If the Ohio State men's basketball team had a bandwagon, it might look awful sparse right now. Lemmings have been jumping right and left with cries of, "O'Brien can't recruit!" Even more frightening have been those few (and they are a very small minority) who have whispered he is not all that great as a coach…
The problem for those of this persuasion is that this is not only a false idea, but it will make them look very foolish come 2003-04.
Mark it down and write it with blood -- very, VERY foolish.
First, the Jim O'Brien cannot recruit hogwash:
1. Jim O'Brien has multiple directives from The Ohio State University. Some of these actually are in competition with one another.
First, Ohio State should field a team of student-athletes. It is not enough merely to win at Ohio State. You have to win and do it the right way, or it is meaningless. While other coaches and universities graduate almost no-one under their charge and thereby exploit the young men for their own selfish gain, O'Brien and Ohio State have done their utmost to ensure that they turn out graduates who own a degree. Considering the percentages of players who actually step on the NBA court, to do otherwise is a shameful betrayal of the heart and soul of the NCAA. Maybe other school presidents can turn a blind eye to graduation rates lower than the Mendoza line while still hypocritically talking big about making sure athletes get an education. Maybe they can sleep at night knowing that their coach has sold 18 year olds down the river to get a few more wins. Jim O'Brien does not conduct his program in such a fashion; if a student athlete does not leave with his diploma it is because he did not want it rather than the Ohio State staff not pushing him to get it.
Second, Ohio State should field a team of class acts. Police blotters are not items that are taken lightly for the Buckeyes. Convictions for assault or theft are not ignored or brushed off as "boys being boys". Talented young men with multiple juvenile convictions do not suddenly become recruiting targets even if there is a hole as deep as Barringer Crater in the roster for the upcoming season. It is not about just staying eligible and out of jail. Wearing the Scarlet and Gray is a privilege and not a right, and when a player gets in trouble with authorities, he has disgraced his uniform and his university. O'Brien willingly stepped in and cleaned up a program that had been humiliated by off the field conduct. No, his players are not perfect, but nor will you find young men who have been arrested multiple times on the roster - just so he can eke out a few more wins and gain an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Third, Ohio State is not interested in slumming with the low-lifes or landing on NCAA sanctions. Just like in every other profession, it is much more difficult to get ahead if you want to be an honorable individual who still has integrity at the end of the day. While others are willing to take the short cuts, O'Brien has gone on record as being opposed to this sort of conduct. Sure, it is not against NCAA rules to wine and dine individuals who are outside the NCAA jurisdiction, and multiple coaches have done it. However, at the very least it is questionable ethically, and at worst it results in NCAA infractions. If folks want a guy who will conduct himself in such a fashion, then they will never like Jim O'Brien. He seems to live by the philosophy what when you roll with the pigs - you get dirty just like them too.
Fourth, Ohio State should win - and win often. Given the facilities and the financial backing of the university, a coach is provided with every opportunity to win games. It is the major basketball power in Ohio historically. Though Cincinnati has been strong as well, consider: The Ohio State University played a major part in the creation of the NCAA tournament, it has a proud history with 9 Final Four appearances, and it is the flagship university for a state of 11,000,000 people. The budget for the athletic department is the largest in the nation, and though it has been accused of being a lousy place to play home games - the Schott is a fairly new and modern arena. Jim O'Brien has met this demand and passed the test with flying colors. Until injuries decimated the roster in 2002-03, the Buckeyes looked ready to extend their streak of NCAA appearances and 20 win seasons. As it is, the streak for postseason appearances was salvaged, and the Buckeyes made it all the way to the Big Ten Tournament Championship before falling short against a very deep Illinois team.
Overall, Jim O'Brien and his assistants have done an unbelievable job in fulfilling these mandates. No, they have not been perfect in every case. No, you will not find a perfect major D-IA program without warts (even Duke has had them in recent years). Still, don't think for a single second that Andy Geiger is not thrilled with his hire of this coach. If for some reason he is not, then I for one certainly am.
2. Jim O'Brien has had multiple players either ready to sign up at OSU or even at OSU and experienced phenomenal bad luck.
First there was the case of 7'3" center, Aleksandar Radojevic, in 1998-1999. Here is a young man who would have teamed with two-time Big Ten Defensive player of the year Ken Johnson to provide an unmatched dynamic duo for the Buckeyes for the 1999-2000 squad and then could have taken over in 2000-2001. Radojevic committed to Ohio State and was all set on donning the Scarlet and Gray until the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible because he took $13,000 and played 19 minutes of professional basketball in Yugoslavia as a teenager. Can you imagine Ken Johnson and an NBA lottery pick lined up on the inside with Penn, Redd, Brown, and Boban on the outside? It is not like other college programs did not pursue this young man - they did. He chose Ohio State and all but begged the NCAA to be able to play for the Buckeyes. How highly was he regarded? After the NCAA ended his collegiate career, he was taken 12th overall in the NBA draft by Toronto.
Then there was the case of Ricky Paulding and Arthur Johnson in 1999-2000. Paulding, a budding star with incredible athleticism, had pretty much chosen Ohio State. Paulding said, "I was really definite (Ohio State) was my top choice. But I still had to take all of my visits and sit down and make a decision, and when I did, I decided it was Missouri. I don't know about any deciding factor.'' Arthur Johnson was still thinking though and the two wanted and to go to the same school. It was then that the Missouri Tigers illegally flew the two prospects and their mothers out to visit Columbia. The mothers were impressed (and said as much) because basically no other school had done that for them… Snyder - who ran the Duke recruiting operation for years - claimed that it was all a big surprise to him that such a thing was illegal. Pardon the skepticism, but I believe that like I believe that all the old USSR leaders used to suddenly get "sick" and "need medical treatment" during political coups. So, the dynamic duo ended up at Missouri instead of Ohio State, the NCAA slapped Missouri on the wrist, and OSU suffered. Who knows what might have been had the NCAA done what they really should have and declared them ineligible for the Tigers because their actions clearly resulted in an unfair advantage for the school. Instead, Ohio State's season ended in the NCAA tournament for the second time in less than a decade to a team who had used illegal tactics to gain an advantage (the other being the Michigan's well paid Fab Five).
