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Tie score, 10 seconds left, national championship game. Alabama, which has dominated all year with its defense, rushes five against Tyler Tettleton, a 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt junior quarterback at Ohio. No, no, no—not Ohio State. Ohio University, the Bobcats, whom Tettleton embodies perfectly: undersized, underestimated and unheralded. As the final play unfolds, a tide of crimson rises through the stands of Sun Life Stadium, swamping the tiny outcropping of green-clad Ohio fans. Tettleton ignores the din, ignores Jesse Williams, the 6'4", 320-pound nosetackle bearing down on him, and zips a pass that travels 50 yards. All the electricity in the stadium seems to animate the ball as it descends toward the receiver, Landon Smith, who makes the catch and glides into the end zone. Ohio has won the national championship! Tettleton whoops in celebration, and in the excitement his best friend, Dakota, jumps on him and licks his face.
At this point it may be worthwhile to point out that Dakota is a Siberian husky, and that after Tettleton scratches the dog's head and neck, he drops the Xbox remote on the floor and turns off the TV. He kicks back on a threadbare couch in the basement of the five-bedroom house in Athens he rents with four other guys for $564 each a month. He and his buddies recently turned the garage into a party room in which his teammates often gather to watch national powers play in prime time. "We'd love a shot at a team like Alabama," Tettleton says. "That's why I came to Ohio, to play and beat BCS schools."
Pardon? Isn't Tettleton aware that in their 118 years the Bobcats have a losing record (522-525-48)? That they last won the Mid-American Conference championship in 1968, and between '69 and 2009 went to a single bowl game (the '07 GMAC Bowl)? From 1983 through 2008—Tettleton's senior year in high school—Ohio had 92 victories, or 3.5 per year, and just three winning seasons. Sure he is, but in the age of Twitter, where history is something posted a week ago, that's irrelevant. All that matters to Tettleton is that since he arrived in Athens three seasons ago, Ohio has won 27 games and gone to three straight bowls.
Suddenly the Bobcats look like Boise State circa 2003, a mid-major demanding attention from the big boys—and without the benefit of a blue field or an occasional Wednesday night date with ESPN. Their season-opening 24--14 win over depleted Penn State was a program changer, and last Saturday at Peden Stadium they dispatched Buffalo 38--31 to move to 6--0. With a remaining schedule that doesn't include one opponent with a winning record from 2011, Ohio will be favored to run the table and take the MAC title. Come December the Bobcats could well have the résumé to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game.
The man behind the program's ascent is sitting in his immaculate office on the fifth floor at Peden. At 5'8" and a lean 180 pounds, 68-year-old Frank Solich looks as if he hasn't aged more than a month since he was fired as Nebraska's coach in November 2003. Solich is measured with his words but when he talks about his program, he can't suppress a grin. "It's kind of remarkable how far we've come," he says.
For Solich, it has been a journey from a life in Lincoln, where more than a dozen beat reporters scrutinized his every move, to a town in which more student journalists than salaried pens cover the team. Despite Solich's 58--19 record over six years at Nebraska, athletic director Steve Pederson dismissed him. Solich was the epitome of Cornhuskers football: A fullback in the mid-1960s, he was the first Husker to appear on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Then he coached 19 years under Tom Osborne before becoming Osborne's handpicked successor.
"It's still hard for me to understand how that ever happened to Frank," says Osborne, who replaced Pederson as AD in 2007 and last month announced that he'll retire on Jan. 1. "He is a detailed, organized coach and a great recruiter. He got us Eric Crouch, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar, and the list goes on and on. I know that time was very, very hard on Frank."
When Solich is asked about how his career ended in Lincoln, he remembers the bad defeats in 2003—a 41--24 loss to Missouri, a 38--9 loss to Kansas State—and how Pederson stopped coming to the locker room after games. His voice grows soft when he recalls his day of reckoning with Pederson. "I was shocked," he says.
After turning down an offer from Army, Solich spent the 2004 season traveling the country, meeting with coaches at Oklahoma, Texas and USC, learning new concepts. Slowly the hurt from losing his dream job faded, and late that fall he began telling friends he was ready to return to the sideline at a school that met two criteria: It had to be close to an airport and near a large population center.
Those two ingredients flashed through Solich's mind in December 2004, when Ohio inquired about his interest: Athens had neither of them. And the Bobcats, unlike the Huskers, had no pantheon of pros, no multimillion-dollar budget and no success to speak of. But President Roderick McDavis had fired Brian Knorr, who went 11--35 between 2001 and '04, and Solich was curious. He had spent his teenage years in Cleveland, and the notion of building a program—brick by brick, player by player—was appealing simply because it wasn't Nebraska. He wanted, perhaps even needed, something different.