Frank Solich has a rule. He vowed he would never break it. No matter what, he told himself, he would never take a head coaching job at a school that didn't have a conveniently located airport.
He broke the rule. And not just a little bit, either. Ohio University, where Solich took the head coaching job seven years ago, is more than an hour from the nearest airport. How remote is it? So remote that West Virginia is closer than the Columbus airport. So remote that you have to drive through a national forest to get from Athens to your flight.
"We don't have a major airport nearby," Solich says. "We don't have a large population. We're kind of isolated. Those things are concerning."
Not concerning enough, apparently. Ohio U. is now the hottest football team in the Buckeye State. Sorry Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland (and Oxford, Akron, Bowling Green and Toledo). The Bobcats had at least as many wins last year (10) as any other Division I team in the state. That hasn't happened since 1968. And it's likely to happen again, as Ohio is the only unbeaten MAC team, having already beaten Penn State on the road. The Bobcats are favored to win the rest of their games, and although you shouldn't expect them to get consideration for a BCS bowl, you should expect them to be a topic in the wearying December debates about who "deserves" what bowl.
"We can be kind of like a Boise State," says senior quarterback Tyler Tettleton. "We're still not at a top level but we can be recognized across the country."
Oldest? Yes. Most competitive? Hardly. But recent years, that old, lopsided rivalry dominated by USC has taken on a new level of intensity as Stanford has journeyed from doormat to conference power.
USC leads the series 59-28-3, a tide that couldn't be turned in the Cardinal way by the likes of Bill Walsh (1-4 vs. USC), John Ralston (2-7) or even Pop Warner (2-5-10), who lost his last five to the Trojans by a combined score of 90-12.
But on Oct. 6, 2007, the tide finally turned. That's when 41-point underdog Stanford, led by coach Jim Harbaugh, stunned Pete Carroll's USC squad 24-23. Two years later, No. 25 Stanford blew out the Trojans in the infamous "What's your deal?" game. It was the worst home loss for USC since 1966.
Stanford would win again in 2010 and '11, making it four of five in favor of the Cardinal, a run Stanford hasn't seen since the 1930s. [Watch John Elway and Doug Flutie's Journey to Comfort]
That has to eat at USC, especially Heisman frontrunner Matt Barkley, who is 0-3 against the Cardinal.
USC, ranked second in the latest poll, will be favored on Saturday against the 21st-ranked Cardinal. But recent results show that may not matter, not anymore.
Nebraska's trash was Ohio's treasure. Solich was perfect for a program that needed to set itself apart from the too-many-to-name D-I competitors in the state. Forget about challenging OSU, how about competing against Kent State?
"We have not had a strong winning history," acknowledges athletic director Jim Schaus. "At some point you have to develop a vision. You need the right leadership. He knows what a successful program looks like."
And what a successful quarterback looks like. Solich had one in Eric Crouch, and although Tettleton is much more traditional in style, the winning knack is the same.
Tettleton has dealt with his own Big 12 snub. He grew up a huge Oklahoma State fan and got serious interest from the Cowboys until he tore his ACL as a junior in high school. Every single D-I offer vanished – eight to 10 schools, he says – and the son of former big-league slugger Mickey Tettleton was left with a lone offer from Northern Iowa. Then Ohio reached out at the last minute and Tettleton de-committed to go to Athens.
"I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong," Tettleton says. "I'm not saying anything's wrong with Ohio. I just felt like I wanted to prove something to all those people that dropped me."
So the spurned coach and the spurned quarterback went on the warpath together. Ohio won its first-ever bowl game last December, the Famous Potato Bowl in (of all places) Boise. This season the Bobcats have outscored opponents 51-10 in the second half and Tettleton has thrown for 599 yards and six touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. Penn State looked like it might have had its opening game in hand at halftime, but Ohio did all the scoring after the break to stun the Nittany Lions. Clearly some of the resilience of both Solich and Tettleton has shown up on the field.
"We're two tough people," Tettleton says. "Competitive guys, all about winning."
That might be the best parallel between Ohio and Boise State (besides the remote location). It's way too soon to compare the two programs on the field, as Boise has done nothing but win under Chris Peterson for many years now, but in both cases you've had a no-nonsense head coach paired with an undersized quarterback (both are 6-feet tall) who makes precious few errors against supposedly better teams. Kellen Moore was never going to be Dan Marino, but it's hard to bench a guy who keeps the offense on the field. Tettleton hasn't thrown an interception in nearly 100 attempts, going back to last season.
"Getting done what Boise got done requires a lot of things to go right," says Solich. "You need to win at a tremendously high level. Win your conference. Continue to go to bowl games and win bowl games. I'm not a guy that tries to look that far down the road. I want to do everything right, right now. Then another step will be ahead of you."
There are suddenly several steps in view. Solich has kept his staff mostly intact. His reluctance to eye bigger jobs (he's 68) gives recruiting major ballast. The school is building a $12.5 million indoor complex. And Solich will be the first to tell you about a new highway bypass that will make the trip to the airport a little less arduous.
There will be no international airport in Athens anytime soon. But if the Bobcats keep winning, coming to play in Southeast Ohio will be less about how you're getting there and more about where you're going.
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