In 2000-01, Jim O'Brien wanted Sullinger but had run out of scholarships. Sullinger badly wanted to come play for Ohio State and made no secret that it was his dream to be there. O'Brien tried to convince young J.J. to sit out a year while attending a prep school, but Sullinger and his father chose to send him to play for Nolan Richardson at Arkansas instead. For those who have not heard, J.J. paid homage to the Buckeyes while playing for the Hogs, "My old high-school number, 32, was retired for Sidney Moncrief, so I thought hard and came up with O -- not zero, but O,'' he said. "I chose O for Ohio. What better way to represent where I'm from?'' When Richardson was fired, Sullinger immediately inquired about transferring back to his beloved Buckeyes - who fortunately had multiple scholarships to hand out and enough room to accommodate his and O'Brien's wishes that he play for Ohio State. Had everything worked out as planned (with a little luck), the athletic Sullinger would have been able to play this year and provide a scoring threat to take the pressure off of Darby. Instead, he had to sit on the bench and grind his teeth watching teammates struggle to win games…
Though it boggles the imagination, the string continued with Jaquan Hart. After being rejected because his partial qualifier status, Jaquan chose Ohio State over a number of suitors who would have been overjoyed to land the 6'5" slasher. This was no stiff but a young man who was rated in the top 30 players in the country coming out of High School. According to an article by Bob Baptist of the Dispatch, Hart "averaged 18.9 points per game as a senior and shot 70.4 percent from the field, including 43.2 percent behind the three- point arc. He finished second in voting for the state's Mr. Basketball Award (in Michigan) to Kelvin Torbert of Flint Northwestern, who will be a freshman at Michigan State this season." He was widely expected to step in and provide serious athleticism and depth for the team in 2001-02. However, apparently the young man had some personal problems and after only a few months at Ohio State decided to transfer to Eastern Michigan. So, the scholarship that was taken by Hart that resulted in the matriculation of Sullinger to Arkansas ended up wasted…
Just this past season, Jim O'Brien and his staff were in on a rising star in the Chicago area by the name of Aaron Spears. He committed early to Ohio State and then experienced a change of heart. So, instead of returning the letter of intent the Buckeye staff sent him with his John Hancock at the bottom, the 6'10" prospect chose to play his senior season and see what other offers popped up for him. Spears proceeded to have a monster year and scholarships poured in from major powers in basketball. When the smoke cleared, the 6'10" prospect ended up at Illinois where Ohio State will have to compete against him every year.
Finally, there is the case of Ricardo Billings. Billings was widely considered to be a top prospect in the state of Michigan, which is as filthy rich in hoopster talent as Kuwait is in Oil. Ricardo was penciled in by those around the Buckeye program as a solid replacement for the departed Brown/Savovic combination and a likely starter in 2002-03. The problem? Billings came up just short of qualifying. The result was that not only did it leave a huge hole on the Buckeye roster (eventually filled by Jernigan), but Billings was not even obligated to honor his letter of intent. Ricardo eventually opted to sit out a year and pay his way at Ohio State in 2002-03, but he was not eligible for this season as planned. He, like Sullinger, was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Buckeyes searched in vain for athletic scorers to help Darby.
Jim O'Brien must wonder what he has done to be cursed in this fashion. He has had more disappointments in recent years than Sisyphus, the Corinthian King sentenced in Tartarus to an eternity of rolling a rock up a hill only to have it slide back down to the bottom. Just look at the team that might have been for Ohio State.
LOOK AT IT:
Darby, Connolly, Hart, Billings, Sullinger, and Paulding manning the 1-3 spots.
Spears, Arthur Johnson, Williams, and Radinovic inside…
Can you imagine what O'Brien would have accomplished with such a lineup? None of these disasters were the fault of the Buckeye staff. They played by the rules, they encouraged the young men to go to classes, they recruited players who were clean cut, they did not roll in the mud with smarmy middle-men, and they WON the hearts of recruits --- only to have them stolen away. One by the NCAA, two by an illegal recruiting violation, one by homesickness, one by a lack of scholarships, one by a whim not to honor his commitment, and nearly another when he came up just short academically.
Let's be clear: Jim O'Brien and his staff can recruit. Had fate not intervened in a sadistic fashion, Ohio State would have fielded rosters with incredible athleticism every year for the last 5. The Buckeyes probably would have spent so much time in the Sweet 16 that the tournament officials could have simply reserved them a slot every season. People would be talking about how fabulous a recruiter Jim O'Brien was and how the Buckeyes were becoming a Midwest Mecca for College Basketball.
Still to Come: Part II of "All Aboard" - The 2003-4 roster.
E-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
*A Special thanks is due The Columbus Dispatch. Their archives were used in researching this article. The following articles were quoted:
Bob Baptist, "Recruiting Fight Gives Meeting With Missouri Added Texture," Columbus Dispatch (March 16, 2002).
Bob Baptist, "Rejected by Michigan, Hart Allowed in at OSU," Columbus Dispatch (August 18, 2001).
Steve Blackledge, "Sullinger Feels Right at Home," Columbus Dispatch (January 18, 2002).