day of the new year.
Ohio State trailed South Carolina 28-0 in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl after the 2001 regular season. For the team’s veterans, it was the latest disappointment in careers that had swerved off course. The Buckeyes had lost 10 games over former coach John Cooper’s final two seasons and were now 7-4 in Tressel’s first year.
“I remember we were down 28-0, and the pride we had,” said linebacker Cie Grant, a senior on the 2002 team. “We said, ‘Hey we’re starting right now, and we’re going to work our tails off for the last two quarters of this game, and we’re going to come into winter conditioning, and we’re going to work like crazy.”
The Buckeyes rallied to tie it at 28 before falling on a last-second field goal.
“Guys who had been through 6-6, 8-4, 7-5 seasons frankly said, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” said Craig Krenzel, the team’s steely quarterback, now a partner at Arthur Krenzel Lett Insurance Group outside Columbus. “This is not why I signed on the dotted line to be a Buckeye. It was a group of guys that was sick and tired of that.”
Buoyed by the return of Doss for his senior season and the arrival of Clarett, a five-star prospect from Youngstown named USA Today’s high school offensive player of the year, OSU opened the 2002 season purposefully. The Buckeyes climbed from 13th to sixth in the polls with three straight routs — including a 25-7 win against No. 10 Washington State spurred by Clarett’s 230 rushing yards.
The season could not begin in earnest, though, until the Buckeyes’ first cardiac scare. That came a week later in a 23-19 victory against Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium when Krenzel ran for the go-ahead touchdown with 3 minutes, 44 seconds left and Bearcats receivers dropped two touchdown passes in the final minute.
A theme was set.
All season, a nation waited for the other shoe to drop.
The Buckeyes trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter during five of their last seven games. The odds they faced each Saturday were long enough. The odds of perfection? Incalculable.
OSU did not score an offensive touchdown against Penn State, trailed Michigan with less than five minutes remaining, and turned their season over to an into-the-wind, fourth-down heave in the dying minutes at Purdue.
Yet, every Saturday, the Buckeyes remained standing atop their high wire.
Recall “King Right 64 Y Shallow Swap.” It was week 10 and the Buckeyes trailed Purdue 6-3 with 1:44 remaining. On fourth-and-1 at the Boilermakers 37, the play as designed hewed to Tressel’s conservative style, with Krenzel’s first option a short crossing pattern — the shallow swap — to tight end Ben Hartsock, the Y receiver. Instead, with Hartsock covered and pressure coming, Krenzel strode up in the pocket and floated a pass downfield.
It was off his back foot, into a stiff wind and … right into receiver Michael Jenkins’ clutch in the end zone.
“They go for the ballgame,” Brent Musburger exclaimed on the ABC broadcast. “Touchdown! Touchdown! … Would you believe it? … Holy Buckeye!”
“The Jenkins catch, that just showed no matter what the situation, we’ll get it done,” DeMaria said. “No one ever lost faith in the play, no one ever lost faith in the game.”
By the Fiesta Bowl, the fantastic — and, perhaps, the divine — was expected.
It didn’t matter that Miami had won 34 straight games and was enshrined in the pantheon of all-time great teams, picked by virtually every national authority to dispatch OSU by at least two touchdowns.
The scarlet-clad faithful who turned Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., into a veritable home venue for OSU, and millions back in Ohio keenly awaited the final chapter. (The Fiesta Bowl drew a 47 rating and a 74 share on ABC 13, meaning 74 percent of area viewers with their televisions on were tuned in.)
The plays unfolded one after the other that January night: Clarett wresting the ball from Sean Taylor after the safety intercepted Krenzel in the end zone; Krenzel’s fourth-and-14 conversion to Jenkins in the first overtime; field judge Terry Porter’s belated flag for pass interference that cleared the Hurricanes revelers from the field; Grant twirling Miami quarterback to the ground to clinch Ohio State’s 31-24 victory.
“We have always had the best damn band in the land,” Tressel told the crowd after OSU clinched its first national title since 1968. “Now we have the best damn team in the land.”
An enduring legacy
A decade has now passed, and college football has yet to see another team like the 2002 Buckeyes.
No national champion since has trailed or been tied in the second half so many times — seven — or so routinely experienced distress give way to delirium.
While other champions imparted an air of invincibility — Alabama’s national champions in 2009 and 2011 had a combined three games decided by a touchdown or less — the Buckeyes took this state on a twisting ride for the ages.
Destiny? Maybe. But time has proven it was more than that.
“To make that magical run and go undefeated, I’m a firm believer it takes three things,” Krenzel said. “First and foremost, it takes talent and people. In college football, that’s 80 to 90 percent of it.
“Then, when you start getting a little closer in those games, on a relatively equal playing field, you have to be well-coached. And even with that, you still to catch the breaks. The ball bounces a certain way. Somebody falls or makes a play they shouldn’t have. For us that, year, it was a combination of everything.”
Or, as DeMaria said, “All the stars aligned.”
Sports writer Ryan Autullo contributed to this report.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.