It wasn't supposed to work out this way. Justin Zwick was Jim Tressel's prodigy – the savior, the chosen one to resurrect Ohio State football.
It's not like Ohio State needed a lot of rescuing. Under former head coach John Cooper the Buckeyes twice finished No. 2 in the nation. Ohio State was sending a next big star to the NFL quicker than execs could sign them to contracts.
While Zwick was running up a cell phone bill calling other high school prospects in hopes of joining him to win multiple National Championships in Columbus, Jim Tressel tripped and fell into Cleveland Glenville athlete Troy Smith.
Maybe Smith, listed at 6-1, really fell into Tressel's lap. That's all a matter of perspective.
Regardless, Smith was a former Lakewood St. Edward quarterback that had numerous off-the-field problems. Like many others, he was a reclamation project of Ted Ginn Sr. at Glenville High School.
His senior year at Glenville, Smith completed 48 percent of his passes. Still, he sported plenty of athletic ability and a cannon for an arm. So under the heading of, "athlete," Ohio State signed Smith as a late addition to the 2002 recruiting class the first Wednesday of February 2002.
In fact, in the first week of January 2003, when Ohio State was preparing for the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl with a National Championship waiting the winner, it was Smith playing running back, wide receiver and a little bit of quarterback on scout team, speaking to his versatility.
The national media was quick to dub Ohio State a long shot in that game. There were many who doubted the Buckeyes could end Miami's 34-game winning streak just as there were many who doubted Smith would ever be the Ohio State starting signal-caller.
Fast forward nearly five years later and it's Smith, not Zwick, gunning for Ohio State's second National Championship. The first one was earned with Craig Krenzel under center while both Smith and Zwick were merely freshmen, but this opportunity has been primarily Smith's doing.
Ohio State is now securely camped out in Glendale, Ariz., waiting for their Jan. 8 showdown versus Florida in the BCS National Championship. Together, they will bring in 2007 – a new year but they hope another title.
Smith, fresh off Ohio State's seventh Heisman Trophy, is neatly wrapped into the perfect blend of leadership, physical skills, hard work, discipline, athleticism and playmaking ability. Note to NFL Scouts: don't let the size fool you, i.e. Drew Brees.
Brees wasn't supposed to cut it in the NFL because he wasn't tall enough. Vince Young doesn't have the proper mechanics. Sometimes, quarterbacks just have it.
Troy Smith has it.
Jim Tressel will spend this New Year's preparing for the Gators. Sure, his immediate resolution is to win his second Division I National Title and sixth overall as a head coach, dating back to the four he won at Youngstown State.
But don't be fooled – Tressel's real resolution has to be finding another Troy Smith.
Maybe Smith is already on the Ohio State roster going by the alias Antonio Henton. Perhaps the next Smith is only a junior high student playing peewee football. Perhaps another Smith won't come along in many moons.
The Buckeyes won't be able to replace Smith next season, whether it's Henton, Todd Boeckman or Rob Schoenhoft. It's remotely possible they can replace his 2,507 yards. It's not entirely out of the imagination they can find a guy to throw nearly 67 percent completion percentage. And if they're really lucky, they can break the Ohio State single-season record and account for 30 touchdowns through the air.
It's all highly unlikely, but nothing is impossible.
But Tressel can't, however, replace the intangibles – unless of course his resolution comes true in finding the next Smith much quicker than reality suggests.
Smith is the team leader.
And he's also the comedian.
"The biggest character on this team is the face you see the most – Troy Smith by far," said senior safety Brandon Mitchell. "The weird thing about Troy is on game day and in practice, he's so serious and so focused but we step in the locker room and he's playing practical jokes, joking with people and doing all kinds of funny things.
"That's why people rally around him," Mitchell added.
Mitchell said the team is afraid to get revenge for Smith's jokes.
"The thing about Troy is that he has the o-line behind him," Mitchell said. "The only one that messes with Troy is Ted (Ginn) and that's because they're childhood friends."
He's the go-to guy in crunch time.
"If you've got a quarterback that can make the throws you need to make on third down and protect the football," said wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell, "you've got a chance to win some games."
He's, as the Heisman Trophy award would suggest, the team's best player.
In 2002, Tressel uncovered a buried treasure. Some may say Zwick was fool's gold, although had things played out differently, it may have been Zwick leading Ohio State to an undefeated season and who knows, perhaps he could be a first-day NFL draft pick.
But when it's all said and done, it's Smith leaving behind a legacy.
Or at least, as far as Ohio State quarterbacks are concerned, you could make a stunning case for him in the words of Comic Book Guy, the popular character from the television, animated series, The Simpsons.
