Perhaps the most interesting personality on either team is Ohio State receiver Anthony Gonzalez, a philosophy major who earlier this week said college athletes were the most exploited group of people in the United States.
(For the record, Gonzalez loves the game and thinks that compensating players fairly “would probably sink the idea of college football.”)
Gonzalez this week has said that referring to his school as THE Ohio State University was silly, that his favorite philosopher was Plato and that in 10 to 15 years he wants to be finishing law school. Eventually he plans on becoming a judge or, maybe, a U.S. senator.
He and center Doug Datish – an interesting cat himself who earlier this week dropped the phrase “plausible deniability” and said he recently finished a book on Islamic fascism – often sit around and discuss philosophy. Of course, there’s nothing odd about a couple of hulking future NFL players discussing Socrates and Aristotle.
Oh, and one more thing.
Gonzalez sleeps in a 288-cubic foot hyperbaric chamber that he brought with him to the Valley and set up in his hotel room. The worst thing about the bubble is the amount of room it takes up in his apartment.
Former Buckeye and current Packer linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was turned on to the hyperbaric way of life by Gonzalez, circumvented that problem by enclosing an entire room in his new home.
“Talk about exploitation,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve done more free advertising for them than anyone in the history of the world. It’d be nice if some day they offered to do a whole room for me.
“I’m not holding my breath though.”
JEROME BETTIS, EAT YOUR HEART OUT
A record screeches to a halt, telephones stop ringing and crickets begin chirping when 300-pound Florida defensive tackle Joe Cohen tries to convince strangers that he played running back in high school.
“Nobody believes me. People on my team don’t even believe me. They don’t believe I ran track either,” he said. “I guess I’ve put on a few pounds here and there, like 50 or 60.”
Cohen weighed 240 pounds and ran an 11.3-second 100-meter dash (fast, but not that fast) when he was in high school.
All that mass and acceleration wasn’t enough to protect him from high school and college teammate Reggie Nelson, then only 150 pounds, standing him up in the hole during a practice at Melbourne’s Palm Bay High.
Still, a defensive tackle that played running back and ran sprints in track? That must be what they mean by SEC speed.
“I guess,” Cohen grinned. “Shoot, I can’t touch 11.3 now.”
NOAH INSISTS ON TWO OF EVERYTHING
A number of very large men began exerting pressure on Florida’s football players in early April.
They weren’t Florida boosters with ties to the mafia, just members of the Gators’ national championship basketball team that didn’t want to be the only athletes to bring a trophy back to campus.
“They made it pretty clear that we should bring one back in football,” sophomore tight end Cornelius Ingram said. “The pressure had definitely turned over on us.”
The pressure intensified when players learned that no school has ever won football and basketball titles in the same year. Texas had a decent shot last March, but Big Baby Glen Davis and Louisiana State stopped the Longhorns short in the regional finals.
If the Longhorns had finished the job, they would have held football, basketball and baseball at the same time. If Ohio State wins on Monday, the pressure will fall on Greg Oden and the sixth-ranked basketball team.
Oden of course will have to contend with Florida’s Joakim Noah and, as they’ve begun saying in Gainesville, guys named Noah tend to like two of everything.
Florida’s basketball win last year had to have been a tad bittersweet for Ingram. He was on the team until midseason when he quit in order to focus on football.
He stays close to his former teammates and was among the first in line to get a look at their new bling.
“I made sure I checked them out. I wanted to see them to be honest,” Ingram said of his friends’ championship rings. “They’re real nice and well-deserved, now we’re just hoping to get ours.”
I’M THE BIG BAD ANIMAL MAN!
Some dads carry laptops and briefcases to work.
Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis’s dad carried a folding chair and a makeup case. Joe Laurinaitis wrestled under the ring name Animal for the WWF’s apparently-legendary Road Warriors.
Some of his signature lines included “I’m the big bad Animal man!” and “It’s time to eat some turkey, because I’m an Animal!”
So what kind of dad was the elder Laurinaitis when he wasn’t wearing a Mohawk, dog collar, shoulder pads and face paint?
“He’s a very loving father,” James insisted.
So loving in fact that despite weighing more than 300 pounds he taught himself to skate in order to coach his son’s youth hockey team. Well, that may actually be a bit of a stretch.
“I don’t know if he officially taught himself,” James said laughing. “He tried really hard, but he never got the stride thing down. He kind of walked on skates.”
RANDOM FACTOID OF THE DAY
Speaking of road warriors, Florida has not played a football game outside a state in which an SEC school resides since losing to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl following the 1995 season!
