For years, Ohio has been widely respected as one of the best states for high school football in the country.
California, Florida, Ohio and Texas are consistently mentioned at the top of the list, not necessarily in that order.
But fans from the Buckeye State have often wondered how their premier teams would fare against the best high schools from around the country. Not on paper in the USA Today rankings. But on the gridiron itself.
Well, that time has arrived.
As it said on the press release: "It's Friday Night Lights … Ohio Style!"
The Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge will debut on Friday, Sept. 9, at Columbus Crew Stadium, with the Division I champion from Ohio – Cincinnati Colerain – pitted against the big school champion from Texas – Tyler's Robert E. Lee.
The game will take place the night before the college football showdown between Ohio State and Texas and will be televised live on ESPNU at 9 p.m.
There will also be a central Ohio flavor as rivals Westerville North and Westerville South will square off at 6 p.m.
Yes, this is Herbstreit's brainchild. He is doing more than simply attaching his name to the event.
"This is an idea that really started in a room with myself and a few friends and it's kind of taken a life of its own," Herbstreit said at a press conference at Crew Stadium prior to the Ohio North-South Classic. "I'm a huge high school football fan – obviously a huge college football fan – and we started to think about a good way to reach out, not only for Ohio, but to kind of go abroad and reach out nationally.
"So, we started thinking that we would start this year with a high school football game. And it just so happened that Ohio State-Texas was kind of … I think the biggest college football game in the entire season this year. We thought, ‘Is there a way to reach out and possibly bring in a great high school team from Texas, who would be willing to come in that weekend?'
"So, we thought about it. It's one of those things where you think about it, then don't think about it for a few weeks, and then it starts to again catch a little bit of fire and pick up some momentum. The next thing you know, we talked with Crew Stadium – they were kind enough to talk with us about that weekend. And the big thing is Westerville North and South, being involved in this game locally is very important to us. We do not want to forget about that game because that's going to be a big part of that week and that weekend.
"To give you an idea of the magnitude of this game (between Colerain and Tyler Lee), if you ever get on the high school internet rooms – the chat rooms – you can already see the trash talking going on between Texas and Ohio. If you live in Ohio, you think Ohio plays the best high school football. If you live in Texas, you think Texas the best high school football. And we figured this was a great way to settle it right on the field, where everybody can see it. ESPN will be involved with it and it's going to get a lot of national exposure."
Herbstreit helped hand-pick the teams for the event.
"To give you some idea of Tyler Lee, when I was down in Dallas in February, I spent some time with Mack Brown, the head coach of Texas, Dennis Franchione, the head coach at Texas A&M, and Bob Stoops, the head coach of Oklahoma," Herbstreit said. "They all recruit the Texas area quite heavily. They all had nothing but unbelievable respect for what Coach (Mike) Owens is doing and what he has done so far and what he is going to continue to do. We are bringing in one of the best programs, not only in Texas, but in the country, to Columbus, on the night before the Longhorns and Buckeyes play."
As for Ohio, Colerain doesn't have as much tradition as a few schools in Ohio, but they are the cream of the crop right now, led by head coach Kerry Coombs.
"In the 70's and 80's, you had Massillon and Moeller in this state," Herbstreit said. "Then, Ignatius came in. And if you're a public high school football fan, you thought, ‘How in the world can public schools compete with the parochial schools?' And here comes Colerain in dominating fashion. If you saw Colerain play last year, you saw one of the best teams in the history of Ohio high school football. They have a lot of the nucleus coming back from that team this year."
Herbstreit then handed the microphone over to the four head coaches. Westerville South's Rocky Pentello was up first.
"We're honored to be a part of this, even if we are the undercard," Pentello said. "We feel privileged to be a part of it. And I'd like to say to Kirk, ‘Thanks,' because it's about time. I think Ohio coaches have wanted something like this for a long time. I think we feel Ohio is very competitive in football and we've been wanting to be a part of a US challenge, because we see it going on with Florida, and Texas, and California, and we've always wanted to be a part of that.
