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Between 1960 and 1976 Ohio State traveled from the heights to the depths of college basketball. From No. 1 in the country to last in the Big Ten. From cheering, capacity crowds at St. John Arena to disappointment and disinterest among students and alumni. But this season, under intense, demanding second-year Coach Eldon Miller, OSU is again on the rise. Thanks largely to the best bunch of freshman players in the country, the Buckeyes are off to a 3-1 start, and the crowds in the arena are SRO and happy once again. The more nostalgic Ohio State followers are even comparing the quality of the talent and the degree of interest to the glory days of the early '60s, when the Buckeyes went to the NCAA final three straight seasons.
The man who took them there, Fred Taylor, has had nothing to do with this revival. Indeed, he prefers to stay away from the arena. Taylor, who in the early '60s was considered the college coach with the rosiest future, retired two years ago and now works for Ohio State's physical education and intramural athletics departments. His resignation was not caused by age—Taylor was 51 when he quit—or ill health or excessive alumni pressure. He was done in by the changing currents of the game itself—not by the Xs and Os of coaching, but the nature of modern-day recruiting. Taylor abhorred both the direction and speed of the recruiting merry-go-round, and so, with regret, he jumped off after the '76 season. He harbors no ill will toward Miller, but he is resentful of former Athletic Director Ed Weaver who, he feels, never gave him proper support.
Although Bobby Knight of Indiana, Lefty Driesell of Maryland and Gale Catlett of Cincinnati all showed interest in succeeding Taylor, the school ultimately chose the little-known Miller, who is 38. Born and raised on a small farm in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, he became a star guard at Wittenberg University and a successful coach at his alma mater and Western Michigan. Immediately after his Ohio State appointment was announced. Miller hurried across the street from a motel news conference to St. John Arena and began scouting the talent at the state high school tournament. He was not about to waste any time. To a lot of Ohio State basketball fans, that was evidence enough that things had changed.
The best of Miller's first year's three recruits was Guard Kelvin Ransey of Toledo, whose initial lack of interest in Ohio State showed just how much prestige the Buckeyes had lost. "I had never wanted to play here, because I knew the football team was great and the basketball team wasn't." he says. But after Miller convinced him that things soon would be different, Ransey changed his mind, enrolled at Columbus and set a school scoring record for varsity freshmen, with 327 points and a 13.1 average. Nevertheless, Ohio State finished last in the Big Ten for the second straight year.
Obviously, the Buckeyes would need more talent, and Miller and his staff set about getting it. Unlike Taylor, who hesitated to recruit outside of Ohio and to take full advantage of the prestige of such former players as John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas and the help of the world's largest alumni association, Miller enlisted support wherever he could find it. No detail was overlooked. Grads were asked to write letters, make telephone calls and chat with recruits while they were laying over at airports en route to visiting Columbus. Meanwhile, the coaches were corresponding with 500 prospects across the U.S., scouting 100 of them in games, visiting with 75 and inviting 17 to come to the OSU campus. As a result, Ohio State signed six freshmen this year, all of them blue-chippers.
The Buckeyes won out over some stiff competition for those recruits. The prize catch, 6'11" Center Herb Williams, Ohio's Class AAA Player of the Year, also considered Michigan, UCLA and Maryland. When Williams agreed to enroll at Ohio State, the usually unflappable Miller got so excited that he told his secretary to take the rest of the day off. No wonder. Four games into his freshman season, Williams is the Buckeyes' leading scorer (23.5 points per game) and rebounder (14.8), while two other All-Ohio freshmen, Forward Jim Smith and Guard Carter Scott, are also in the starting lineup. The other newcomers are Guard Todd Penn, whose high school team won two of the last three Ohio AAA championships; Guard Marquis Miller, the state's Class AA Player of the Year; and Guard Ken Page, an All-America from New York City. Next spring Miller hopes to land two big frontcourt players. Few of his rivals doubt that he will.
The talent bonanza paid off even before the season began by generating so much enthusiasm that a record 5,500 season tickets were sold. All three of the Buckeye home games have been sellouts, compared to one full house all last year and two in Taylor's final season.
To some Ohioans, it is not enough to call this the best freshman class in the country or to point to the good start as an omen for seasons ahead. They prefer praise of a higher order, declaring this year's crop "the best since Lucas, Havlicek and Mel Nowell," who played in the NCAA finals in 1960, '61 and '62. Perhaps the best indication of how far Ohio State's fortunes had fallen and how fast Miller is reviving them is the fact that those three were recruited about the same year the current freshmen were born.
Among the newcomers, Williams has been the subject of special praise, particularly from Dr. Robert Murphy, who has ministered to the Buckeyes for a quarter century. "He dominates both ends of the floor like no one I've seen since Jerry Lucas," says Murphy. Nowell, now a Columbus businessman and one of the team's color commentators on radio, adds, "These kids are receiving the same kind of fan appreciation we did. I see what happened to us happening all over again to them."
The highest tribute may have come from Stetson Coach Glenn Wilkes after his Hatters lost 108-71 to the Buckeyes last week. Not only was it Ohio State's third straight victory, giving the team its best start in six years, but the Buckeye score was the highest since 1973. "You add another good recruiting year, and they certainly are potential national champions," Wilkes said.