ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s seniors were visiting a local hospital when the news broke last December.
“People were asking, 'How do you feel that you can't play in a bowl game?’ ” defensive back Zach Domicone recalled. “And we were like, 'What are you talking about?’”
Athletic director Gene Smith had assured them several times there would be no postseason ban, players said, so there was disbelief, then a storm of questions. The seniors were free to transfer without penalty.
“Everyone was kind of at a loss for words,” Domicone said. “People were angry.”
Yet ultimately, to the surprise of coach Urban Meyer, not one of Ohio State’s 21 seniors — including eight fifth-year scholarship players — chose to leave.
They instead have provided the backbone to one of the Buckeyes’ most unlikely years, which would culminate in the sixth perfect season in program history with a win Saturday against No. 20 Michigan at Ohio Stadium.
Postseason bans have historically both galvanized and undermined programs. The Buckeyes chose the former, and on Monday, Meyer grew emotional before reporters for the first time this season when asked about the seniors.
He knows this football revival would not be possible without eight senior starters. Without defensive end John Simon, whom he calls the team’s “heart and soul.”
Or linebacker Zach Boren, who helped stabilize a depleted defense by gamely switching from fullback to linebacker midway through the year.
Or Reid Fragel, who moved from tight end to fill a glaring void at right tackle.
Or defensive linemen Nathan Williams and Garrett Goebel, defensive backs Orhian Johnson and Travis Howard, linebacker Etienne Sabino, and receiver Jake Stoneburner.
Meyer thought back to the morning of Dec. 20 when the one-year postseason ban was announced.
“I thought, ‘We're not what?’ ” he said. “And then my mind started thinking about this year's team. Those seniors, if I read the rules right, they can pick up and go without punishment. So I called a team meeting. Within 15 minutes, we had one. I kept the seniors after.
“I had no idea who they were, and they didn't know me, so it was a leap of faith. … When you look at these kids, now that I know them, I know exactly why they stayed, for the love of Ohio State. It's really cool in this day and age to witness that. We're forever indebted to them because they didn’t have to do what they did.”
The seniors say the ride was worth it, even if their careers did not meet all expectations.
They came in as part of recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009 ranked fourth and third nationally, respectively, by Rivals.com, having no reason to believe a program that had reached the national title game in 2006 and 2007 would slow down.
The plan: “We would beat Michigan every year, and we'd win national championships,” Domicone said.
Reality: Early success highlighted by victories in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, then turmoil and rebuilding. Former coach Jim Tressel was fired after the 2010 season because of NCAA violations, and OSU went 6-7 under interim coach Luke Fickell before Meyer was hired last November.
Now, on the verge of perfection, the seniors call this season the most rewarding of their careers. Though Johnson said there “were murmurs around the locker room” of players transferring when the sanctions were announced, those thoughts were short-lived.
“Really, this team is like my brothers, and I don’t say that just to say it,” he said. “Those guys really became close to me. The stuff we had to go through with all the coaching changes and with the bowl ban and then with the sanctions, you could only get closer through all of that.”
Sabino said a movie should be made about the seniors’ past five years. He just isn’t ready for the closing credits. “It is starting to settle in,” Sabino said. “It’s kind of surreal. It feels like you’ve been living a dream for the last five years, and to know it’s coming to an end, it’s hard.”
All that’s left is scripting the final scene. “I wouldn't go back and change anything, even with not being able to go a bowl game or anything like that," Domicone said. "To go 12-0 and silence the doubters and the critics, it would be unbelievable.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.