There was an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1961. At the outset, we are introduced to a Mr. Hector B. Poole — played by the original Durwood from Bewitched — who is on his way in to work when he tosses a coin into a newsie's cashbox. The coin stands on its end, and stays that way. Instantly, Mr. Hector B. Poole can hear everyone's unspoken thoughts. A loan manager at a bank, Poole that day saves the outlet from a disastrous loan default when he 'hears' a respected businessman tell himself he's going to take the ostensible business loan and go gambling with it. By workday's end, Poole 'hears' his boss's plans to meet up with his young squeeze on the side, and Poole shrewdly blackmails him into giving him a big promotion. After leaving the office triumphantly, Poole tosses another coin into the same newsie's cashbox — and knocks over the coin that had been on its edge all day. Hector B. Poole can no longer read minds.
"One time in a million, a coin will land on its edge," series creator and narrator Rod Serling says in the epilogue. "But all it takes to knock it over is a vagrant breeze, a vibration or a slight blow. Hector B. Poole — a human coin, on edge for a brief time ... in The Twilight Zone."
This classic episode came to mind at some point near the end of the Troy Smith years of the Jim Tressel era at Ohio State. Maybe it was during the first half of the 2006 showdown, when Smith was as by-god good as any college quarterback I'd ever seen. Again. For the third time. I think that was when it first occurred that Tressel's two best quarterbacks to that point — Craig Krenzel and Smith — were flukes. Neither got his big chance because Tressel figured he was the best quarterback at the start of his breakthrough season. Or, in Krenzel's case, even the second best.
But this incredible string of luck for Tressel didn't end there. Right up until the past couple of months, when it came to his quarterbacks, Tressel was Hector B. Poole. He threw a coin into the quarterback cashbox in November 2001, and it stood on its side for the next 10 years. To wit:
In Tressel's first year, 2001, all Buckeye fans were over-the-moon ecstatic after the autumn press conference at which the then most-heralded HS QB in Ohio history, Justin Zwick, announced he was Columbus bound. All Tressel and OSU had to do was get through the rest of the miserable 2001 season with inconsistent, mistake-prone senior Steve Bellisari at QB, then Zwick would take over in 2002 — because, the belief went, the cupboard was empty at QB after Bellisari. And this kid Zwick was as can't-miss as they come.
Some 10 days before the 2001 Michigan game, Bellisari was caught DUI on campus and suspended for the next two games. Scott McMullen, the backup, started the penultimate regular-season game against Illinois and was terrible. Clipboard-holidng 3rd stringer, Craig Krenzel, was given a chance as Illinois was blowing out the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium. He fared a bit better. With Bellisari still suspended, Krenzel got the start the next week in Ann Arbor. We all know what happened then. Krenzel does his thing, is surprisingly efficient and accurate and avoids the big mistakes — ie, Tressel-ball — and a star is born. If Bellisari never had driven drunk, odds are Krenzel never does anything but hold a clipboard or motion in signals for the rest of his Ohio State football career.
Yet come fall 2002, many OSU fans still want the phenom Zwick to start right out of the gate, but Tressel finally goes with the junior Krenzel. We all know what happened in 2002. Krenzel plays solidly if not ever spectacularly, but is amazingly clutch at the right times, and the Bucks go 14-0 and win the national title.
Krenzel of course is QB for his senior year too in 2003, but gets outplayed by John Navarre in the big 100th Big One showdown in Ann Arbor.
Come fall 2004, Buckeye Nation anxiously awaits for the Zwick era to, at last, gloriously begin. One problem. He's terrible. He's big, lumbersome (6-4, 225), not very accurate and surprisingly weak-armed. Tressel, though, still thinks Zwick gives OSU the best chance to win in 2004. Zwick gets OSU off to a stumbling 3-3 start, including losses at Northwestern and an absolute blowout loss at night at Iowa. Buckeye Nation wolves are out, in force. Was 2002 just a one-season fluke? Is Tressel over his head? The Great God Tressel panics. With Zwick dinged up, Tressel decides to bench him come November, and installs a completely new offense late in the season, behind a new QB — a desperate gamble to do such a thing late in the year, as observers of Michigan's defense the past three seasons can attest. Tressel replaces Zwick with little-known backup QB Troy Smith, who had been only an after-thought 3-star 'athlete' recruit in Zwick's 2002 class. Smith was so much an after-thought all through 2002 and 2003 that, with no chance of playing, he would admit later he was seldom focusing on football and was always getting into trouble, and indeed was out partying with Santonio Holmes in the night-club incident the week of the 2003 Michigan game, which compelled The Great Punisher Tressel to bench Holmes, his best offensive player, for an entire series (!) in Ann Arbor.
Back to Nov 2004. In his first start, Troy Smith looks good vs MSU (what QB didn't that year), but looks terrible in a loss at Purdue the next week. Now Michigan, undefeated in conference play and 9-1 overall behind its over-achieving true-frosh QB Chad Henne, comes to Ohio State. We all know what happened next. Smith does the Denard Notre Dame 2010 thing in 2004, in 2005 and in 2006. Tressel and Ohio State grab the M-OSU series, Ohio recruiting and the entire Big Ten all by the jugular.
The coin was still on its side when, with Troy Smith finally gone, Todd Boeckman led Ohio State to the 2007 Big Ten showdown game in Ann Arbor, Carr's last game as head coach in Michigan Stadium. Boeckman plays so awfully in the first half, Tressel is scared to throw at all in the second half. But because Michigan is so inept on offense, Tressel decides he can afford to play it as conservatively as Bo or Woody with a 4-point lead in 1973 and thus sits on a 7-3 lead with nothing but conservative running plays. It works. 14-3 final.
Then the Terrelle Pryor era, come 2008. And yet three more painful Michigan losses to Ohio State.
Think of what might have happened had Bellisari not driven drunk back in Nov 2001. He'd have got the nod at QB in Ann Arbor, when Michigan was playing for the outright BIg Ten title and Sugar Bowl berth (with the Rose rented out for the BCS title game). Bellisari would have probably done what he always did — mixed good plays with terrible ones, and as likely as not UM would have won and gone to the Sugar instead of Illinois, a team UM had crushed in September. It would have been Lloyd's fourth Big Ten title in five years. And Tressel would have been lampooned for having given his unfulfilled "you'll be especially proud in Ann Arbor" speech. What's more, the pressure to start Zwick at the beginning of the 2002 season would have been immense — especially after not having ever taken the clipboard out of Craig Krenzel's hands to see what he could do in real time. And with a true-frosh at QB in 2002, let alone one as mediocre as Zwick, there's no conceivable way that OSU would have won the Big Ten in 2002, let alone gone 14-0 and won the national title.
So, was Ohio State's great run through the Troy Smith years a result of great coaching, or incredibly great fortune?
Until late last year, I'd been telling anyone who would listen for four years that Tressel had WAYYY overdrawn from the Bank of Good QB Fortune, and that a major correction just had — just had — to be around the corner soon. My friends, and I'm sure Brian, got tired of me saying it. I'd kind of forgotten about the whole thing until today. I wasn't expecting The Great Leveller to come in the form of NCAA rules-breaking shenanigans by Tressel to protect his — tada!!!!! — star QB, Terrelle Pryor. But that's how it went down. It all evens out in the end, friends.
Today, the coin finally fell over.
Hector B. Tressel — a human coin, on edge for a brief time ... in The Twilight Zone.