All-Time Greatest – No. 23: Tom Cousineau

BuckeyeSports.com counts down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. The series continues today with No. 23: middle linebacker Tom Cousineau.

Marcus Marek and Chris Spielman excelled at the middle linebacker position for Ohio State wearing jersey No. 36. But before those players made that position and jersey number their own, Tom Cousineau was No. 36 and the force in the middle of Buckeye defenses in the late 1970s.

Born May 6, 1957, in Fairview Park, Ohio, Thomas Michael Cousineau was an All-Ohio linebacker from football hotbed Lakewood St. Edward High School. But even though his school had sent two players – Pete Cusick and Tom Marendt – to Ohio State in the recent past, Cousineau was not predisposed to become a Buckeye.

In fact, OSU was somewhat of a third choice. Coming from St. Edward, there was considerable in-town pressure for Cousineau to attend Notre Dame. He was receptive to that idea, too, until Ara Parseghian abruptly retired as Fighting Irish head coach following the 1975 season. That was the end of Cousineau's interest in Notre Dame.

He also built up a respect for Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. But at the time, the Nittany Lions ran a 4-4 alignment on defense and Cousineau was not comfortable in that alignment. That left Michigan and Ohio State, and the standout high school star still could not decide.

In fact, on the evening before signing day, he hosted OSU head coach Woody Hayes, Paterno and then-Michigan offensive coordinator Gary Moeller in his home – all at the same time.

Hayes was the first to leave, and Cousineau followed him to the door. Remembering the scene more than 20 years later for the book What It Means To Be A Buckeye, Cousineau said, "(Coach Hayes) turned around and told me, ‘I'll be back at 7 o'clock (tomorrow morning). You tell Mom that I like bacon and eggs, and pancakes would be nice.' Then he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Are you ready to be a Buckeye?' ‘Yes, sir,' I said."

Cousineau worked slowly into his role of middle linebacker as a freshman. In fact, during his first practice, OSU All-America offensive guard Ted Smith greeted him with a block so devastating, it crushed Cousineau's facemask. But he got up, got a new helmet and went right back to work.

That first season saw him gain valuable experience early, and then when starting linebacker Ken Kuhn contracted meningitis, Cousineau got his chance to start.

He appeared in all 12 games in 1975, racking up 70 tackles, as the Buckeyes won their first 11 games to rise to No. 1 in the polls. Unfortunately, a rematch with UCLA in the Rose Bowl – a team the Buckeyes had beaten 41-20 in California earlier that season – resulted in a 23-10 upset loss, costing OSU the national championship.

The following season, Cousineau latched onto the starting middle linebacker spot and wouldn't let go for another three seasons. The Buckeyes were denied a shot at returning to the Rose Bowl by a loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale, but Cousineau shattered the single-season record for tackles by piling up 184 total stops, including 102 solos. The solo tackles remains a single-season OSU record today.

After the season, the Buckeyes picked up a 27-10 victory over Colorado at the Orange Bowl. It would be Hayes' final postseason victory, and Cousineau was named defensive MVP in the game.

As a junior, Cousineau backed off slightly on statistics, piling up "only" 149 tackles, including 89 solos. The Buckeyes won nine of their first 10 games that season, but finished with back-to-back losses to Michigan and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

In 1978, it was the best and worst of times for Cousineau. Hayes elected to sit incumbent starting quarterback Rod Gerald for highly rated freshman Art Schlichter and the team experienced growing pains, going 7-3-1 in the regular season that included a third straight loss to Michigan. Then in a 17-15 loss to Clemson in the Gator Bowl, Hayes slugged Tiger linebacker Charlie Bauman on the OSU sideline near the end of the game and was fired the next day.

It was a bitter climax to Hayes' 28 years as Ohio State head coach, but Cousineau countered all of those problems with perhaps the best season ever by an Ohio State defender. He broke his own single-season record for tackles, amassing 211 that included 101 solos and 110 assists, another school record.

Also during the season opener, a 19-0 loss to Penn State during which Schlichter threw a school-record five interceptions, Cousineau was establishing a mark of a different kind – 29 total tackles against the Nittany Lions. It is a mark that has been tied (Spielman had 29 against Michigan in 1986) but has never been bettered.

In fact, Cousineau owns six games in Scarlet and Gray with at least 21 tackles or more. No one else has more than two.

He finished his career with a then-school record 569 career tackles, a mark that has since been broken by Marek (572, 1978-82). But Cousineau holds just about every other tackles record in OSU history including most solos in a game (16 against SMU in 1978).

He won his second consecutive first-team All-America accolade following that '78 season, then became Ohio State's first-ever overall No. 1 pick in the NFL draft when the Buffalo Bills selected him first in the 1979 draft.

But contract negotiations with Buffalo proved to be contentious, and Cousineau wound up signing with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, becoming the only No. 1 NFL draft choice ever to bolt to the CFL.

He played with the Alouettes in the CFL for three seasons, winning one Grey Cup championship there and earning defensive MVP honors in Montreal's 1979 title game loss to Edmonton.

After three seasons, he left the Alouettes and the Bills traded his rights to Cleveland. Cousineau played the next four seasons with the Browns, but a variety of injuries hampered his effectiveness. He was traded to San Francisco in 1986 and played for the 49ers for two years before retiring after the '87 season.

Cousineau returned to the Cleveland area to enjoy retirement, but was lured back into the game of football in the late 1980s and early 1990s by then-Ohio State coach John Cooper, who invited Cousineau to join his staff as a volunteer assistant.

He spent three seasons with the Buckeyes in that capacity, helping coach the linebackers.

Yesterday: No. 24 Rex Kern

Tomorrow: No. 22


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