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Down in the southeast section of the state, well beyond the point where the slick four-lane throughways peter out—down past Carroll and Lancaster and Logan and Nelsonville—lies Athens, Ohio. It nests in gentle lumpy foothills along the Hocking River, and there the nostalgic sense of a simpler, purer, nicer America is almost too much to bear. In Athens, instead of factory smokestacks, a dozen church steeples rise in stern and insistent silhouette against the sky, and the town's main street is dominated by a splendidly grotesque Victorian courthouse which boasts, of course, a worn and slightly askew white statue of Justice on the roof. Lots of people in Athens still eat "dinner" at noon and "supper" at night, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway rattles through with the unforgettable sound of endless freight trains that stimulate forever wistful dreams of faraway travel in the mind of every Midwestern boy grown old.
There exists amid this serenity a school that is in keeping with its surroundings: Ohio University, an authentic piece of mid-Americana. It was chartered in 1804 as the first seat of higher learning west of the Alleghenies. Properly enough, it was at one time headed by none other than William Holmes McGuffey, creator of the famed Readers that led 19th century America to literacy. The school's architecture is generally stolid Georgian, and its campus is Ohio-homey, but there is a football team there that does not fit the scene. It is a frantic, exasperating, totally unstuffy kind of team that last Saturday kept its season undefeated when it beat Cincinnati by the placid, routine score of—ho-hum—60-48.
As is the case with the school itself, the Ohio football team struggles within the shadow of mighty, booming, big-time Ohio State, which is just 75 miles up the road in Columbus. Ohio State has an enrollment which is three times as large, a stadium that is five times as large, and a trophy collection immeasurably larger than Ohio University's. What it does not have, however, is a 1968 football record any better than the 9-0 mark of Ohio's Bobcats.
Indeed, Ohio State must beat Michigan next week to win the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip, while Ohio University has sewed up the championship of its tidy little Mid-American Conference plus a trip to the Tangerine Bowl. And while Ohio State is somewhat routinely enjoying its high rating for the umpteenth time, Ohio University has crashed into the top 20 for the first time ever, a memorable accomplishment that ranks with a first kiss or a first marriage.
Now, to keep things in perspective, let's be clear about one point: although some people fondly call it Harvard-on-the-Hocking, Ohio University has no overt pretensions toward going all-out big-time. It is true that the university, under the dynamic hard-sell aegis of President Vernon Alden, a former associate dean of the Harvard Business School, has increased its enrollment from 8,500 to 17,500 since 1962, and has spent $54 million for new residence halls and academic buildings. It is also true that the mod-in-moderation dress of Ohio students, plus their casual attitude toward four-letter words in the campus newspaper, their enthusiastic attendance of dormitory "teas" that feature 3.2 beer as the main drink and their general high-spirited interest in football games would indicate a fairly cosmopolitan balance of interests. But Athens is a long way from Berkeley or Cambridge. As Ohio's head football coach, Bill Hess, puts it: "One of our chief recruiting pitches—parents particularly like it a lot—is that in Athens a student comes in contact almost exclusively with college kids. There are no bad city influences here, it's a healthy life all round."
Unhappily, such "city influence" as large crowds is also missing, and Ohio has trouble attracting major schools to a home-and-home schedule. Still, President Alden, a pragmatic perfectionist who has tried to push an "excellence-in-everything" approach at Ohio, has insisted on a classier football schedule for the future. In the next few years the Bobcats will be taking on such relatively overweight opposition as Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue, Kentucky—all away. "Dr. Alden wants us to compete with the same schools athletically as we do academically, even if they can't afford to play in Athens," says Athletic Director Bill Rohr. "So we've got a much tougher schedule of nonconference schools. Much tougher."
The conference itself—the Mid-American—is fairly tough competition, but is in an odd sort of limbo. All seven members (Toledo, Bowling Green, Miami of Ohio, Marshall, Western Michigan, Kent State and Ohio) are rated in the major-college category by the NCAA, but their self-imposed league limits on football grants-in-aid are so rigid that none has hopes of being a consistent contender for either top ratings or major bowl bids. "Our first strings are good enough, but we fall way short when it comes to depth," says Bill Hess.
He should know, for his 11 years at Ohio make him the coaching dean of the MAC, and no one has had consistently better teams. A protégé of Woody Hayes in the '50s (indeed, a near look-alike with his vastly rotund middle, his mincing way of walking, his short-sleeved shirt and baseball cap at practice), Hess has won four MAC titles and has never had a losing season at Ohio University—except for one disaster in 1965. That was so bad people in Athens date major events from it: "Oh, yes, our house burned down the year Ohio was 0-and-10." Hess himself still seems a little shocked by it. "It was like going bankrupt," he sighs. "I'd had it so good for so long, then everything was gone. I had to start over from scratch."
Hess crawled back from catastrophe by redoubling his recruiting efforts and installing a rugged winter conditioning program. In 1966 his team was 5-5, in '67 it was 6-4 and now he has made a total comeback with the finest squad he has had at Ohio. By late last week Athens townspeople figured they might start dating pleasant events by 1968—if only their team could beat Cincinnati. Although Ohio had survived a couple of tight escapes this year—such as a week ago, when it needed two touchdowns in the final four minutes to beat Bowling Green 28-27—nothing has compared with Saturday's insane circus in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati quarterback, Greg Cook, was no surprise to anyone. A big (6'4", 204 pounds), rugged fellow, he has developed so well in his senior year that he is one of the pro scouts' top quarterback draft choices. He is a stand-up, pocket passer with remarkable poise and a finely tuned arm that can snap a blindingly fast pass to the flat or, with almost the same motion, launch a horrendous, arching missile 65 yards.
Against Ohio University, Cook did all of this, hitting backs, ends and an occasional water boy for an astonishing total of 554 yards. He completed 35 of 56 for four touchdowns, and broke all manner of records while taking over as the nation's No. 1 total offense performer with 2,831 yards in nine games. His favorite target and the most talented receiver on the field was Split End Jim O'Brien, who caught nine passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Also an excellent placekicker, O'Brien wound up the afternoon with 24 points and 131 for the season as he became the nation's top scorer. With such offensive talent, it is hard to believe that Cincinnati is just 4-4-1 for the season—until one sees the defense.