It was February 1983 and I was cleaning out my cubbyhole next to the other graduate assistants at Florida State.
I had just finished law school and my fourth year as a G.A. at FSU, and I was on my way to tiny Salem (W.Va.) College to become the new football coach. At 26, I had just become the youngest head coach in the country and the thought of my inexperience was starting to really sink in. I remember stopping by my father's office one last time to see if I could pick up any last-minute advice. He had been 26 when he took his first head-coaching job in 1955, and I figured he must have learned a few things that he could pass on to me before I took off.
We talked about a lot of football stuff that day, but the one thing that stuck in my mind was something he said about getting your players ready to play.
"Remember this, Terry, no matter how hard you try, you are not going to be able to get your kids mentally ready to play every week," he said. "Football is a game that must be played with great emotion, and your boys can only get up for so many games a year.
"That's why you better always be fundamentally sound. You better take care of the little things and be able to block and tackle because some days they're just not going to be ready to play."
I thought he was crazy. I had been a walk-on at West Virginia for five years, and there wasn't a Saturday in the season that I would not have sold my soul for a chance to get in the game and play. How in the world can you not get "up" for each game?
But you know what? He was exactly right. Over the years, no matter how good my teams were, there always was a game or two each season that the players could not get mentally ready to play. Every now and then, we lost that game. Most of the time, we just played ugly and found a way to win.
We are only two weeks into this season, and we already have fans complaining that their teams haven't won pretty enough or beaten their lesser opponents by enough points. People are worrying that their teams aren't as good or talented as they thought. Well, in most cases, better teams are playing down to their opponents and haven't been mentally ready to play.
Ohio State opened the season with a ho-hum 43-0 win over Division I-AA Youngstown State, and followed that up with a less-than-impressive 26-14 victory over Ohio University. The Buckeyes have dropped to fifth from second in The Associated Press poll. They also are fifth in the coaches' poll; they had 14 first-place votes from the coaches in the preseason – and one now.
USC traveled across the country to open the season against a Virginia team that went 9-4 last season. The Trojans won 52-7. USC ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll from No. 3 after the rout, and also are first in the coaches' poll.
Now almost everyone is picking USC to blister the visiting Buckeyes. The Trojans are a double-digit favorite.
Is USC that much better than Ohio State right now?
Phil Steele's College Football Preview is, in my opinion, the most thorough and best researched preseason magazine in the business. To many of us it is the Bible of preseason magazines. Do you realize that it had Ohio State ranked higher than Southern California at every position unit on offense and defense?
And, if that wasn't enough, Ohio State was ranked No.5 in special teams and USC didn't even make the chart.
What made everybody change their minds from the preseason?
Those minds changed because Ohio State did not get mentally ready to play Ohio University, that's why. The Buckeyes didn't play with emotion or intensity.
It's not much different than when USC got shocked by 42½ point underdog Stanford last year.
Just like my old man said to me 25 years ago, "Some days, they just aren't ready to play."
Although I agree completely with where these teams are ranked right now, let me assure you of one thing: Come Saturday, these teams will be ready to play – except maybe an injured Chris Wells. This game will be as close and exciting as most of us thought it would be three weeks ago. It's a toss-up that most likely will be decided at the end of the game by less than a field goal.
So who is going to win?
I picked Ohio State to win a few weeks ago, and in spite of Beanie Wells' status I see no reason to change my mind now.