Four people with Ohio State ties and another synonymous with the Buckeye State are part of the National Football Foundation's awards dinner that will occur tonight at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Former head coach John Cooper and former Buckeye assistant Lou Holtz are the two coaches that will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame tonight, while Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith will receive the NFF's John L. Toner award and Brian Robiskie has received a national scholar-athlete award from the foundation and is among the athletes who is up for the Draddy Trophy.
In addition, former Ohio Sen. John Glenn, who played college football at Muskingum College in New Concord, has received the NFF's gold medal.
The day mostly belongs to the 13 players and two coaches who are being honored and inducted into the hall of fame. They were chosen during the summer and will officially be enshrined in July.
Cooper is the one with the strongest tie to Ohio State, having served as the Buckeyes' head coach from 1988-2000 while compiling a record of 111-43-4 and winning the 1997 Rose Bowl. He won 10 games in four straight seasons from 1995-98 and finished the regular season ranked during his final 12 seasons.
He spoke at length during the summer about what the honor meant to him, and he did not change his tune while at the dais at a press conference for the honorees this morning.
"Professionally it's the greatest honor you can have," he said. "I'm very honored and very humbled to receive this honor."
Cooper also coached at Tulsa and Arizona State during his 24-year career that included 193 wins, 83 losses and 6 ties. He also assisted at Iowa State, Oregon State, UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky during a collegiate coaching career that started in 1962.
"They say if you do something you love, you've never worked a day in your life," he said. "That's the way I look at college coaching. I was a college football coach for 39 years and was fortunate enough to be a head coach for the last 24."
Cooper's tenure at Ohio State ended after the 2001 Outback Bowl, a game Ohio State lost to South Carolina 24-7. Amid turmoil both on and off the field, athletics director Andy Geiger removed Cooper from his post. A 2-10-1 record against Michigan and a 3-8 record in bowl games did not help the coach's cause among the fan base.
Still, he has stayed close to the university community while working as a consultant with the Cincinnati Bengals. Cooper still lives in the Columbus area and spends time around the program, and he was honored this year during halftime of the Penn State game.
Fans, some still frustrated with his tenure, debated whether he deserved the honor, but Cooper was more than excited when he got the news.
"One of the hardest things that happened to me is I got the letter in the mail on a Wednesday and they told me you couldn't announce that I was going into the hall of fame until Sunday," he said. "For me to keep that quiet for about four days was the hardest thing I've had to do in my life. I wanted to go out and just shout, ‘Hey, I'm going into the hall of fame.' "
He is joined in the coaching department by Holtz, who lasted just one year as a Buckeye assistant, but it was a good one. Holtz, known more for a long head coaching career that included stops at Arkansas and Notre Dame and his current job as an ESPN analyst, was the defensive backs coach for the 1968 team that won the national title.
"You feel blessed to be in the game," Holtz, who was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, said of his induction. "It's a microcosm of life. Everything that I have in life I owe to football."
The players who will be inducted into the hall of fame this evening are Troy Aikman (UCLA), Billy Cannon (LSU), Jim Dombrowski (Virginia), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), Wilber Marshall (Florida), Rueben Mayes (Washington State), Randall McDaniel (who played under Cooper at Arizona State), Don McPherson (Syracuse), Jay Novacek (Wyoming), Dave Parks (Texas Tech), Ron Simmons (Florida State), Thurman Thomas (Oklahoma State) and Arnold Tucker (Army).
Fitzgerald currently is the head coach at Northwestern, making him the second Big Ten coach in a row to enter the hall of fame after legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno received the honor last year.
"I'm so honored to be here and to represent a great university like Northwestern," said Fitzgerald, who won the 1995 and '96 Bednarik and Nagurski Awards and was a two-time first-team All-American at NU. "I'm here to accept going into the hall of fame on behalf of my teammates and coaches."
Smith will receive the Toner Award tonight at the awards dinner. It is presented annually to an athletic director "who has demonstrated superior administrative abilities and shown outstanding dedication to college athletics and particularly college football."
Ohio State recently won the NCAA's Diversity in Athletics Award.
Robiskie is one of 15 finalists for the Draddy Trophy, which is known as the "Academic Heisman" and is awarded to the player who best combines excellence in the classroom and on the field while showing leadership capabilities. Other finalists include high-profile players such as Chase Daniel of Missouri and Graham Harrell of Texas Tech.
By being named a finalist and an NFF Scholar-Athlete, Robiskie already has earned an $18,000 scholarship for postgraduate study. Former Ohio State winners include quarterbacks Bobby Hoying (1995) and Craig Krenzel (2003), and should Robiskie win, he would make Ohio State the only school to have three such honorees.
The winner will be announced tonight between 8:30 and 9 p.m., Eastern.
Glenn, a native of New Concord who now has the high school in his hometown named after him, was a center at Muskingum in the late 1930s and early '40s, and he invoked Woody Hayes' famed mantra about the passing game on the dais this morning while pointing out that he played football before the T-formation even existed.
Glenn went on to become the first person to orbit the Earth as part of the Mercury space program and also spent a quarter century as a senator for his home state. He jokingly credited his early football career for his eventual accomplishments.
"I was dumb enough, I played center in that environment," Glenn said. "It meant you had to look back between you legs and center the ball to backs who were already on their way on the play. Someone said when you start out life looking backwards and upside down and get hit on the back of the head on every play, it affects the rest of your life.
"People have said to me that it explains a lot about my later life, I guess, that I started out that way."