SvoNotes: Ohio The Heart Of It All

Don't blame the Big Ten for the controversy around its recent Icons list, BSB staff writer Jeff Svoboda says in this edition of SvoNotes. The league may have ranked a few Buckeye legends a little low in the estimation of OSU fans, but it was left with little choice given how many great athletes are born in Ohio and end up at Ohio State.

I have to applaud the Big Ten Network for going ahead with its list of Big Ten Icons knowing the difficulty of the task at hand – and how much anger the list would likely create among fans.

Of course, the network would likely brand that as "healthy discussion," and the old saw that there's no such thing as bad publicity seems appropriate here. But there's little denying that no matter how the Big Ten came up with its list of Icons, there was likely to be complaining from many directions.

Much of that has come from Ohio State country despite the fact that two of the final four Icons and three of the last eight are Buckeyes.

Truth be told, OSU fans had a right to complain. How could Archie Griffin finish fourth despite being perhaps the best player in college football history, as he was the only to win two Heisman Trophies, perhaps the greatest individual award in college sports?

What about Jesse Owens at third? Certainly no athlete in Big Ten history has a résumé that could match that of Owens, who set world records, had perhaps the greatest day of any athlete in the history of the world and stared down Adolf Hitler while still a collegian.

And how could Jerry Lucas finish eighth when he won a pair of Associated Press national player of the year trophies and led OSU to the 1960 national title, while likely top-two finisher Magic Johnson was never player of the year and won the same number of crowns?

Johnson's inclusion in the final two seems to be creating the most controversy. While there's little doubt Johnson is a titan when it comes to both sport and culture, the Icons list was supposed to consider accomplishments accrued only as a collegiate athlete. While there's no denying he was great while suiting up at Michigan State, Johnson seems to have been put in the top two more for his post-collegiate work. (After all, lots of guys were great players who won national titles).

If Johnson's entire career appears to be taken into account, what then of Jack Nicklaus? The golfer finished only 18th on the Icons list after winning two U.S. Amateur titles and the 1961 NCAA championship while at OSU, but the argument can be made he was the most dominating individual sport athlete of all-time and perhaps sport's greatest champion. Nicklaus finished ninth on ESPN's "SportsCentury" list of the top athletes of the 20th century, second among Big Ten alums behind Owens, who was No. 6.

Ohio State fans can even argue the likely inclusion of Illinois' Red Grange in the final two. While The Galloping Ghost was a phenomenal athlete in Champaign, his biggest impact on sports was in making the NFL a respectable entity at a time when the professional ranks were looked down upon.

But was his college career markedly better than that of Chic Harley, who made OSU football into the Big Ten's flagship athletic program? Harley was a three-time All-American, a charter College Football Hall of Famer, a halfback, quarterback, end, kicker, punter and safety, a baseball player, basketball player and sprinter. When the AP picked a college football all-star team for the first half of the 20th Century, Harley was a first-team halfback ahead of Grange – and he didn't even make the Big Ten Icons top 50.

I'll throw the Big Ten a bone – this was always going to be a flawed process. Calling the show "Big Ten Icons" means there's a certain amount of subjectivity to the rankings. No one would argue that Jerry Lucas is as iconic a Big Ten figure as Magic Johnson despite his deeper college résumé. Far more people are aware of Johnson than Lucas, just the same as Grange's name means more today to the average sports fan than that of Harley (unless you're in Columbus).

On the other hand, it seems unlikely Johnson would be the sporting icon he is if not for his NBA career as part of the incredibly popular "Showtime" Lakers as well as his highly publicized battle with HIV. Adding a subjective "Icon" component almost certainly helps those who went on to post-college success even though the list is only supposed to include college accomplishments.

But no matter what the Big Ten did, it was going to have a dilemma on its hands when it came to trying to apportion the honors across the league schools. I can imagine the league fearing backlash from across the entire conference landscape if it had moved up any of the Buckeye stars, as many fanbases already see Ohio State as a colossus because of its rich history and current dominance in many sports.

Ohio State does have an unfair advantage in the fight, though – all of the Buckeyes in the top 20, as well as Harley, were either born or grew up in Ohio.

Owens is sort of an outlier, as he was born in Alabama (SEC speed, perhaps?) before moving to Cleveland and setting all sorts of records at East Tech. Nicklaus, Griffin and Harley, famously, are all Columbus kids who grew up in the shadow of Ohio State, while Lucas is from Middletown.

The Buckeye State's dominance doesn't stop there. Icon No. 20, Charles Woodson of Michigan, is from Fremont, while another Maize and Blue hero, No. 34 Desmond Howard, hails from Cleveland. OSU's next two honorees, No. 39 Hopalong Cassady and No. 47 Chris Spielman, are from Columbus and Massillon, respectively.

Looking at OSU's other Heisman winners, Troy Smith and Les Horvath are from Cleveland while Vic Janowicz is from the Forest City suburb of Elyria. Only Eddie George of Philadelphia hailed from outside of the state lines.

The story continues to be true today. Fourteen of 24 starters (including specialists) on the Ohio State football team a season ago were from Ohio, and almost 60 percent of Jim Tressel's signees during the course of his career are from the Buckeye State.

On the men's basketball team, Jared Sullinger (Columbus), Jon Diebler (Upper Sandusky) and William Buford (Toledo) all came to OSU after earning Ohio Mr. Basketball honors, and they join with Findlay's Aaron Craft and Cleveland's David Lighty to form the core of this year's national title contenders.

Ohio's license plates used to declare the state, "The Heart of it All." When it comes to producing athletes – and presidents, though that's a story for another day – that's certainly the case.

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