That’s right. The Gators have not played outside Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina or Tennessee in more than 10 years.
There hasn’t really been any reason for the Gators to venture outside the southeast though. They’ve got the best non-conference opponents money can buy in Miami and Florida State and the SEC’s bowl tie-ins are mostly in SEC country.
Since their last Fiesta Bowl appearance, they’ve played in 10 bowl games – three Outbacks in Tampa, two Citruses in Orlando, two Oranges in Miami, two Sugars in New Orleans and a Peach in Atlanta.
Without natural in-state rivals or regional bowl tie-ins (who’d go to a bowl game in Cleveland?), Ohio State has played outside Big Ten states 16 times since the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
The Buckeyes have played in Arizona four times - three Fiestas and a non-conference visit to Tucson. They’ve also visited Texas, Florida, Louisiana and California twice each and North Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri and New Jersey once each.
THE DUST SETTLES
Michigan and Ohio State combined for 900 yards, two-thirds of which were achieved through the air, in a 42-39 shootout in November.
What ever would Woody “three yards and a cloud of dust” Hayes have thought?
“I think he would have been very happy that we won the game,” receiver Anthony Gonzalez said with a smile. “I think that’s pretty much all he would have cared about.”
CELEBRATION TIME, COME ON!
Junior offensive tackle Kirk Barton found himself in hot water following Ohio State’s win over Michigan when he carried a lit victory cigar into the interview room and told reporters about the expensive bottle of Dom Perignon he had chilled in his locker.
As a result, Barton has kept a low profile this week.
Asked if he enjoyed all the media attention that has come from playing for the national title, he responded, “As long as I don’t say anything stupid or bad.”
He continued, “I like helping you guys do your job, but I don’t want to help you that much!”
Though the self-righteous among the media deemed the celebration over the top, at least one of his teammates felt otherwise.
“I think he should’ve done more,” offensive guard T.J. Downing said. “It’s a celebration. Why not?”
KOBAYASHI WOULD FIT RIGHT IN
During the long layoff from competition, the Buckeyes have kept their competitive juices flowing by taking advantage of their hotel’s massive game room.
Pool, darts, foosball, Xbox; anything where a score can be tallied and a winner can be declared has been fair game.
“I kind of realized yesterday that Joel and I have not played Connect Four,” defensive lineman Quinn Pitcock said of his annual competition with fellow lineman Joel Penton. “I have not played a single game of Connect Four.”
Actually, some of the competitions don’t even require keeping score.
“Whether it’s who can eat the fastest or who can eat the most hot dogs, the competitive streaks come out in everybody,” safety Brandon Mitchell said.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel is known to guard injury information even more fanatically than Patriots coach Bill Belichik.
When a reporter asked Buckeyes cornerback Antonio Smith is he had suffered a shoulder injury on the right or on the left, Smith responded, “the middle” with a smile.
The reporter retorted, “Ugh, you’re so Tressel-ized.”
Who’s in second?
“Gonzo,” he said in reference to tight end Anthony Gonzalez.
By how much?
“One. I’ve got 69. He’s got 68.”
Not every Buckeye takes the sticker collecting so seriously. Offensive lineman Doug Datish doesn’t know how many decals he’s won, just that “it looks cool when the whole thing is filled up.”
Ginn claims that he once picked up 13 of the coveted decals in one game and he has no intentions of surrendering the top spot on Monday. Defensive back Brandon Mitchell, three behind Ginn, promised to give him a run for his money though.
It may seem a tad silly for a man who will probably be a millionaire at this time next year to be motivated by stickers. But Ginn has a rational explanation for his doting on decals.
“I think if I’m competitive in Buckeye stickers then I can make my whole team competitive,” he explained. “If it takes a little thing like a Buckeye sticker to make my players play harder the next game out then, hey, we’re in the national championship.”
Florida linebacker Brandon Siler was asked what he thought of helmet decals.
Should Florida players get gator heads like Ohio State players get buckeyes or, gasp, Florida State players get spears? Make a sack: GATOR HEAD!
Um, probably not.
“We’ve got a lot of tradition around our school and the things we do,” he said. “We don’t need to copy someone else.”
OHIOZONA: WHERE GATORS GO TO DIE
On Saturday, the small West Valley town of Buckeye will host the second-annual “Buckeyes in Buckeye Day” street fair because, believe it or not (I don’t), Buckeye and Ohio go way back.
In 1884, an Ohioan named Malin Jackson named a nearby canal Buckeye and the name stuck. About 120 years later, the town’s welcome sign became a landmark as Ohio State and its fans visited the Valley for bowl games four times in five years.