Smith finished his career 3-0 as a starter versus Michigan.
"D'oh," might Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr be saying to that reminder, in his best Homer Simpson voice.
In three games against the team from up north, Smith finished 69-of-101 passing (68.3 percent), with 857 yards passing (285.7 per game), seven passing touchdowns, one interception, 194 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns.
But Smith was more than just a Michigan-killer. He was clutch in big games as well.
Although he missed the 2004 Alamo Bowl for taking Five Hundred dollars from a booster (a part of his legacy he will never fully shake), he catapulted himself to being the 2006 Heisman front-runner with a terrific 2005 Fiesta Bowl, throwing for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Notre Dame and Heisman finalist Brady Quinn.
Earlier this season against Texas, on the road and in primetime, Smith threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
"Troy has always had a passion to be a great passer," Tressel said. "He's just methodically gotten better every day he's been here."
Smith's comedic value shown through following the Heisman ceremony when he wasn't allowed to take the trophy with him on the plane, so he had it shipped separately. He was not about to let his trophy get damaged, unlike when two fingers got bent when Eddie George took his trophy back to Columbus.
"He kept saying, ‘I don't want my trophy damaged,'" said Mitchell.
What you see is not always what you got with Smith.
There was a time when Smith was disgruntled, immature and sometimes unwilling to work for what the future had in store for him.
Now, he's a clubhouse icon. He's the leader and the man that everyone rallied around. Prior to taking over in 2004 for Zwick after Krenzel's graduation, he was a cancer – or at least, not a unanimous choice within the locker room to grab the starting quarterback position.
Early in his career, Smith's decision-making off the field was poor. His acceptance of booster money is well documented but Smith was constantly being called into Tressel's office for saying the wrong thing, being in the wrong place or making some other sort of adverse decision. On the field, Smith was forcing the ball to places he shouldn't have thrown and more often, he was tucking the ball and running after looking at one receiver instead of progressing through his entire reads.
The mental aspect of the game is where Smith has progressed the most.
If it looks like Smith has become a student of the game, you're right. If it looks like he's become a surgeon, picking apart the defense in tedious fashion, you're correct. If it looks at times like Smith is darn near the perfect quarterback in execution, you also would be on the money.
"He's really played well in certain situations, third down situations and he's been very smart with the football," Hazell said..
When Smith takes the field next week as a Heisman Trophy winner, he will be 25-2 as a starter and 3-0 against Ohio State's archrival. That alone could cement a claim that he is the best Ohio State quarterback in the program's rich history, but a National Championship is the ultimate litmus test.
Bob Hoying, Art Schlichter, Joe Germaine and Rex Kern are the names most commonly discussed when comparing Smith. A National Title under his resume might end any debate.
With one important game remaining, Smith enters with an impressive career record. Smith has 5,685 yards passing, leaving him No. 6 on the all-time passing list at Ohio State and less than 200 yards behind Steve Bellisari for No. 5.
Smith enters his final game 413-of-656 passing (63 percent) with 54 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Smith's 52 touchdowns place him No. 3 on the all-time list behind Hoying (57) and Germaine (56). He already is the all-time Ohio State leader in career completion percentage.
Despite the lofty achievements, there's something to be said for Smith's rags-to-riches story. Tressel stumbled across an unexpected surprise in 2002, now he's hoping the 2007 will bring another to fill Smith's giant void.
"Leaving is going to be tough – I love my teammates and I love my team," he said. "For four or five years, this is all I knew."
A win on Jan. 8 will fulfill the prophecy of multiple National Championships. However, the messenger that may deliver that prophecy was not the one Tressel had in mind five years ago.
Just like the media doubted Ohio State the last time the Buckeyes were playing for a National Title, now the media might doubt Florida's ability to beat Ohio State.
"You can't buy into things when things are good for you and you definitely can't buy into them when they're not good for you," Smith said. "I know there were a lot of doubters and there still are a lot of doubters.
"But that's life," he adds.
It's a part of the process that Smith has embraced.
"Doubters are necessary – not everybody is going to like you and not everybody is going to dislike you," Smith said.
But if there's any shred of evidence to show how far Smith has come, look no further than where his mind has been.
"Doubters," he says, do not concern him.
When asked whether those doubters were NFL scouts, Smith quickly returned the focus to the task at hand.
"We're talking about the team," Smith told the reporter.
Which begs the question, "is there any reason to doubt Smith now?"
Tressel doesn't doubt him. His teammates don't doubt him. Even Smith doesn't doubt himself.
Now Tressel must patiently wait for the next Smith to roll along. There may have been a time when Tressel doubted this one, but as a New Year's resolution. He has no doubts now – he's just hoping for another Troy Smith.