He was late leaving the field, cutting a giddy, serpentine path through students who celebrated in the twilight. Sweet adulation rained down from the seats of Ohio Stadium as flashbulbs popped and lights reflected off the silver handrails that ring the upper tier of this wonderful, ancient Horseshoe. John Cooper, a football coach for 33 of his 58 years, sprinted from midfield toward the southeast corner of the stadium. A deep "Cooooooo" swelled as he crossed the end zone, and in the concrete tower above him, Ohio State's Victory Bell began tolling in homage to a 45-26 win over Notre Dame last Saturday afternoon. Cooper snatched the red baseball cap from his head and, as he exited the field, flung it deep into the seats.
He ran directly into the belly of the stadium, stood before his players and told them, "You'll remember this game for the rest of your lives. You're the first Ohio State team to beat Notre Dame." This was in keeping with the theme of the week in Columbus, which was that by winning, Ohio State would at long last get revenge for being swept by the Irish in an epic two-game series between the schools in 1935 and '36. Astonishingly, the two teams haven't played since.
But in the here and now, the triumph was much more than that. It restored the No. 5 Buckeyes to a place among the college football elite (4-0 without a gimme) and pointed them toward the Big Ten title, their first Rose Bowl berth in 11 years and possibly even a national championship. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is now 3-2 and firmly relegated to the ranks of the rebuilding. Not even the presence of Lou Holtz on the sideline, 18 days after spinal surgery, could change that.
But for the Buckeyes the significance of the win could not be measured solely by their standing in the polls. Only a survivor could know the joy that Cooper felt as he ran off the field after the game. He has twisted in the winds of expectation for seven autumns in Columbus, his continued employment the subject of almost daily speculation. In late August, Cooper signed a five-year contract given to him by Ohio State president Gordon Gee, but even that came tethered to a caveat. "Frankly I'm not in favor of long-term contracts," Gee said last week. "I don't have a contract. But there is something to be said for commitment."
Gee also said that he would love to see the Buckeyes play Notre Dame every year, while Cooper said that he would like to play "Auburn's nonleague schedule." Particularly the Tennessee- Chattanooga part. Gee and Cooper are not exactly June and Ward Cleaver, but they make it work.
What made the Ohio State victory even better was that Cooper is not the Buckeyes' lone survivor. His three most dangerous offensive players have also struggled and emerged better for their ordeals. They are Bobby Hoying, a mature, efficient fifth-year senior quarterback, once chased from this very same field in a hail of boos; Eddie George, a forceful senior running back who waited two years for a chance to play; and Terry Glenn, a breathtakingly swift wide receiver who was orphaned at the age of 13 and overwhelmed by his loss, but who is now an adult, mature off the field, lethal on it. They are here through determination, not through birthright. Together they crushed Notre Dame in the second half, turning three Fighting Irish mistakes into three touchdowns and reversing the course of the game.
Hoying: 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rickey Dudley.
With Notre Dame leading 20-14, Irish returner Emmett Mosley fumbled a Buckeye punt, and Dean Kreuzer recovered for Ohio State at the Irish 19. Three plays later Hoying found Dudley for the touchdown that gave the Buckeyes their first lead and Hoying the third of his four TD passes.
Hoying finished the day with 272 yards and no interceptions, but what is most telling is that he shook loose from a jumpy start and completed 10 of his last 14 passes. Two years ago, as a third-year sophomore, Hoying won the starting job but at times was a nervous and uncertain quarterback. His low point came in the sixth game of the 1994 season, when he was booed lustily in a 24-10 home loss to Illinois. "Booed off the field," said Bobby's father, Vern, last Saturday. In 25 games as the starter before this season, Bobby had 27 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.
This fall he has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, improvement that can be traced to the chalkboard and to his head. On the field, new quarterback coach Walt Harris has altered the Ohio State offense to provide Hoying with multiple options on each play. "There's always a layoff. You can always complete a pass for a few yards," Hoying says. Emotionally Hoying has mixed some healthy cynicism with his joy. "When you win here, like now, everybody tells you you're great. First time you falter, they cut you down. I'm just stepping away from all of that."