The Underdogs: Jim Tressel and His Players Look Back at the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes
Twenty years later, the “Luckeyes” tell the story of their extraordinary championship season—from Maurice Clarett to the win against Michigan to a double-overtime Fiesta Bowl victory.
To less charitable observers, they were known as the “Luckeyes.” For those invested in the 2002 Ohio State football team, the Buckeyes’ drive to their first national championship in 34 years had less to do with luck than belief, toughness, talent, discipline and, perhaps, destiny.
This was a team that exemplified coach Jim Tressel’s philosophy, as summed up by tight end Ben Hartsock: “superior special teams, relentless defense, and mistake-free and opportunistic offense.” They counted an All-American punter and kicker among their best players, squeaked by more often than not by locking down high-powered offenses and were quarterbacked by the rugged and unflashy Craig Krenzel.
Yet the 2002 squad is also remembered for Maurice Clarett’s cataclysmic blend of talent and controversy, for Chris Gamble’s virtuosic two-way play, for nail-biter after nail-biter. It somehow played the part of both juggernaut and underdog en route to the first 14-0 season in Division I college football history (the result of an extra game added to the OSU schedule in 2002), capped off by a thrilling (and controversial) upset win in the Fiesta Bowl over a Miami Hurricanes team on a 34-game win streak.
“When they had their backs to the wall and it didn’t look like things were going to turn out for them, they made their own breaks,” remembers Rusty Miller, who covered Buckeye football for the Associated Press for three decades. “It wasn’t luck.”
In January 2001, Ohio State fired coach John Cooper, whose otherwise successful tenure was haunted by routine losses to Michigan and in bowl games. Cooper’s replacement: Jim Tressel, whose Youngstown State teams had won four I-AA national championships. Introduced at a basketball game at the Schottenstein Center, Tressel promised, “You will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.” Tressel’s prophecy was fulfilled when the Buckeyes redeemed his unremarkable first season by winning at Michigan. Quarterback Craig Krenzel held his own in his first career start.
Rusty Miller, Associated Press: It takes a little bit more fiber for a player in the biggest game of the year to play well, and [Krenzel] played well against Michigan.
Craig Krenzel, junior quarterback: For me personally, it was a confidence-builder and momentum-builder to take into that offseason.
Mike Doss, senior safety: It started with beating That Team Up North the previous November. Once we did that, I think that gave us the momentum with Tress.
Led by a strong core of senior leaders—including Doss, fellow safety Donnie Nickey, linebacker Cie Grant, tight end Ben Hartsock and defensive end Kenny Peterson—the Buckeyes began to reestablish a standard of excellence in Tressel’s second year.
Cie Grant, senior linebacker: During winter conditioning, I thought that’s where our leaders stepped up, and we really got after it.
Mike Nugent, sophomore kicker: Our early morning winter workouts, we built a lot of camaraderie.
Krenzel: I think you saw a group of guys that were just tired of underperforming, that were tired of being below average by Buckeye standards.
Freshman Maurice Clarett, widely viewed as the best running back in his recruiting class, enrolled early to participate in spring practice.
Donnie Nickey, senior safety: Maurice showed up early with a bright orange Navigator and a Cadillac with these huge rims before rims were even a thing. We were like, “Who’s this guy?” And then he comes in and he works his butt off. He’s the hardest worker in the weight room.
Grant: I had never seen a freshman come in who would work out prior to the team working out together. He would work out with the team. And when we all left, Maurice was getting a third workout in. I found that to be just captivating.
Kenny Peterson, senior defensive end: When you see a freshman coming in with that kind of determination and that much drive, it does nothing but help motivate the entire team.
Before the season, the team spent a day at tight end Ben Hartsock’s family farm in Ross County.
Peterson: A bunch of guys from the city, we’ve never been on the farm. This is a real-life farm where you’ve got animals and s---.
Dustin Fox, sophomore cornerback: We were out there shooting clay discs and doing all the fun farm stuff.
Tressel: Our real desire was to spend more time together, and not just on the practice field.
Nickey: All that coach Tress did that coach Coop didn’t quite [do] so well was just bring us together in situations that are not football related. It was just doing life with each other.
Ben Hartsock, senior tight end: To be able to do that with that team was special. That season was helped by that goofy little getaway for our team.
The 13th-ranked Buckeyes opened the season by hosting Texas Tech in the Pigskin Classic. Clarett, the first true freshman to start at tailback for Ohio State in a season opener, rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-21 Buckeyes victory.