"I'd like to wish all the coaches good luck – not so much to Coach (Chad) Williams (from Westerville North). I'd like to thank Coach (Owens) for coming up here from Texas, that's a long trip. I wish you good luck, not too much though. And of course, good luck to you Kerry, and win it for Ohio."
Coaches Mike Owens of Tyler Lee and Kerry Coombs of Colerain
Williams then addressed the crowd.
"Obviously we're very honored and excited to be a part of this event," he said. "The North-South rivalry is a long-standing tradition. It's a great rivalry and I think playing in this venue, in this atmosphere, is only going to take it to the next level. I'd like to thank everybody that made this event possible."
Coombs says Colerain is excited to play in the game.
"Ohio has such a strong tradition in high school football, we are honored to be have been chosen to participate in this great event," he said. "Obviously, playing Tyler Lee, the defending state champions from Texas, presents an incredible challenge for our program. Having our game connected to two of the most storied college programs in the country – Ohio State and Texas – certainly serves to make the weekend that much more exciting."
And representing the Lone Star State in a perfect Texas stereotype was Owens. He came with a deep southern draw and dry sense of humor.
"I'd love to say this was my idea, but it wasn't," he said. "If I was a young coach, I wouldn't be up here right now. I know how Custer felt now (eliciting laughter). I know coming here is going to be a hostile environment and we realize that and we know it's us against the world. He's got the Ohio versus USA. Well, it's us against the rest of the country when we come up here. Our bands not coming, our cheerleaders. We're just going to be out there. We hope some people will be up here with us. We think we'll have a few. And we hope some of the UT fans that are in town will show up that night.
"We're going to be not the same team we were last year by any stretch of the imagination. We'll be young and inexperienced. But I hope by the time we get to this game, we'll be better. We have two tough games before this one, and then we come up here and play one of the best teams I've ever seen on film, last year. It's going to be a tough show for us, but I could not turn it down. Give our kids the opportunity to play in a national venue, on national television. So, we couldn't turn it down. No, we're actually looking forward to it."
Bucknuts.com then had the chance to catch up with Herbstreit for a one-on-one interview. He says he's been thinking of putting on an event like this for a long time, and further explained how it all came about.
"Well, since I've worked at ESPN – this will be my 10th year on Game Day, 11th year at ESPN – I've never lost that bug for high school football," he said. "The fact that I've been able to gain, I guess, my name recognition, I thought, ‘If I could reach out to some of these Ohio teams and see if they would be interested in playing some national teams, I want to give it a try.' We just kept talking about it and thinking about how we could make it happen, and it just came up that Texas and Ohio State were going to be playing. So, we thought, ‘Why don't we bring up a Texas power to play Colerain, who just won a state championship?' Just the timing of it was perfect and that's the way we're going to start it."
If everything goes according to plan, the event will get bigger each year. And it's not going to be a one-hit wonder.
"This is not just a one time thing," Herbstreit said. "This is an idea we've had and it's going to grow. It's just going to get bigger and better. If this goes the way we think it could go, then I think you're going to be blown away in '06. There's been talk of doing five games with five of the best teams in Ohio. You're talking about – nothing is official at this point – Colerain, Elder, St. X, Moeller, Wayne, those kind of programs, and a lot of the teams from Northeast Ohio as well, taking on programs throughout the country. I mean, California, Florida, Louisiana, everywhere."
And of course when Herbstreit approached ESPN to possibly televise the game on the new ESPNU, it was all for it.
"Yeah, we just thought the more recognition we could bring to this game and this event, the better," Herbstreit said. "Not for us, but for the kids. When I was in high school, playing in an event like this would have blown me away. I'm thinking about the kids as much as anything and what we can do to make them feel like, ‘This is big time.'
"So, ESPN was on board and gracious enough to get involved and I would hope as this thing grows they will continue to do that."
And we couldn't let Herbstreit go without a question about the 2005 Buckeyes. Does the former quarterback and team captain believe they are going to be national title contenders?
"The sky is the limit," he said. "This team has shown the ability to avoid distractions in the past. And with the talent they have coming back, if they can win that game Sept. 10, and then turn around and beat Iowa two weeks later, then they've got a shot to win the whole thing this year."