In the aftermath of Ohio State's 17-16 loss to USC in the 1980 Rose Bowl, the OSU coaching staff was disappointed but upbeat heading into recruiting season. After an 11-0 regular season, the Buckeyes had played in the showcase of all the bowl games with a national title on the line, and almost pulled out a victory. With this much exposure and a bright future behind a star sophomore quarterback, it was not difficult to sell young high school players on the virtues of wearing the scarlet and gray.
Coach Earle Bruce used the final episode of his weekly television show to make an appeal to potential recruits. He was joined by Governor James A. Rhodes, who noted the close score and asked recruits to consider coming to Ohio State to help the team get over the top. As a result of these and other efforts, OSU pulled in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, second only to Alabama in the opinion of the experts.
Fast-forward to 1983, and many of those big-name recruits were now seniors and ready to lead their team to new heights, or at least another Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. The leaders of the class were offensive linemen William Roberts and Scott Zalenski, tight end John Frank, receivers Cedric Anderson and Thad Jemison, and defensive backs Garcia Lane and Shaun Gayle. They were bolstered by a strong sophomore class featuring running back Keith Byars and linebacker Thomas "Pepper" Johnson.
Byars would start out as the 2nd-string tailback in coach Earle Bruce's I-formation offense, but before long he would win the job over senior Kelvin Lindsey. Meanwhile, junior Mike Tomczak had a firm grip on the starting quarterback spot after finishing strong the previous season. Tomczak's success mirrored that of the team in general; as he improved and became more confident the team prospered on the field and by the end of the season they were the best team in the conference.
The one impediment to greatness in 1983 was a schedule that was more challenging than the program had seen in years. For starters, the big non-conference game was a trip to Oklahoma to take on Barry Switzer's Sooners. This was the return trip of a home-and-home series begun when OU came to Columbus in 1977. That game was one for the ages, and the Buckeye players were anxious to travel to Norman and dish out some revenge.
The conference schedule was no less daunting. There were three other top-20 caliber teams in the Big Ten that season: Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. A quirk in the schedule (playing at Illinois two years in a row) meant that Ohio State would have to play all three of them on the road. There was one more road game, but the Buckeyes were not as concerned about this one because it was against Indiana, a team that had struggled since reaching #16 in the final rankings under Lee Corso in 1979. Corso was fired after consecutive losing seasons in 1981-1982 and replaced by San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Sam Wyche.
Wyche had played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1968-1970 and was heavily influenced by the "West Coast Offense" developed there by assistant coach Bill Walsh. When Walsh was named head coach of the 49ers in 1979, Wyche joined him as an assistant there and was on the staff when San Francisco went from 2-14 in Walsh's first year to a Super Bowl championship in his 3rd. Wyche was determined to change both the look and the attitude of the Indiana team and his experience with the 49ers led him to believe that no situation is too desperate to turn around.
In addition to changing the team colors to the now-familiar Crimson and Cream (under Corso they had gone with a brighter shade of red accented by white with a black stripe), Wyche installed the West Coast Offense, which emphasized spreading the field horizontally and throwing short passes. It also de-emphasized the running game, which had never been a strength of the offense even under Corso. In 1983, IU would score only 7 touchdowns on the ground, and no player would rush for more than 312 yards. On the other hand, quarterback Steve Bradley and his backup, Cam Cameron, would throw for over 2,700 yards and 17 TDs but also throw 19 interceptions. As a result, Indiana would struggle to a 3-5 record leading up to the game against Ohio State.
For their part, OSU would get out to a tremendous start. In their home opener, the Buckeyes crushed the Oregon Ducks, 31-6, behind the passing of Tomczak, who completed 21 of 25 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns. The only blemish was the running game, where neither Lindsey or Byars could get anything going. In fact, Byars helped Oregon to get their only score when he fumbled deep in OSU territory on his only carry. Oregon would punch it in from there but, in a sign of how the day would go for them, they missed the extra point. Senior fullback Vaughn Broadnax led the team in rushing with 76 yards.
The team was still sharp in week 2 when they took on the Sooners in Norman. Tomczak completed 15 of 25 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to tight end John Frank, and the Buckeyes rolled to an emotionally satisfying 24-14 win. OSU never trailed in the game, and they thoroughly shut down OU's star tailback, Marcus Dupree, who had rushed for over 200 yards in their bowl game the previous season. Byars and Lindsey each rushed for 57 yards, and Byars had a 50-yard pass reception to set up a score.
Road losses at Iowa and Illinois tempered the enthusiasm of the team, but they also managed to get home wins against Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, and were 6-2 heading into Bloomington to face the Hoosiers. OSU coaches were concerned about IU's pass-happy offense, since their defense had not exactly shut down opposing passing games. Despite losing to OSU, Wisconsin had thrown for more than 300 yards, and the OSU secondary was burned down the stretch against both Iowa and Illinois.
As it turned out, they needn't have been worried. Indiana had no answer to the OSU offense, which was now rolling along with Byars firmly entrenched as starting tailback. The Buckeyes scored two touchdowns in each quarter as they blew out the Hoosiers, 56-17. Wyche did not take the loss well, and he failed to cross the field after the game for the traditional post-game coaches' handshake. Instead, he shook a fist at the OSU sideline as he led his team off the field. These antics were merely a preview of things to come later in Wyche's coaching career.
Ohio State would go back home to crush Northwestern, 55-7, before finishing the season with a loss on the road at Michigan. In that game, for the only time I can remember, Woody Hayes took a turn in the broadcast booth to call the game (along with 10TV's Gary Radnich) for a local Columbus broadcast. Tomczak led a valiant comeback, but it fell short as the Wolverines prevailed, 24-21.
Ohio State would finish the season with a thrilling 28-23 Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. In that game, Byars took a kickoff 99 yards for a TD, and Tomczak hit Thad Jemison with a 39-yard TD pass with less than a minute remaining for the go-ahead score. The team's 9-3 record would be the third of six straight years with the same record, thus earning Bruce the nickname "Old 9-3 Earle". Byars finished with 207 carries for 1,126 yards and 19 TDs. Frank would lead the team in receiving with 45 catches for 641 yards and 4 TDs. He would be drafted later that spring by Wyche's old mentor Bill Walsh and ended up playing 5 seasons for the 49ers before retiring.
Wyche would coach for only one season at Indiana, finishing 3-8. The next year he left to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, where he would coach for 8 seasons and compile an overall record of 61-66. The Bengals under Wyche won the AFC championship in 1988 and faced, ironically, Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. The Bengals led for much of the game, but 49ers QB Joe Montana led a late drive (John Frank catches a pass at the :30 mark on the video) and hit John Taylor for the winning touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining in the game for a 20-16 49ers victory. After finishing 3-13 in the 1991 season, Wyche was fired by new Bengals owner Mike Brown (who took over from his deceased father Paul Brown).