Andy Groom, senior punter: That was Clarett’s coming-out party.
Krenzel: We had seen Maurice in practice, had a chance to watch how mature of a football player Reese was in terms of his understanding of the offense and our pass protection and his patience and his vision running the football. We had an idea, “This kid’s special.” But to really experience it in the Shoe on a real field on a Saturday, it was a lot of fun.
➽ The defense also made itself known, shutting down Texas Tech’s Heisman hopeful quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury.
Tim May, longtime sportswriter for The Columbus Dispatch: Under Mark Dantonio in his second year as coordinator, the defense came out hellbent on his one oft-repeated tenet, which was “affect the quarterback.”
Tressel: I think [Kingsbury] was hit 28 times. We only sacked him seven, but every time he threw it, it seemed like there was a silver helmet real close by.
After a 51-17 blowout of Kent State, the No. 6 Buckeyes welcomed No. 10 Washington State, whose quarterback, Jason Gesser, was also getting Heisman hype. The Cougars led 7-6 at halftime, but Clarett exploded for 194 yards in the second half. Ohio State won 25-7.
Grant: Any time someone was on a Heisman hopeful list, we wanted to make sure that your campaign stopped that day in the Shoe.
Krenzel: Our defense took two preseason Heisman hopeful quarterbacks and made them look like freshmen in high school.
Hartsock: Getting past that team and winning convincingly, I think it took our belief in the team up to a notch of, “OK, we’re not just trying to incrementally increase. This team’s got some special chemistry.”
The team’s first scare came at Cincinnati, a rare in-state road game for the Buckeyes. Quarterback Gino Guidugli had the Bearcats leading most of the game, but an interception by junior safety Will Allen sealed a 23-19 Buckeyes win.
Miller: Cincinnati was throwing into the endzone for a win in the last 30 seconds of the game. If they would have caught it, it changes history entirely.
Groom: We felt like one could have gotten away from us there.
Grant: You don’t want to wear the scarlet and gray and take an L from anyone in the state of Ohio, ’cause you’ll hear about that forever.
Nickey: That’s when we really, really took a step and believed in each other: “I know you’re gonna play hard, and you’re gonna go at it for me.”
Tressel: I really felt our team learned a lot of lessons in that ballgame. Plus, I think we started playing Chris Gamble on defense in that game, which was a big step for us.
After an injury to senior cornerback Richard McNutt, sophomore wide receiver Chris Gamble began occasionally lining up on defense, too. Eventually, he played both ways full time while also returning punts.
Krenzel: [Gamble] was physically the most gifted guy that I’ve ever played with. It was so effortless. His feet, his hips, his quickness, his speed. His football IQ was through the roof.
Nugent: The guy was a freak. He was one of those people, it doesn’t matter what you ask him to do, he’s gonna do it like an All-American.
Tressel: We always liked to have fun in practice. Of course the DBs covered the wideouts. We liked to flip it around and say, “OK wideouts, you cover the DBs.” So Chris was a wideout, and every time he flipped over to defense, no one could get open.
Fox: It was always a joke that he could play corner, and it became a necessity.
Peterson: He was like the silent assassin. Chris didn’t say much, but his play spoke so loud.
Ohio State began its Big Ten schedule with a 45-17 home win over Indiana. Then came a tumultuous night game at Northwestern. Clarett fumbled three times and got into a shouting match with running backs coach Tim Spencer. Somehow, the No. 5 Buckeyes prevailed 27-16.
May: [Clarett] was put back into the game. It told me that they felt his presence was so critical to them that they could tolerate three fumbles in a single game and stay with that back.
Hartsock: That was where we started seeing some of the cracks in Maurice and the fracture between the team and him as an individual.
Tressel: I think it might have been his first flight ever in his life, and he was really struggling with that. I just think that put him on edge a little bit. You never know when young people are doing things that are outside of their experiences.
Following wins over San Jose State and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes took on No. 17 Penn State in Columbus, winning 13-6 in another defensive battle. Ohio State held eventual Heisman finalist Larry Johnson to 66 yards rushing, well below his average. Gamble scored the Buckeyes’ only touchdown on an electric pick-six in his first game starting at corner.
Krenzel: Without question, in my memory, the loudest I have ever remembered the Shoe being was on that play.
