Story by Scott Priestle, Ohio State Alumni Magazine
Greg Frey was a 19-year-old redshirt freshman in 1987 when he was introduced to the world. He entered a game against Michigan State to relieve struggling quarterback Tom Tupa, completed one of three passes, and was sacked twice. The Buckeyes lost 13-7.
It was an unremarkable performance, but within the fishbowl that is Ohio State football, even a brief change at quarterback is enough to earn the new guy a trip to the postgame interview room.
“I had no idea what I was in for,” Frey recalled recently. “It was like walking into a shark tank unprepared. It was kind of a controversial game [and] we lost, [so] you can imagine all the cameras and reporters in there. I walk in and they all come running after me. . . .
“It was my first experience with anything like that. I sucked it up and answered all the questions. When I walked out of the media room, it was
like, ‘What was that?'”
It was only the beginning. Frey earned the starting job the following year and held it through three seasons, a coaching change, a comeback win for the ages, and a minor disagreement that became a headline controversy.
He was as public a figure as any in central Ohio. The Ohio State quarterback usually is.
Art Schlichter recalled being hounded by autograph seekers as he tried to eat dinner and by coeds as he tried to sleep. Rex Kern said people still remind him about his four interceptions in a loss to Michigan, 41 years after the fact. Terrelle Pryor talked a year ago about having to change his cell phone number and wear sunglasses in public, and that was before he led the Buckeyes to a Rose Bowl victory.
Even the most mundane activities are fodder for fans and media.
“That’s the reality of being the Ohio State quarterback,” said Kent Graham, who replaced Frey as the starter in 1991. “People recognize you. You have to be able to deal with what comes with that.”
When Kern started his first game in 1968, Ohio Stadium seated about 86,000 people and was not sold out. By the time Pryor started his first game 40 years later, the ‘Shoe was packed with nearly 103,000 fans, and thousands more were tuned in to the Big Ten Network.
Nearly 20 million people watched Pryor and the Buckeyes in the 2010 Rose Bowl. Many of them follow Ohio State players on Twitter and Facebook, read about them on dozens of Buckeye-centric Web sites, and talk about them daily on sports radio.
“What these kids have to deal with today, it’s light years from 1968,” Kern said.
It’s not just the technology. Kern’s recruiting class was considered one of the best in the country, with talent from across the nation. But freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports at that time, so Kern and company got a year to adjust academically, athletically, and socially while facing little of the outside pressure that is prevalent these days.
“There’s something to be said for that,” he said.
Ohio State won a national championship during Kern’s sophomore season, and expectations soon mushroomed. Within two years, he and his teammates were being booed for not winning by a wide-enough margin.
By the time Frey arrived, college football was big business, and the quarterback seemed to be everyone’s business.
Frey’s first significant action as an Ohio State quarterback-in the 1987 loss to Michigan State-became a big deal around Columbus. Coach Earle Bruce insisted Tupa was injured, but Tupa and Frey said otherwise. The instant assumption was that it was the start of a quarterback competition, though none developed.
Two years later, another small disagreement became local news when Frey chose to skip spring practice in order to play baseball. The coaches expressed their disappointment publicly.
“They told me to my face it was okay. Then I read the paper and they’re blaming me,” Frey said.
“It became this controversy. . . . The media, fans, they all thought the coaches told me not to play. That’s what [the coaches told reporters], but that’s not what happened, and I had to accept that.”
The coach’s influence
When incoming freshman Taylor Graham suits up for his first practice as a Buckeye quarterback, he will be more prepared than most.
Graham was born in 1991 at the Ohio State Medical Center, the son of the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback at the time, Kent Graham. Taylor got a taste of the spotlight when he became the starting quarterback at Wheaton, Ill., North High School, where his father had been an All-American and remains a popular figure.
Matt Foster, Taylor’s coach at Wheaton North, pulled him aside and told him he must embrace his father’s legacy while building his own, because the comparisons will never end.
“He took that to heart and did a good job being his own man,” Kent Graham said. “I’m proud of him in terms of how he dealt with his high school experience.”
