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BERKELEY, Calif. — The last time Ohio State played at California, the team took a bus tour of San Francisco, lodged at a luxury hotel atop Nob Hill, and coach Woody Hayes whispered his instruction in the visitors’ locker room.
“He was just sure those liberal bastards had the place bugged,” OSU guard Jim Kregel said with a laugh.
This year, there will be no such distractions.
In preparation for today’s 7 p.m. game, the Buckeyes’ sightseeing was limited to the view outside their hotel window in Oakland — San Francisco’s less tempting across-the-bay neighbor.
“This is all business,” coach Urban Meyer said.
Whether the opponent is hippies or the fatigue of a days-long train voyage — as the Rose Bowl-bound Buckeyes endured for their first trip west of the Mississippi River in 1921 — there is no science to a successful West Coast voyage. OSU through the years has proven there is more than one way to vanquish a cross-country foe.
The Buckeyes are 6-1 all-time against Cal and 57-26-2 against current members of the Pac-12 Conference.
Yet the search for the perfect blueprint remains elusive. Big Ten teams began the season 5-20 in true road games against Pac-12 teams since 2000, with the Buckeyes contributing two of those defeats — at UCLA in 2001 and at Southern California in 2008. The Buckeyes won games at Arizona in 2000 and at Washington in 2007.
Under former coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes left for intersectional nonconference trips on Thursday to help acclimate to the time change.
Meyer, who as a head coach has never ventured across three time zones for a regular-season game, favors sticking to the usual routine. He said his director of operations contacted programs that made similar trips, “and every one of them said go out on Friday.” Northwestern followed that script for its opener at Cal and won 44-30.
Which way is best? The long-distance road trip is an age-old puzzle.
The Buckeyes ventured by train to play Cal in the 1921 Rose Bowl, stopping along the route to practice. They traveled to USC in 1946 on a DC-3 prop plane that required refueling stops in St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, according to Jack Park’s Ohio State Football Encyclopedia. And they took a direct flight into the teeth of political unrest in 1972.
That was the Buckeyes’ last trip to Berkeley, which had become the nation’s leading radical hotbed during the Vietnam War. Cal students began the Free Speech Movement there in 1964, and the Berkeley Riots soon followed.
Hayes, a fierce supporter of the war effort, was not thrilled to visit a campus where the protests burned hottest and tried to keep the team’s focus elsewhere.
The Buckeyes stayed at the four-star Mark Hopkins Hotel and toured San Francisco, driving past Alcatraz and through Haight-Ashbury.
For a college kid, defensive lineman and Central Catholic graduate Mike Scannell said it was “all pretty cool.”
In the locker room before the game, Hayes took no chances. He whispered and erased his scratchings on the chalkboard as quickly as he drew them up, fearful the spies were near. He cracked there would be more hippies smoking in the surrounding hills than fans at Memorial Stadium.
“He holds his fingers like he’s sucking on a joint,” said Kregel, a Woodward graduate. “He said, ‘They’ll be doing this, and they’ll be staring at their shoes and throwing them stupid frisbees around.’ ”
Kregel laughs. He opposed the war. His brother, Mike, was an infantryman in Vietnam at the time. But of Hayes, he said, “Man, I freaking loved the guy.”
“That’s just how much he cared,” he said. “I just think he was afraid of us being complacent with the whole Berkeley attitude. There was a lot of unrest — at Ohio State included — so many things going on, the stupid war, drugs hopping onto the scene. So many things were hitting him at once. It was wearing on him.”
Hayes’ concern was perhaps justified as the third-ranked Buckeyes began the game listlessly. Trailing 9-3 at halftime, fullback Champ Henson delivered a blistering speech.
“Woody didn’t really have a chance to vent his frustrations because Champ sounded the whole team out and questioned why we were at Ohio State if we can’t beat these guys,” defensive tackle Pete Cusick said. “He said, ‘It’s one thing to let yourself down, you’re not going to let your whole team and the whole state down.’ ”
They would not. Linebacker Rick Middleton intercepted two passes deep in Bears territory, and OSU sprinted to a 35-18 win.
This year, the Buckeyes could do without the distractions and drama. They took a five-hour flight midday Friday, then decamped straight to their hotel.
“I don’t think there's anything there, anyway,” OSU receiver Corey Brown said of the Bay Area. “California is not a special state.”
Befitting of their Oakland digs, the Buckeyes have only one thing in mind. Just win, baby.