“I think it’s great to see people get together,” Buckeye resident Rex Doran told the Columbus Dispatch. “But, no, I don’t understand it.”
One local merchant will present, free to anyone with an Ohio driver’s license, a T-shirt that reads: “Ohiozona: Where Gators go to die.”
After last year’s Fiesta Bowl, fans chanted “We own Tempe!” If their team wins on Monday, they’re going to want to rename the state.
THE INNOCENCE OF YOUTH
Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin apparently suffered from no shortage of confidence upon arriving in Gainesville.
After the freshman ran the wrong way on a play during a preseason practice, a coach yelled, “What are you supposed to do on that play?”
According to fellow Gators receiver Dallas Baker, Harvin’s answer was simple.
“Score a touchdown!”
Fox Sports Net will rebroadcast Monday’s national championship game in its entirety at 7 p.m. Jan. 12. Here’s guessing the network is banking on the game to go more like Ohio State’s last championship game appearance in the Valley than Florida’s last visit.
The Buckeye’s 31-24 overtime win over Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl is considered one of the greatest games ever. Florida’s 62-24 loss to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl is not – except in Lincoln.
GATORS, JAVELINAS AND COLLEGE KIDS, OH MY!
Florida players were greeted by a familiar site upon arriving at their hotel this week when a live alligator met them as they disembarked from their buses.
“We got to sit there and take pictures with it and pet it and stuff,” Florida receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. “It was my first time seeing one that big up close.”
Since none of Florida’s players knew where it had come from, the only logical conclusion is that it was the alligator that was supposedly living in an apartment complex in Mesa a few months ago.
After all, the nearest alligators not in captivity in zoos reside along the coastal region of East Texas. Surely, no self-respecting Texan – human or reptile – would sport the Florida jersey adorned by the hotel visitor.
Cornelius estimated the gators’ length at about three to four feet, but defensive back Ryan Smith cast doubt on the claim saying, “It wasn’t that big, just a decent-sized one.”
Some of Ohio State’s players have experienced close encounters with wildlife of the indigenous kind.
Javelinas (wild pigs not to be confused with the razorbacks of the South) dwell in the desert surroundings of the Princess Resort. When Ohio State made its first trip to the Valley five years ago, officials warned players to beware of the wandering beasts.
After four visits in five seasons, they leave the warning of freshmen up to the upperclassmen.
“The first time I saw them I guess I was surprised,” fifth-year senior Doug Datish said. “I didn’t think in this nice resort there’d be pigs running around.”
Speaking of pigs running around resorts, Florida offensive lineman Steve Rissler said that one of the best things about staying at their swanky hotel was the maid service.
“You leave your room in the morning and it’s messy,” he said, “Then when you get back it’s clean. It’s been awesome.”
Ohio State corner back Antonio Smith was in a rare position to enjoy the engineering marvel that is University of Phoenix Stadium when the Buckeyes visited during Monday’s Fiesta Bowl.
Smith, a former walk-on who earned an athletic scholarship and all-conference honors this season, is a semester away from wrapping up a degree in mechanical engineering. Asked if he’d be interested in working on a project like the stadium in the future, Smith was taken aback.
“I mean, I’m open,” he said with wide eyes and a broad smile. “I’m open to about anything right now.”
Florida’s players will get their initial first-hand impression of the stadium today, though some have already formulated their opinions thanks to a, ahem, virtual-reality tour.
“I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve toured it in the new Madden video game,” defensive end Jarvis Moss said. “That’s as much as I’ve seen of it, but it looks pretty nice.”
During the most recent offseason, Florida’s defensive staff welcomed Ohio State’s offensive staff to Gainesville for an information swap between coaches.
The Gators may be regretting their Southern hospitality now that the teams are squaring off for the national title.
“They could return the favor,” Florida defensive coordinator Mullen joked. “It would be nice if we could send a couple coaches over today and we could watch their practice.”
As Lee Corso might say, not so fast my friend.
“I don’t think we’ll open it up to them,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Heacock laughed.
WOLVERINES IN YOUR CLOSET
Asked his favorite childhood memory of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, Buckeyes receiver Ted Ginn Jr. let a surprising little secret out of the bag.
The former defensive back admitted he remembered Charles Woodson returning a punt for a game-winning touchdown in a 20-14 Michigan victory in 1997.
You may want to keep that skeleton in the closet next time, Ted. (Unless you win on Monday, then you can say whatever the heck you want.)
