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Ohio State has a wealth of freshmen talent, it wasn’t that long ago that they wouldn’t have been able to play

A federal law is to thank for freshmen finally seeing the field.

Ohio State Spring Game
Jack Sawyer is one Buckeye freshman who will see plenty of action in 2021.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Quinn Ewers is now a freshman. Despite the fact that he is one of a number of highly recruited true freshmen that could see the field in 2021, it was not that long ago when none of them would have been able to play in their first seasons on campus.

It was nearly fifty years ago that the NCAA made freshmen eligible to play collegiate football and basketball. With the transfer portal and players now being permitted to profit from use of their names, images, or likenesses, it’s hard to contemplate such a restrictive rule.

Now, the trend is clearly in favor of players’ rights as individuals to negotiate their careers, as opposed to monopolistic NCAA practices. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next extension of this is that eventually football players will no longer have to wait three years out of high school before being eligible for the NFL. Why should they? The present setup is a cushy one for both the NCAA and the NFL.

For the former, the best players are locked into the college game and the revenues that it brings in, and for the latter a nice (and cost-free) farm system develops players and provides plenty of history and film for draft day.

The public argument in favor of the three-year status quo is to protect players physically; their bodies, at eighteen or nineteen years of age, aren’t ready for the pros. None of them? I think that pro scouts, physicians, and players and their families will be making that decision shortly.

Of course former Buckeye Maurice Clarett was the last player to challenge this rule unsuccessfully in court, but times change, and this very well might sooner or later as well.

Ohio State Spring Game
Freshman receiver Emeka Egbuka will be pulling in passes for the Bucks in 2021.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Back to freshman eligibility. Why didn’t freshman play football prior to the 1972-73 season? Again, the (public) rationale was protective: first-year students needed a year to adjust to the scholarly rigors of collegiate life; after all, in “student-athletes” — student does come first.

Then why did the change come when it did? Were the “scholarly rigors” gone? Maybe. But the real reason was (as usual) money. In 1968, (as part of a general national movement toward increased civil rights) the NCAA made freshmen eligible for all sports, except football and basketball, the money sports. Why change a good thing? Everyone was essentially redshirted, and the revenue rolled in.

In 1972, however, a new federal law, known as Title IX, required college athletics to provide the same opportunities for both women and men. In practice, the law required adding enough women’s sports so that the number of scholarships available to women equaled the number for men; and though a worthy cause, that could get expensive.

In football, colleges and universities had long equipped and fielded two teams: the varsity that we watched play and a freshman (or JV) team. When I was a student at Illinois in the late 1960s and early 70s, I had a number of friends on the freshman football team. A couple of them were scholarship players and would join the varsity the following year. The others were high school jocks unwilling to admit that their glory days were over. They practiced — often with the varsity as a scout team — and they played against other freshman teams. Providing coaches, equipment, and travel for a second team became too costly after Title IX; therefore, freshmen became varsity-eligible immediately after the law went into effect.

So, I looked back at Ohio State’s last pair of freshman teams, 1970 and 1971. Although most of the 1970 roster was unfamiliar to me, Randy Gradishar’s name stood out, and the first-year Buckeyes went 3-0.

Since 1971 was the final team, I gave its history a bit more scrutiny. Again, Ohio State’s freshmen went 3-0 and played the same three teams as in the previous season. The games were played (two at home, one away) on Friday afternoons at 1:30. Here are the season’s results:

Oct. 29: Ohio State- 55 | Indiana- 10
Nov. 5: Ohio State- 27 | Kentucky- 7
Nov. 12: Ohio State- 38 | Ohio- 28

The roster had about 45 players listed, so, obviously, they weren’t all on scholarship. Probably, some hoped that their play would earn a place on the varsity roster the following year and, in turn, a scholarship.

Neal Colzie was on that freshman team, as was Kurt Schumacher. Dave Purdy was the quarterback. Harold Henson, a starting running back. It would have been fun to watch those games. Now, they’re just a page in the archives.

As for this year’s true freshmen, Ewers, J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Emeka Egbuka, Donovan Jackson, Marvin Harrison Jr., and more, their first-year success is now in their own hands thanks to a nearly five-decade old rule. The next question is will it take another 50 years for the next rule change to upend college football so that we start seeing one and done football players in addition to basketball?