Is Clarett a Me guy? Absolutely not, say those close to him. "He can be aloof," says Thorn McDaniels, his coach at Harding High in Warren, Ohio. "But he is a team player."
He was a team player by the time McDaniels finished with him, at any rate. After 16 years as coach at powerhouse McKinley High in Canton, McDaniels left coaching for a few seasons. In 2000 he took the job at Harding, where his best player presented his biggest challenge.
"Here was a kid who'd been a celebrity since he played midget ball," says McDaniels. "Maurice was like an eight-year-old Jim Thorpe. I told him straight up: I'm not getting in the long line of people who tell you how great you are. I'm getting in this real short line of people who will tell you what you're doing wrong."
Clarett was a junior when McDaniels arrived. Early in that first season the star player missed a pregame meal. The coach sat him for two games. Clarett didn't like it, but he didn't quit. "I give him credit," says McDaniels. "He could've rejected the change, but over time he embraced it."
In Clarett, he says, he inherited a triple threat, "a combination of speed, elusiveness and the ability to run you over. I challenged him to be someone who played the game from the shoulders up. He soaked it up."
Ohio State's bread-and-butter play is called Dave. The fullback kicks out, either right or left, the backside guard pulls and the running back tucks in behind those escorts. Under McDaniels, Harding ran the same play. Clarett wasn't used to so much structure once he got the ball. "Instead of us just giving him the ball and saying, 'O.K., Maurice, go be wonderful,' we said, 'Stay between the cheeks' "—by which they meant the inside buns of the fullback and guard.
It took. After graduating early from high school, Clarett participated in spring practice with the Buckeyes. He devoured the offense, mastered pass protections, knew his blitz pickups cold. By mid-August, Clarett had earned the starting job, something unheard of for a true freshman running back at Ohio State.
"We wouldn't have him in there if he wasn't the best guy," says Tressel. "He's not just a great player, he's a great listener."
Clarett had no choice but to listen last Saturday at the postgame press conference, which his coach seemed intent on transforming into An Evening at the Improv. A sampler of Tressel's Ohio wit:
To the reporter who observed that Clarett doesn't like to talk about himself: "You've never met him."