When Jim Tressel took over the Ohio State football program, he made a ballsy and incredibly optimistic promise to the fans at a basketball game shortly after his hiring. We all know it by heart by now, and remember it ever so fondly:
"I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field."
Those were the days.
But the ship that Jim Tressel would inherit wasn't ripe with the talent of John Cooper's '97 or '98 squads. The 2001 iteration was coming off of an embarrassing loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, and Cooper's ouster came with incredible swiftness (not to mention the fact that one of the nation's most respected football institutions was about to be coached by a guy form Youngstown State that no one had heard of). 2001 was going to be an interesting year, to say the least.
And not just for the new coach.
Lydell Ross was a surprise recruit for the Buckeyes in 2001. The Gaither HS (Florida) tailback was widely considered the best at the position in his state and had offers from most top programs including the University of Florida and Notre Dame. But his love of Eddie George made the decision to sign with Ohio State an easy one. The Buckeyes were sure that this incoming power runner would be able to bring back the old school rushing attack that had dried up since the aforementioned George took his Heisman to the NFL. Ross was supposed to be Cooper's means of fixing this hole...and then Cooper was promptly shown the door.
2001 was, by and large, one of the most "meh" seasons in recent Buckeye history. While the team could hang its hat on wins over no. 14 Northwestern, a memorable night game for Homecoming, and Jim Tressel making good on his promise in Ann Arbor, much of the season was plagued with close losses (five total loses by 27 total points) and mostly uneven play. The freshman tailback from Florida began to show signs of his potential: 406 yards rushing, 6 TDs, including a 100-yard day against Indiana, making Big Ten history as the youngest back to ever accomplish that feat. The already high bar was set considerably higher going into 2002.
I, like most Buckeye fans, can speak, write, and remember at great lengths the magical year of 2002. This was the same type of year for Ross, who put up more than respectable sophomore numbers in an offense that would feature his abilities. Ross upped his yards over 600 for the season, again with 6 TDs (numbers that are great for a sophomore) but got completely overshadowed by a freshman with a knack for stinging defenses and his shoulder in equal measure. Ross was relegated to a supporting role, but played a large part when Maurice Clarett would go down, a shockingly normal occurrence that year.
After the championship season, when Clarett started doing very Maurice Clarett things and was kicked off the team (h8 U, Andy Geiger), it was finally Ross's turn to shine. Despite road losses to Wisconsin and Michigan, Ross put up solid numbers for a starting tailback: 193 carries, 826 yards and 10 TDs, easily the top Buckeye rusher, despite a season with plenty of injury time. This would be a theme for the rest of Ross's career as a buckeye.
In his final year for the scarlet and gray, Ross again led the team in rushing, but the numbers were low, and the injury bug continued to bite as the team was beginning to change around him. It was in 2004 where Troy Smith would begin a journey to the Heisman trophy, and Justin Zwick would begin a path to the Arena Football League. Lydell Ross could do nothing but watch as his team and its gameplan evolved away from the teams of his hero, Eddie George.
In his final game, the 2004 Alamo Bowl, Ross put up 99 yards and a score in a thorough beat down of Oklahoma State, a fitting end to a memorable career. But, on the whole, Lydell Ross's career with the Buckeyes ended like it started - with a lot of potential, some great moments, but a largely unfulfilled hunger for what could have been.
Two postscripts on Ross:
1. Lydell Ross didn't pan out as an NFL player; his injuries and style were not suited for his first gig with the NFL's San Diego Chargers. But that didn't stop him form pursuing other goals. In 2007, he gave up football to become a firefighter in his native Tampa. I guess fighting fires seemed like a better career than playing for the Toronto Argonauts.
2. After the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, I was driving to pick up my girlfriend from the airport. Stopped at a light on the main road into the terminal, I was rear-ended by (if memory serves) a black, late model Camaro IROC. I got out of the car after pulling over and traded information with the driver of the other car. I got his ID and insurance info and did a double take – naturally it was Lydell Ross. In the "ZOMG HOMERISM" of the moment, I barely asked questions about the accident (which was minor at best) and resorted to asking him stupid fanboy shit like "did you guys get rings?" and "I've never been prouder to be a Buckeye than after that game, man!" And so on. Ross, clearly wanting to get the hell out of there, gave me his information and his number, letting me know to call him to get tickets if I ever wanted any. In hindsight knowing it was probably an NCAA violation, I'm glad I didn't take him up on the offer.