Florida Joins the Ohio Pantheon of Villains
For the second time in three months, the University of Florida has dashed the national title hopes of my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. Just weeks after the Gators demolished a heavily-favored Ohio State team 41-14 in the BCS football championship game in Glendale, Arizona, Florida's hoops squad controlled the Bucks from start to finish in Monday's NCAA basketball title contest.
For inflicting this double-dose of pain, anguish and humiliation, Florida joins the Ohio pantheon of sports villains.
The Gators have a lot of company, topped of course by the University of Michigan. It's not just that the Buckeyes and Wolverines have competed for over 100 years in the fiercest rivalry in college football. In a little over a generation, that "team up north" cost Ohio State fans multiple undefeated seasons and national titles. In 1969, the late Bo Schembechler's team shocked the #1 Buckeyes 24-12 in Ann Arbor, ruining the season for what Coach Woody Hayes called his best team ever. In the 1990's, the Wolverines eviscerated three undefeated Ohio State seasons in four years (28-0 in 1993; 31-23 in 1995 and 13-9 in 1996). The last was the most painful, depriving the #2 Bucks of a national title ultimately won by - gasp - the Florida Gators.
Even when Michigan wasn't bringing me heartbreak, its nearby neighbor in East Lansing was. In 1974, the Michigan State Spartans rallied from a 13-3 second half deficit to stun undefeated and #1 Ohio State. Even more painful, in 1998 the Spartans beat Ohio State's best team in a generation 28-24, almost impossibly climbing back from 15 points down in the third quarter. Adding insult to injury, that agony came in Columbus and cost the Buckeyes yet another national championship.
In the 1970's, California schools figured prominently in the nightmares of Ohioans. Three times in that decade, USC beat the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl. The 1973 game saw Trojan fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham tally six touchdowns in a 42-17 rout. While OSU got revenge on New Year's 1974 with a 42-21 thrashing of USC, a year later Lynn Swann's two-point conversion in the final seconds gave the men of Troy an 18-17 win. Worse still, Charles White and the Trojans ruined another undefeated title season for Ohio State with a 17-16 win in the 1980 game.
During the seventies, UCLA and Stanford also got in the act of dashing the hopes and dreams of OSU fans. In the 1971 Rose Bowl, Stanford's Jim Plunkett and Randy Vataha torched the Buckeyes in a 27-17 upset that destroyed what could have been a perfect title campaign. Even more devastating, UCLA shut down Ohio State 23-10 in the 1976 Rose Bowl, defeating a Buckeye team that had crushed the Bruins by three touchdowns earlier that same season.
No list of Ohio sports tormenters, of course, would be complete without John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Three times in the 1980's, my Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos faced off in the AFC title game to earn a spot in the Super Bowl. The Broncos won all three. In the 1986 season playoffs, the Broncos won 23-20 in overtime in Cleveland after Elway led Denver on "The Drive," a 98-yard, five minute march that tied the game in its waning seconds. One year later, the Broncos prevailed 38-33 in "The Fumble" game, when the Browns' Earnest Byner was stripped of the ball at the Denver 1-yard line just as the tying touchdown was within reach. In comparison to those two years of heartbreak and anguish, the 37-21 Broncos rout to cap the Browns' 1989 season seemed like a mercy killing.
For Browns fans, the Broncos are not alone in occupying a particularly warm seat in Dante's inner circle. Since the days of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann (yes, that Lynn Swann), the Pittsburgh Steelers have represented evil incarnate for Cleveland fans. Sadly (or comically, if you're from Pittsburgh), the rivalry has been completely one-sided in recent years. But for sheer animus, the Cleveland may now feel even more seething hatred for Baltimore, to which arch-villain owner Art Modell in 1996 relocated the Browns. While the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, Cleveland fans have gone without a title since 1964. The reincarnated Browns, who rejoined the NFL in 1999, don't look on a course to end that misery any time soon.
In the Ohio sports hall of shame, there are other minor figures. In the 1990's, the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins robbed my Cleveland Indians of their first baseball World Series crown since 1948. Willie Mays' acrobatic, over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 Series led to a New York Giants sweep of an Indians squad that had enjoyed a best-ever record of 114-43. And Michael Jordan's buzzer beater over Craig Ehlo in 1989 deflated the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending probably their best NBA title shot since joining the league in 1970.
But for today, it is the University of Florida which is my sworn enemy. Chris Leak, Percy Harvin and Brandon Siler. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. I won't soon forget how thoroughly the Gators dominated my Buckeyes twice in twelve weeks and denied me the joy of two NCAA titles. No, I will not forget the Gator Chomp.
Not, at least, until Ohio State and Michigan play again.