Rob Oller commentary: Persuasive new coach must raise bar

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Nearly 12 years ago, a debate broke out between Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw and one of her assistants, Kevin McGuff.

McGraw, planning a recruiting trip, had booked a nonstop flight from Boston to Los Angeles: United 175, leaving Logan International Airport the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. McGuff, meanwhile, scheduled his coast-to-coast flight out of Providence, R.I.

A discussion ensued. McGuff insisted it would be less of a traffic headache if he did not have to drop off McGraw in Boston. Instead, she should fly out of Providence with him. McGraw resisted.

“He was pretty stubborn,” McGraw said at the time. “Had it been another assistant, I would have gotten on that plane.”

Instead, McGraw canceled her seat on United 175, which never made it to Los Angeles. It was the second jet to crash into the World Trade Center in New York.

McGraw still coaches the Fighting Irish, thanks in part to the persistence of her former assistant, who now brings those powers of persuasion — the ability to prove a point — to Ohio State.

It becomes McGuff’s job to convince us he can achieve more than what Jim Foster accomplished over an 11-year career with the Buckeyes. Four weeks after Ohio State fired Foster for reasons still short on detail — even after dismissing him, athletic director Gene Smith and executive associate athletic director Miechelle Willis praised Foster up and down — the school hired McGuff on Tuesday to improve the product.

It will be like trying to turn a 3.5 grade-point average into a 4.0. The Buckeyes were not exactly languishing under Foster, whose .772 winning percentage compares favorably with that of men’s basketball coach Thad Matta (.774). Under Foster, Ohio State won a record six Big Ten championships (2005 to ’10) and four Big Ten tournament titles. The Buckeyes also made 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament until this season. And nearly every athlete who has played for Foster at St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State has gone on to earn her degree.

What’s left for McGuff to improve upon? Two things. The easier task touches more on marketing than on-court results. Foster was not exactly dynamic with the media and did not bend over backward to schmooze with some factions of the fan base.

How will McGuff do in that regard?

“We want to try to create some buzz,” he said of plans for him and the team to connect with the community.

The second area of improvement involves finding success on the biggest stage. Under Foster, the Buckeyes never advanced past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

Can McGuff coach the Buckeyes deeper into March? He led Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2010 before leaving for Washington in 2011.

But the occasional Elite Eight appearance still might not be enough to satisfy those who think Ohio State should perform like a top-five team. The lone measure of McGuff’s success will be whether the Buckeyes consistently reach the Elite Eight, and beyond. He will be expected to turn Ohio State into a program that is mentioned with Stanford, Tennessee, Notre Dame and — gulp — Connecticut.

Realistic? Doesn’t matter. He was hired with that expectation in mind. Now it’s up to him to produce.

“I’m going to embrace it,” he said yesterday of the challenge to turn the program into a national, not just a Big Ten, power. “A lot of people probably were scared off by that. I saw it as a great opportunity.”

McGuff insists that he would not have left Washington unless the pieces were in place to win national championships at Ohio State.

“I would not have come if I didn’t think the commitment was commensurate with what the (school’s) expectations are,” he said. “And it is. It’s fair, what they’re asking. It’s doable.”

The man is persuasive. Are you convinced?

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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