COLUMBUS, Ohio — Spring football practice began Wednesday as Ohio State’s basketball team prepared for its second trip to the Final Four in the last six years.
Perfect symmetry there.
The basketball team is usually playing in the shadow of goal posts on the Ohio State campus, where fans love to pack the football stadium and watch the band spell out “Ohio” in script at halftime. Football is the overriding talk of the town, even when it involves the program’s recent scandals.
In the last few months, the city has been consumed by the hiring of Urban Meyer to resurrect a program that’s banned from bowl eligibility for 2012.
All-America forward Jared Sullinger knows that even during March, most Ohio State fans would rather talk about TDs than 3s.
“We’re never going to beat coach Urban Meyer,” Sullinger said. “He brought the most buzz to Columbus, Ohio, in a long time.”
Lately, the basketball team is generating a little of its own.
The Buckeyes will play Kansas in the national semifinals on Saturday night. They won their only national basketball title in 1960, part of a run of three straight trips to the title game.
For at least one week, hoops is grabbing its share of the attention around town, even though Buckeye sports websites still count down the number of days until the annual football game against Michigan.
“The buzz we brought, being known not only as a football school but as a basketball school, is great,” Sullinger said. “But at the same time, we don’t want the train to stop at this particular moment. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
The Final Four timing is perfect for a school still recovering from last fall.
The football program brought the school notoriety last season. Coach Jim Tressel was forced out in May for lying about his players breaking NCAA rules. The team went 6-7 and dropped its last four games, including a loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl. The program was banned from a bowl in 2012.
It was only the football team’s second losing season since 1988. Meyer was hired in November, overshadowing the start of basketball season on campus.
No surprise. Even when the Buckeyes were on top of college basketball in the early 1960s, the basketball team still took a seat in the second row.
“Maybe during our period we elevated it a little bit, but I think everybody knows the case is that football is predominant there,” former Buckeye basketball star Jerry Lucas said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Lucas, a member of the Ohio State teams that won the national championship in 1960 and lost to Cincinnati in the 1961 and 1962 title games, thinks football has never loosened its grip on the campus.
“Obviously, there’s a lot more interest at Duke in basketball,” Lucas said. “Football at Duke hasn’t been very successful. I think it’s the fact that historically Ohio State has been very successful in football. Basketball is kind of a Johnny-come-lately.”
It’s a fact that every basketball coach has to accept.
“I’ve always felt we could have the best of both at Ohio State,” coach Thad Matta said. “I know with all the trials and tribulations that have gone on with football over the past year, I’m elated for the university probably most importantly that we’ve got some great things happening. With coach Meyer coming in, things are really stepping up in that regard.
“For (basketball), over the course of the last few years, this program has identified itself. I’ve always said this: There is no greater feeling than being on the field when 105,000 people are cheering for the Buckeyes to come out and you’ve got a couple recruits with you.
“That is the ultimate right there.”
Matta has returned the basketball program to national prominence. The Buckeyes hadn’t reached the Final Four since 1999 when he took over. He led them to the Final Four in 2007, when they beat Georgetown before losing the title game to Florida.
Reaching another Final Four should help the program get a little bit more of its own identity.
“It kind of puts a spotlight on the program because we’re the last four teams playing in the NCAA tournament,” Sullinger said. “I know recruits want to win. That was the biggest thing for me.
“For fans, hopefully people don’t say we’re a football school — just a football school. Now they can switch that and say we’re a basketball school and a football school.”
Could Ohio State be known just as much for basketball as football?
“I probably doubt that will happen,” Sullinger said.