It became clear Taylor was comfortable in his father’s shadow when he committed to play quarterback at Ohio State. His family’s history played a role in the decision, Kent Graham said. Coach Jim Tressel played a bigger role.
“He’s been coaching quarterbacks for so many years. He understands the way a quarterback thinks and the pressures on a quarterback-the attention and outside pressure,” Kent said. “Having a coach who understands that reality goes a long way.”
Kern agreed. He played for Woody Hayes, who helped shield his quarterbacks in ways direct and indirect.
Emphasizing academics, community service, and personal growth insulates players a bit from the fan and media pressure to excel on the field. Hayes reinforced the message by regularly making time for vocabulary quizzes or trips to hospitals to visit sick children, Kern said.
If that was not enough to keep players focused inward, Hayes had notoriously high standards for his quarterbacks. Kern, Tom Matte, and Cornelius Greene reportedly suffered ulcers while playing for Hayes.
“The pressure you were dealing with from Woody was far greater than being under any national microscope,” Kern said.
Tressel doesn’t have such a heavy hand, but he is similar to Hayes in his dedication to school and service. Former players who have spent time around the program say it is one of the first things they notice.
“I don’t think winning is his No. 1 goal. Making them better people is,” said Stanley Jackson, who played quarterback from 1993 to 1997. “I have a lot of respect for Coach [John] Cooper. He was a great coach. But the relationship these guys have with Coach Tressel is a lot different. I think he does a better job raising men.”
Big men on campus
Art Schlichter’s struggles with fame have been well documented. The pressure led him to the racetrack, which led to a gambling problem, which led to theft, which led to jail time, a broken marriage, and a wasted opportunity in the NFL. Schlichter now works for Gambling Prevention Awareness, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2006.
“The No. 1 thing I would tell [Pryor] is, ‘Solidify your work ethic,'” he said.
“I took some things for granted, and I got sidetracked. My work ethic was at its best when I was a junior and senior in high school and a freshman and sophomore in college. The last couple years, I got distracted.
“It’s important that he has a good work ethic and keeps it. Then, take school seriously. And stay with your close friends and family. Keep your entourage down. Know who you’re with, who you’re around,” he said.
In his recent autobiography, Busted, Schlichter wrote about being bombarded with fan attention-particularly when he ventured into public, but at times even when he was hanging out in his dorm room. He senses that Pryor is enduring a similar spotlight.
“I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been,” Schlichter said. “Of course, I know now that I have a propensity for being an addict, but I didn’t know that at the time. It started as something I thought I could handle, but it ended up being a beast.”
Jackson, who was a high-profile recruit in 1993, said he saw numerous players get swallowed by the same beast.
“The expectations and the pressure are so great, it’s tough to adjust to,” he said. “You get ‘big man on campus’ syndrome real quick. When you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, it comes with the territory.
“You just hope kids come in with a good foundation, with a good family structure and people pointing them in the right direction, because there are so many things that can catch you off guard. Not just the quarterback-it’s anybody who’s playing football at Ohio State.”
Opportunities and expectations
The attention is a double-edged sword. One edge can slice through a player who is unprepared for it. The other can cut down walls.
A number of former Ohio State quarterbacks have parlayed their popularity into work as radio and television analysts, including Jackson, Schlichter, Frey, Justin Zwick, and, most notably, Kirk Herbstreit, who is more visible on ABC and ESPN than he was as the Buckeyes’ quarterback in 1992.
Frey’s Ohio State connections also paid off away from the camera. He has forged a successful career in real estate; he also owns QB Ohio, which provides personal coaching for amateur quarterbacks, and distributes a line of health care products from Advocare. The name recognition he built at Ohio State helps. Folks remember how he led the Buckeyes from a 31-0 deficit to beat Minnesota in 1989.
“It can get you in the door, no question,” Frey said. “But it’s like anything else: once you’re in the door, you have to produce, or it doesn’t matter that you played quarterback at Ohio State.”
Kent Graham echoed that sentiment as he prepared to send his son, Taylor, to campus. Opportunity and expectation go hand in hand.
“If things go right, you have to be able to handle the adulation and keep making progress,” he said.
“Just like if you have a bad game, you have to have that ability to recover after a loss and be mentally tough. Every quarterback needs that.”