Bobcats racking up wins, respect

The thought that the isolated, rolling hills of Southeast Ohio would and could never be home to a major college football program successful enough to consistently play in bowl games and earn national attention wasn’t lost on Frank Solich.

In fact, when Solich accepted the head coaching position at Ohio University in Dec. 2004, he broke at least a couple self-imposed rules he’d set when he spent nearly a year traveling and visiting some of the country’s top programs while weighing his options and waiting on his next opportunity to coach.

“A lot of things worried me,” Solich says now, now that he’s able to smile about them. “First of all, I told myself I’d never take a job that didn’t have a heavy population base right next to the school. I’d never take a job that didn’t have a major airport right next to the school.”

After 25 years coaching at Nebraska and six as head coach during which he won at a 75-percent rate, Solich was dismissed following the 2003 season. He spent the 2004 season visiting old friends and rivals at places like Texas, USC, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, and by the end of that season, the job at Ohio University — the polar football opposite of those places he’d visited — was available.

The Bobcats won all of 11 games from 2001-04, but Solich saw an opportunity. Logic be damned. 

“I took the job anyway,” Solich said.

Last week, Solich signed an extension through 2017. Last weekend, the Cleveland, Ohio native’s eighth season in Athens started with what’s probably the program’s signature win, a 24-14 victory at Penn State. The Bobcats were the unanimous pick of preseason poll voters to win the Mid-American Conference’s East Division for the third time in four years. There’s just one more 2011 bowl team on the 2012 bowl schedule, lending plenty of ammo to the thought that a team that returned 15 starters from last year’s 10-win team can surpass that total this season.

There used to be a definite ceiling on Ohio football, not to mention a constant struggle for any type of large-scale attention. Now, there’s a realistic possibility this year’s Bobcats can win as many games as any team in the country.

“People around the country are familiar with Ohio football,” Solich said. “They know Ohio football exists. There was a point in time I don’t think that was the case. We mark that as progress.

“There was probably a time people made a little check mark on the schedule next to Ohio like it was an automatic win. I don’t think people necessarily want to schedule us anymore.”

The blueprint Solich has followed started with recruiting good players who are also good people, and it’s continued with a bunch of other coaching cliches about work ethic and consistency. Finding a franchise-type quarterback is usually how teams take significant leaps, and the Bobcats found theirs in Tyler Tettleton, the son of former Major League Baseball player Mickey Tettleton, when he signed in 2009.

Solich half-jokingly said his goal is to run a “boring” program, one that focuses on small steps and always the next one. He said his experience has taught him to concentrate on keeping the highs from getting too high and the lows from getting too low. It’s a humble program, too. Solich said a blowout loss to Troy in the 2010 New Orleans Bowl taught his coaching staff a lot about an up-tempo, no-huddle offense, and by the following fall the Bobcats were using it.

By now, Tettleton has practically mastered it.

“His talent fits any offense,” Solich said. “It fits ours to a T.”

Getting to the GMAC Bowl in 2007 marked the school’s first bowl trip since 1968. Last year’s comeback in win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl marked the first bowl win ever. The win over Penn State was the first over a Big Ten school since 2006, and Tettleton’s 324 passing yards in that game kept him on pace to break the school’s passing yardage record later this fall, probably just past the midpoint of his junior year.

“That’s what I came here for, honestly, to be a part of big wins and a team that plays on TV and gets national exposure,” Tettleton said. “I believed it could happen. People know about us now.”

Tettleton admits he wasn’t quite sure what to think the first time he flew from his home in Norman, Okla., into Columbus with his parents and made the scenic, 80-mile drive from there to Athens. From a football standpoint, “I didn’t really know who they were,” Tettleton said.

But he knew of Solich. And when the winding drive eventually brought the Tettletons to civilization, he liked what he saw. 

“It just comes out of nowhere,” Tettleton said. “There’s the stadium. There’s the campus. And immediately…it felt like home.”

After starting his college career at Iowa State, running back Beau Blankenship transferred to join Tettleton, his high school teammate and close friend in the Ohio backfield. At Penn State last weekend, Blankenship ran for 109 yards and caught 72 yards worth of passes from Tettleton, who threw for three touchdowns.

The depth chart has players from Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, New York, Florida, Alabama, Iowa and Pennsylvania. The Oklahoma and Nebraska players represent Solich’s roots and connections in that part of the country. The rest are a hodgepodge of those who were previously overlooked, just generally believed — or both.

Travis Carrie, an NFL prospect at cornerback who’s out for the season with a knee injury suffered in preseason camp, came 2,500 miles to Athens from Concord (Ca.) De la Salle, one of the nation’s most successful high school programs over the last two decades. Corey Hasting is a former walk-on from the Cincinnati area who’s now a fifth-year senior starting on the defensive line alongside fellow seniors from Altoona, Pa., Arlington, Texas, and Ocala, Fla.

“We have a staff that really has contacts around the country,” Solich said. “Our staff has pretty much stayed together, and people like that continuity. We have that going for us in recruiting. We have a tremendous school; an Ohio University education is recognized around the country. We have a walkable campus, a beautiful campus and it’s full of good people.

“If you can’t make a friend on our campus, you can’t make a friend.”

Said Blankenship: “My road here is different than most because I’m a transfer, but Coach Solich being the head coach, that’s a name people recognize. And he’s a coach any player in the country would want to play for. (Offensive coordinator Tim) Albin and all the other recruiters go in to places and just recruit. They believe in what they’re selling. They see no reason they can’t get any player, no matter where he’s from or who else is recruiting him.”

To grasp just how much the standards and expectations have changed, consider that the five-year record of 36-27 compiled by the just-departed 2011 seniors is the best in program history. That’s the kind of record that would get coaches fired in lots of places — like Nebraska — but at Ohio University, it’s reason for celebration and future excitement.

“I’ve only been involved in all my years of coaching with four schools, and two of those were high schools,” Solich said. “Those two were building jobs. I had more fun coaching those jobs than I ever had. I felt like it was time for me to have some fun again.

“The fact it had to be built was not a detriment to me. I kind of embraced the thought of building the program.”
He’s still going. The win at Penn State made Solich’s overall record at Ohio 51-40 and 28-14 since 2009. A new locker room and indoor practice facility are under construction, and the recruiting plan is clearly working. Seven players who played at Ohio under Solich were in NFL training camps this summer.

The school’s switch from quarters to semesters ensures students will be on campus for all of the team’s home games, and overall season ticket sales are at a record high. A decade ago, most students couldn’t be bothered to check out even a single football game. Now, a bunch of them wear Tettleton’s No. 4 jersey around campus.

Because of the relatively soft schedule, even a 13-0 Ohio team would be the longest of longshots to play in a BCS bowl game. But 44 years after Ohio last won the MAC title at 10-1, the 2012 team has reason to believe it can match that accomplishment and pass both that team and last year’s in the win column.

A ceiling on the program? That’s now as imaginary as the major airport and major population base that border Athens, Ohio. The list of goals, Solich said, is still growing.

“There’s so much more to come,” Tettleton said. “There’s so much more we can do.”