Rob Oller commentary: Buckeyes could use 1968 team’s tough love
Leadership leads the news these days at Ohio State, where coach Urban Meyer wants more of it from his football players, and the Buckeyes need more of it if they are to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
Meyer believes so strongly in the importance of leadership that he created a class on the subject during the offseason. He described the course as “a systematic approach” to teaching and learning about accountability and taking command of the situation.
That’s all well and good. Leadership is the frame on which talent rests. Without it, talent takes a team to the edge of celebration without allowing it to cross into triumph. But once you get beyond the seminars and buzzwords, what does leadership look like in “real time”?
The best explanation is found in history, by studying leadership that worked.
Dozens of Ohio State teams have enjoyed sterling direction from the seniors who most often hold the responsibility of leading. But 1968 tops the list, not simply because the Buckeyes won the national championship, but how they won it.
The best expression of leadership combines courage and humility — being courageous enough to act humbly — and those two attributes poured forth in 1968, when a group of 14 seniors mostly took a back seat to the Super Sophomores.
“A lot of leadership has to do with humility,” said Dirk Worden, one of five senior starters on that team, which finished 10-0, including a 27-16 win against Southern California in the Rose Bowl. “I remember when I was a sophomore, I had a rough season. Not naming names, but it did not seem there was a great deal of camaraderie among the seniors and us as sophomores. It was more standoff-ish. The relationship just wasn’t there.”
The Buckeyes finished 4-5 in 1966, and Worden never forgot part of the reason why.
“I always thought to myself, ‘If I’m ever in a position to be a senior leader, I’m going to make myself available to younger players whenever I can. I’ll be there to talk with them, and do so with humility,’ ” he said.
Two seasons later, Worden joined fellow starters Dave Foley and Mark Stier as captains.
One challenge in 1968 was making sure the seniors were not so threatened by the supremely talented sophomore class that they closed ranks and abandoned their leadership responsibilities. Arrogance and foolish pride easily could have won out, but the seniors sacrificed personal goals, knowing the Buckeyes could accomplish more collectively.
“Everything got turned around that season; the stars were mere babies,” said John Brockington, who started at left halfback as a sophomore in 1968. “The seniors had to keep us focused, because as a sophomore you can lose focus.”
Accountability was the first piece to fall in place in 1968. Rather than leave all the policing to coach Woody Hayes, the seniors stood at the front of the room and made sure the young Bucks knew the deal.
“Spring practice was about done (in 1967) and a lot of guys during spring break were going to party down South,” Worden said. “I remember telling my teammates, ‘Keep your nose clean. There’s a lot of temptation out there. Don’t get caught up in it. Don’t mess up the future.’ ”
Is such player-to-player accountability happening this summer, when two upperclassmen — senior Carlos Hyde and junior Bradley Roby — are caught up in criminal investigations?
“The captains have to get you ready,” Brockington said. “They have to get in your face.”
It is called tough love. Do the Buckeyes love one another enough not to tolerate what Meyer describes as “knucklehead” behavior? Do the leaders have the courage to walk humbly during an upcoming season of incredibly high expectation and adoration?
Leadership can be studied in a classroom, but it must be walked out in the locker room.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.