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Sugar Bowl return completes Buckeyes' journey

12/22/2014
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

As the clock ticked down into the final minute of the Big Ten championship game earlier this month, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sought out head coach Urban Meyer on the sideline.

The two men hugged. Meyer then walked several feet in each direction, pumping both fists in the air toward the elated Buckeyes cheering sections. There was joy, but also a release.

The 59-0 blowout win over Wisconsin on Dec. 6 clinched a title for Ohio State and also culminated a climb back from a dark place for the program. It's a journey that became even more poetic when the Buckeyes found out hours after that victory that they'd be returning to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal.

The program's last championship of note (not counting division titles) came on Jan. 4, 2011, when it beat Arkansas at the Sugar Bowl. But at least officially, that win never happened. Ohio State vacated its Sugar Bowl crown -- and all other 2010 victories -- as part of its self-imposed NCAA penalties in July 2011. In the team's media guide and around its facility where other bowl games are celebrated and acknowledged, it's like the game didn't exist.

The school thought vacating that season would be enough to placate the NCAA in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, even after five players implicated in scheme -- Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas -- were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl while accepting five-game penalties to start the 2011 season.

Of course, little went as Ohio State planned in that ordeal. Then-coach Jim Tressel was discovered to have known more about the scandal than he had told his superiors, and he was forced to resign on Memorial Day 2011. The Buckeyes would go 6-7 in the 2011 season, their least successful campaign since 1999. The NCAA decided in December, after more infractions leaked out, to ban Ohio State from a bowl in the 2012 season while taking away nine total scholarships over a three-year period.

The stench of an NCAA scandal -- especially one that includes a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a forced coaching change -- can set a program back for years. Yet the Buckeyes went 12-0 in their year of postseason purgatory in 2012 and are 36-3 in the three seasons since 2011, including a perfect 24-0 in regular-season Big Ten play.

"There are probably very few programs that have the level of support that allows them to come back from a challenge like that," Smith said. "Things aligned for us, and we were able to come out of that challenging time pretty well."

The No. 1 reason why the Buckeyes bounced back so quickly is obvious. They replaced one legendary coach -- Tressel -- with another one in Meyer (though Luke Fickell deserves credit for keeping things together as the interim during a trying season). Smith said the timing was fortunate for Ohio State that Meyer had taken a year off coaching in 2011, allowing Smith to put together a deal with Meyer without having to worry about luring him out of another job.

Meyer's track record all but ensured success. But it happened even more quickly than Smith imagined.

"Everybody expected him to do extremely well," Smith said. "No one expected him to do so well so fast, to have an undefeated regular-season [Big Ten record]. No one could have predicted that. He's exceeded our expectations in so many different ways."

Smith noted that even with the probation and the scholarship cuts, Meyer hardly arrived to a bare cupboard in Columbus. Ohio State, as always, had talent. But Meyer had to build depth, reshape the team for his system and add the speed that he wanted.

"Coach Tressel did a marvelous job of recruiting nationally," Smith said, "but Urban took it to another level."

In some ways, the tattoo scandal seems like a long time ago. Maybe it's how several other off-the-field controversies -- the Sandusky case at Penn State, the North Carolina academic fraud, just to name a couple -- made Ohio State's missteps seem minor by comparison. The issue of player compensation has also become a hot topic in ensuing years. At a time when players have sued to retain their image and likeness rights, when power schools are changing the very structure of the NCAA in order to give their athletes more money and benefits and when we're arguing whether a star like Georgia's Todd Gurley should be able to profit off his autograph, is anyone really offended by the notion of trading team-issued merchandise for some body ink?

Yet in reality, that dark time for the Buckeyes wasn't long ago at all. Ohio State only officially came off NCAA probation on Friday. The seniors on this year's team played during that difficult 2011 season. Starting offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin is a fifth-year senior, meaning he was around for Tressel's last season in 2010.

Smith said Meyer got emotional during a team meeting the day the playoff pairings were announced as he thanked the seniors for their perseverance.

"He knows they were the class that went through the significant trials and tribulations and got this program where it is now," Smith said. "He was so happy to get them a championship."

Now, they're taking the Buckeyes back to New Orleans, where in many ways this journey began.