Nelson's fellow headhunter, Wilkinson, had seen plenty of snow in his native Dayton—and plenty of food. When Cooper offered him a scholarship in 1991, they made a deal: If Big Daddy reported for summer camp under 310 pounds, he could play as a freshman. Wilkinson reported at 348 and had to spend the season as a redshirt, taking his meals at the Buckeyes' Fat Man's Table.
Redshirting Wilkinson, says Cooper now, was a mistake: "You and I both know he's not going to be around here for two more years." Wilkinson has been called the best defensive lineman in college and is projected as a first-round pick should he come out early for the NFL draft. "I'm thinking about it," he says.
"He weighs 300 and has the feet of a dancer," says Young. Body by Frigidaire, feet by Fred Astaire. Teams run away from him. "It's frustrating, watching all those rollouts away from me," he said after Saturday's game. Wilkinson's five tackles against Northwestern were not an accurate measure of the mayhem he created in the Wildcats' backfield, harassing runners and pressuring quarterback Len Williams into numerous ugly throws.
Williams tossed four interceptions, all of which led to Buckeye touchdowns. Wildcat wideout Lee Gissendaner, the 1992 Big Ten Player of the Year, was not a factor in the game, which was decided by halftime. After wins over Boston College and Wake Forest, said Northwestern coach Gary Barnett, "we got a good, solid dose of reality, right between the eyes."
Downplaying his team's fast start, Cooper said, "Humility is always a week away." As he well knows. A year ago the Buckeyes were 3-0 when they embarked on the trip from hell. "We went up to Wisconsin," says senior guard Dave Monnot. "Our flight got in late. There was a dairy convention in Madison, so we had to stay an hour and a half from the stadium. It was an 11:30 a.m. kickoff for ESPN, so we had to get up at the crack of dawn. Coming off the field after warmups, they pelted us with marshmallows. Better than being pelted with cheese wheels, I guess."
The fired-up Badgers won 20-16. This year's team has vowed to avoid such letdowns, and it is by far the most talented of the Cooper era. Certainly the defense, which has yet to yield a rushing touchdown, is special. A debating topic among Buckeye fans is whether this is the best Ohio State defense since the '84 unit, which featured Chris Spielman and Pepper Johnson, or since the '73 defense of Bob Brudzinski and Randy Gradishar.
However this squad stacks up against those, Cooper's most lasting legacy in Columbus may be that he has lightened the burden for his successors. Some think he has done the unthinkable: lowered the expectations of Buckeye fans, who were spoiled by eight Rose Bowl appearances and three national titles under Hayes. "Earle Bruce had six 9-3 seasons and got fired," says Bruce Hooley of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Last year Cooper went 8-3-1, and people were ecstatic."
Not entirely in agreement is Bruce himself, who now hosts a radio sports-talk show in Columbus. "The people in this town will never be satisfied with anything but winning," he says. "Ohio State is just not a good place for coaches. You've got to be fired, retired or dead—then they'll say you were pretty good."
On the Wall of Champions in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, plaques commemorate the Ohio State teams that won Big Ten titles and national championships. After the plaque for the '86 squad, which shared the conference title with Michigan, there's nothing but empty wall. Lowered expectations or not, if this team doesn't end up in Pasadena, those "Cooops!" could become boos.
"I can't worry about that," says Cooper. "Life's too short to go home with a headache every night."