25 Years Ago: Mike Tomczak

By Joe Beale on July 10, 2009 at 6:55a
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Succeeding a legend is always difficult; expectations run high and any flaw is magnified by unfair comparisons. Ohio State is not really known as a quarterback factory, and as a result the few truly great ones that come through are hailed as conquering heroes by Buckeye fans.

But the flip side is that whoever succeeds a great one will probably get less adoration than he deserves. Who can forget the Columbus Dispatch headline that ran during Steve Bellisari's first season as QB for Ohio State: "He's No Joe" (referring to his predecessor, Joe Germaine)? Ok, maybe that's not such a great example. But more recently, there is a sense that Todd Boeckman never got a fair shake from the fans for the good work he did, because he did not compare favorably with Troy Smith.

If you can feel Todd's pain, then you know what it must have been like for Mike Tomczak to succeed 4-year starter and all-time OSU passing leader Art Schlichter.

Preparing to handoff, as usual.Is it a run right, a run left, or a run up the middle?

Tomczak hailed from Calumet City, IL, where as a senior at the oddly-named Thornton Fractional North High School he was named Illinois High School Player of the Year. During his 4 seasons at Ohio State, Tomczak completed 376 of 675 passes for 5569 yards and 32 touchdowns, finishing his career 2nd only to Schlichter in school history in all of those categories.

Tomczak was not drafted out of college, but he signed with Chicago as a free agent and proceeded to play 15 years in the NFL with 4 different teams (he signed with Detroit to play a 16th season in 2000, but a pre-season injury convinced him to retire). Tomczak earned a Super Bowl ring as a back-up for the Bears in 1985, and was even seen playing a little guitar with his teammates. In total, he started 73 games out of 185 played, completing 53% of his passes for 16,079 yards with 88 TD's against 106 INT's.

Backing up Schlichter as a freshman (and also holding for PAT's and FG's), Tomczak was considered the heir apparent for the job after the senior QB departed. His first two starts as a sophomore were both victories, but a match-up with Stanford and future NFL Hall of Fame QB John Elway loomed in week 3. Late in the game, with OSU holding a slim lead and trying to run down the clock, coach Earle Bruce called for a bootleg left where Tomczak would have the option to run or pass. Spotting WR Gary Williams open in the end zone, Tomczak lofted the ball toward him. But the ball hung too much and Stanford intercepted. You can guess the rest. Elway led his team down the field in one of those 2-minute drills for which he would be famous later. After the game, I could hear chants of "Bring back Woody" from the stadium dorm windows as I was walking through the parking lot (a direct shot at Bruce, who apparently was a little too pass-happy for their taste). Many commentators pinned the loss on Tomczak, whose wobbly performance and poor decision-making on the key play was contrasted with the heroics of Schlichter (past) and Elway (present).

It did not get much better in the next two games. Tomczak was ineffective and was benched in favor of Brent Offenbecher during a home loss to Florida State, and in week 5 he sat the entire game while Offenbecher directed the offense to a 6-0 shutout loss to Wisconsin. But Tomczak earned back the starting job the next week for a road tilt at Illinois, and he out-dueled future Super Bowl adversary Tony Eason as OSU posted a much-needed 26-21 victory. Tomczak passed for 247 yards, including a 74-yard bomb that opened the scoring and set the tone for the game. Throughout the remainder of the season, Tomczak's effective passing opened up the field for the powerful running of Tim Spencer and the Buckeye offense rolled through the rest of the schedule. The team also rolled, beating the Big 10 champion Michigan and crushing the BYU Cougars (featuring another future NFL Hall of Fame QB, Steve Young) in the Holiday Bowl to finish off the season.

The 1983 season was one of poise and consistency for Tomczak and the team. It was another 9-3 campaign, but that was almost understandable considering the difficulty of the schedule (road games at Oklahoma, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan). Tomczak finished the season by leading the team in a 2-minute drill of his own to defeat the Pitt Panthers in the Fiesta Bowl. With RB Keith Byars firmly established as the starter and almost the entire offensive line returning for the 1984 season, expectations were high for Tomczak and the Buckeye offense. And then the unthinkable happened.

During the 1984 spring game, Tomczak broke his leg. Back-up Jim Karsatos had subbed for Tomczak in the 1983 Illinois game, but the offense clearly suffered and Bruce mostly stuck to the ground when he was in. Now it was doubtful when or if Tomczak would be able to return, and how effective he would be if he did. Fortunately, he did recover and missed only the first game against Oregon State. In game 2 against Washington State, Tomczak did not start but entered the game to a standing ovation on the 4th Buckeye series. He proceeded to lead the team to TD's on 3 straight possessions, and it became clear that he had come all the way back from the injury. Tomczak had never been an elite passer, but he was effective and provided solid leadership for the team. The offense, and the team, responded well to his return.

The 1984 team did not throw the ball a lot, mostly because Keith Byars was so dominant on the ground. Byars and the veteran offensive line made it difficult for any team to stop the running game, and so it was rarely necessary for Tomczak to carry the team. One game in which it was necessary came against Michigan State, and Tomczak rose to the challenge, passing for 256 yards on only 16 completions. The team ground out a 23-20 road victory, and then won 3 of its last 4 regular season games.

Against Michigan in the season finale, coach Bruce called for more passing early in the game in an effort to get out to an early lead. It seemed to work at first, but the offense got bogged down with untimely turnovers in the first half and led only 7-3. However, when the game was on the line, Tomczak led the team to the go-ahead TD, completing a key 3rd down pass to a diving Mike Lanese along the way. In the Rose Bowl loss to USC, Tomczak shined again as OSU was forced to throw the ball in order to make a comeback. They fell short, but Tomczak passed for 290 yards in his swan song as a Buckeye. Overall, he finished the season with 1952 yards passing, which may not seem like a lot but is impressive when you consider that Byars had almost 1800 yards rushing.

After retiring from the NFL, Tomczak spent some time as an announcer in Pittsburgh and has done some college football commentary. These days he works with former NFL LB Shane Conlan at SMG Sports Management in Conshohocken, PA (suburban Philly). Presumably, he now represents players the way he once represented The Ohio State University on the field: with consistency, courage, and class.

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