BOWL SEASON IS BURGER TIME
There’s plenty of incentive for a 22-year-old Ohioan to spend a week in the Valley in January. Sunshine. Palm trees. Swimming pools. Those rewards for a job well done weren’t the only things on the mind of quarterback Troy Smith in the weeks leading up to Ohio State’s return to Arizona for the BCS national championship.
“Probably the height of my day every day is getting a chance to go to In-N-Out Burger,” Smith said. “I love those cheeseburgers.”
Smith flew nearly 2,000 miles to the $600- to $1000-per-night Fairmont Scottsdale Princess - which boasts three award-winning restaurants including Marquesa (combining the seasonings and flavors of the Italian, French and Spanish Rivieras), La Hacienda (gourmet Mexican) and The Grill (the self-proclaimed best steak house in the region) – and Smith was looking forward to fast-food burgers that cost less than three bucks.
You probably can’t get a cup of soup for three bucks at the Princess.
Granted there’s an In-N-Out within a mile of the Princess Resort that has served as the winter home to the Buckeyes four of the last five years. And the closest In-N-Out location to Ohio State’s campus is up I-17 in Prescott.
But still, Troy, you’ve got some explaining to do.
“For the folks back in Ohio, they need to understand first and foremost, it is a fresh burger,” Smith offered. “The lettuce and tomatoes are extremely fresh. And they toast the buns. That’s huge. That’s key. They toast the buns. They use a special kind of sauce too. The sandwich is incredible after a long night.”
COLLEGE FREE AGENCY
Not since defensive end Trace Armstrong was permitted to transfer from Arizona State to Florida for his senior season without sitting out a year has an NCAA transfer rule resulted in so much pain for the Sun Devils and so much gain for the Gators.
This one’s a bit more roundabout than the Armstrong saga, but it (sort of) applies.
The NCAA implemented a new rule (NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52) last summer that allowed student-athletes who have completed their undergraduate degrees to transfer without sitting out a season.
Former Utah defensive back Ryan Smith, an Orlando native, was one of about 25 athletes to take advantage. He transferred to Florida to rejoin former Utes head coach Urban Meyer and led the SEC with eight interceptions.
“It was God sent that we ended up getting Ryan,” co-defensive coordinator Strong said.
So what does all that have to do with the Sun Devils? Well, one program’s Godsend is another program’s nightmare.
Former ASU point guard Kevin Kruger also took advantage of the new rule and transferred to UNLV to play for his father. As a result, ASU is starting as many as three freshmen on the perimeter and Kruger (who would have been an incredible fit in coach Herb Sendek’s offense) is averaging 13 points and five assists per game for the Runnin’ Rebels.
The rule has proven so controversial that there’s a good chance it will be overturned at the NCAA’s convention Saturday in Orlando.
BIG MONEY, BIG PRIZES
The monster contract given to Nick Saban to leave the Miami Dolphins for Alabama had Ohio State and Florida players talking on Wednesday.
Asked how much he thought Jim Tressel was worth, Ohio State running back Antonio Pittman was stumped.
“I don’t even want to guess,” he said. “A lot.”
Florida defensive lineman Ray McDonald saw nothing wrong with Saban’s contract.
“Coaches never sleep,” he said. “They’re always working. They’re always recruiting. If you want to give them 40 million dollars, then give them 40 million dollars.”
Boise State’s stunning overtime win over Oklahoma in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl left players from both sides of the BCS championship game impressed.
Ohio State’s players and coaches actually wrangled tickets to the game, though they left midway through the third quarter. Pittman insisted it wasn’t because they were bored.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “That was my first time being at a big game like that and being able to watch.”
They made it back in their hotel in time to watch the final two minutes and overtime on television.
Florida’s Ryan Smith also watched on television.
“I had it on mute and I was messing around on the computer,” Smith said. “Every time I looked up something amazing happened. I was like, turn this game up.”
I AM AN F-B-I AGENT
If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the Ohio State fan who has everything, you might want to check out these T-shirts featuring former Buckeyes quarterback Johnny Utah. (http://shitleys.com/ProductDetail.asp?t=1297W9D1R78Q44&u=1297&ProductID=11617)
OK, I confess, Utah did not really play at Ohio State. He was a character played by Keanu Reeves in the 1991 film Point Break - the Gone with the Wind of surfing bank robber movies.
But, hey, the shirt’s pretty cool.
In case you haven’t kept up to date on your Point Break trivia, Utah led Ohio State to the brink of a Rose Bowl berth before blowing out his knee, joining the FBI and pursuing Patrick Swayze’s band of surfing bank robbers (or bank-robbing surfers) known as The Ex-Presidents.