May: My wife and I have owned two or three horses forever. The way [Gamble] pranced down that field reminded me of our thoroughbreds at the time. It’s almost like his feet were barely touching the ground, like a marionette.
After beating Minnesota 34-3 at home, the now-No. 3 Buckeyes headed to Purdue for an instantly iconic game.Late in the fourth quarter, Ohio State trailed 6-3. On fourth and one from the Purdue 37, Krenzel lobbed a deep ball to junior wideout Michael Jenkins, who caught it for the game’s only touchdown. “Holy Buckeye!” exclaimed TV commentator Brent Musburger. Ohio State held on to win 10-6.
Nugent: It’s fourth and one, and I’m like, “Why are we throwing it?”
Miller: That took some guts on fourth and one. That shows a lot of faith in your players, too.
Krenzel: My read was still going to be Ben Hartsock. … But as he was coming across underneath, he just got caught up in the wash.
Tressel: When he let the ball go, I’ll be honest with you. I thought he overthrew it. I thought it was going to land in the stands.
Doss: Michael Jenkins ran right by me on our sideline. I felt like that ball was in the air for a millennium.
Peterson: I think everybody stopped breathing for two seconds or however long that ball was up in the air. And he came down with the ball, and you just knew it was destiny at that point.
As the Buckeyes ascended to No. 2, more drama ensued with a 23-16 double-overtime win at Illinois—the first overtime game in Ohio State history. Then it was time to face archrival Michigan at home with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Krenzel: I woke up that morning and looked out the hotel window, and the streets were already packed. It was 7 o’clock in the morning.
Doss: Senior Day. I stayed my senior year. My family’s there. My mother. My dad. My siblings. It was a lot of emotion building up that day.
Hartsock: We all recognized what’s at stake, but nobody wants to be too outspoken about the stakes. The pressure was huge.
Krenzel: Fiesta Bowl representatives were there to extend the invitation, should we win.
Hartsock: Even with 10 years of NFL experience, that was the most violent, the most aggressive, the most hard-fought game I ever played in. It’s because of the respect for that rivalry, that respect for your opponent.
Tressel: They moved the ball pretty well, but we did a good job in the red zone. Four trips to the red zone and three field goals—that was the difference.
The Buckeyes’ 14-9 victory over the Wolverines ended with another Will Allen interception in the endzone, followed by tens of thousands of fans storming the field.
Grant: Before I knew it, there was thousands and thousands of people on the field—and Tostitos bags, Tostitos hats.
Peterson: You could see the excitement and the drunkenness on some of those people’s faces.
May: There’s that great picture of this whole scene, and there’s Craig Krenzel up on a bunch of fans’ shoulders in the middle of it. You see former Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau off to the side kind of admiring it.
Krenzel: When you’re in the grind, you don’t necessarily realize what you’re a part of. You don’t realize how special 12-0 is because 12-0 doesn’t matter if you’re not 13-0. There is no time to rest on what you have accomplished—13-0 mattered.
The team had six weeks between Michigan and a showdown with No. 1 Miami. The national media didn’t give the Buckeyes much of a chance. Vegas favored the Hurricanes by 12.
Tressel: Our guys knew that it was a 43-day wait, and I thought they did a really good job of not getting ready to play too soon or not getting lulled into losing their sharpness.
Nugent: We were all doing pushups as a team, and Mike Doss got up there, and every time we went down, we chanted, “National champs!” That was one of those turning point moments where I thought, “Why not us?”
Hartsock: We knew that we were big underdogs. We knew that—and we relished that.
Krenzel: [Miami] were incredible. There was no way to deny what they had accomplished and how good they were. But that was motivating to us. We felt deep down that they were going to see a level of physicality that they had not seen.
Doss: There was a flier that Miami was already circulating in South Florida that they were hosting a back-to-back national championship party when the Hurricanes beat us. We had gotten wind of that flier and actually had a copy of it.
Peterson: We kept it kind of close to our vest in the locker room, but we used it as motivation amongst the players.
The Buckeyes arrived in Arizona on Dec. 26. While the team prepared for the championship game, an off-the-field controversy erupted courtesy of the outspoken Clarett.
May: One of his friends had been shot to death up in the Youngstown area, and Maurice put up a big fuss because he wanted Ohio State to fly him back for that young man’s memorial service. It became a real brouhaha.
Clarett (December 2002): I guess football’s more important than a person’s life to them. That’s why I’m ready to get this game over and go back home.
Hartsock: I remember it was happening, but my perception was the majority of the team was naive to it. It was discussed a little around the locker room, but it was above our heads. Maybe other guys felt differently.
Finally, on Jan. 3, it was Fiesta Bowl time.
Nickey: I always spoke first at the team meals. I’d speak, and Mike [Doss] would finish. I liked it that way. I liked to get out of the way. But at the national championship game, I was like, “Mike, I gotta talk last. You talk first.”
Doss: He just stood up and was like, “We’re gonna f--- these guys up!” And he flipped the table over. And we just all went crazy, and we just walked out, like that was it. Nothing else needed to be said.
Nickey: It was a real short speech, and at the end all I said was, “We gotta kick ’em in the mouth.” There was a food tray right next to me. We were in the hotel lobby eating our pregame meal. And I kicked it, and it shot—ranch dressing and everything—straight up to the ceiling. Everybody got up. I was like, “Let’s go! Let’s kick their a----.”
From start to finish, the game was close—a parade of offensive, defensive and special teams highlights for both teams, intensified by injuries and disputed calls.
Hartsock: The opening play of the game, [OSU junior defensive end] Will Smith gets a sack and does so with his speed and athleticism. Instantly, that point spread was vaporized. We could sense it on the sideline that we were in this game. And from that point on, it was a fistfight.
Doss: [Ohio State senior linebacker] Matt Wilhelm started calling out all the plays. Like, “This is what they’re running.” When they lined up and just ran the plays that we watched on film, we were like, “There’s no way they’re about to beat us today.”
With the Buckeyes leading 14-10 early in the third quarter, Miami safety Sean Taylor intercepted Krenzel in the endzone—his second pick of the game—and took off running. Clarett chased him down and, in the process of tackling him, regained possession of the football.
Peterson: Maurice was like, “You ain’t takin’ my lunch money.” He went out there and took his lunch money back.
Doss: It was a great football play. Smart. Intuitive to recognize that Sean Taylor was carrying that thing like a loaf of bread.
Miller: The biggest play of the game, maybe the biggest play in Ohio State history.
At the end of regulation, the game was tied at 17. Miami scored on its first possession in overtime, so Ohio State needed a touchdown to force a second OT. On fourth and three, Krenzel’s pass to Gamble fell incomplete, setting off a frenzied Hurricanes celebration. Several moments later, field judge Terry Porter threw a penalty flag, calling pass interference on Miami’s Glenn Sharpe—a decision that has since been endlessly scrutinized by the Hurricanes and their fans.
Fox: All I remember is seeing fireworks go off and Miami rushing the field and it felt like an eternity. It wasn’t that long, but it felt like five minutes.
Hartsock: I could watch the referee processing the information in his mind. He could have crocheted a yellow flag in the time that it took him to make that decision.
Krenzel: Do I think it was pass interference? Yes, 100 percent. Do I understand Miami players’ complaints? To a degree I do. They allowed them to get away with it all game long. Michael Jenkins’ jersey became untucked because of how much they were grabbing.
Peterson: The man in the stripes called it pass interference, that’s what it is. They can be butthurt all they want to.
Tressel: No matter who you talk to at Miami to this day, [everyone] wants to talk about that play. And I think that’s a great lesson. You’ve got to get beyond your disappointments. ’Cause they haven’t been good since that play.
Resurrected, the Buckeyes evened the game on Krenzel’s second rushing touchdown of the night. In the second overtime, Clarett ran for a second touchdown of his own to make it 31-24. Miami drove to the two yard line, but the Buckeye defense held. On fourth and goal, a blitzing Grant pressured Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey, forcing a wild desperation throw that Nickey batted down. The Buckeyes were national champions.
May: Cie Grant coming off the edge was one of the great haymakers ever.
Peterson: One of the fastest linebackers that we have, and they literally let him go unblocked.
Fox: After that, it’s a blur. I remember throwing my helmet, and I don’t think I ever saw it again.
Peterson: Everything goes numb for me at that point.
May: Tressel, at midfield, when they got him on the PA, delivered that great line, “We’ve always had the best damn band in the land. Now we’ve got the best damn football team in the land!”
Krenzel: That night, we spent a lot of time with our families and the coaches and their families in this huge outdoor space at the front of the hotel. To have a beer, to have a cigar with our coaches and their families, it was a memory that I hope to never forget.
Doss: Ultimately we ran the table and had the greatest season, to me, in Ohio State football history.
This story is from the January 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.