COLUMBUS — Back in the old days, coaches talked about turning a football program around. Now they talk about changing the culture.
It’s not exactly clear when coaches started to talk about the culture of their football programs but it seems to be all the rage now.
Urban Meyer mentions the culture of Ohio State football all the time. Some observers say Jim Harbaugh has brought a culture of toughness and accountability to Michigan football, though a quick search on the internet produced no instances of him using the word.
When Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who will lead the Badgers against Ohio State tonight, was hired as Pittsburgh’s head coach in 2011, the Panthers’ athletic director said Chryst was hired to get the best out of his players and “develop the kind of culture that fits the University of Pittsburgh.”
At the Big Ten’s football media days in Chicago in July, Mark Dantonio talked about the “winning culture” of Michigan State football.
Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Kryzyzewski has talked about the culture of both his own team and the Olympic teams he has coached.
All those uses of “culture” were in positive references. But a reference to culture can be negative, too.
In 2012, the NCAA said Penn State needed to reform its athletic culture and find a better balance between its academic and athletic cultures when it handed the university severe penalties for overlooking the Jerry Sandusky scandal for years, possibly decades.
The question is if this repeated use of the word culture means coaches are doing something different or just using a different word for something they’ve always tried to build – a motivated, unified team focused on one goal, which is winning.
The second choice is more likely. Five or 10 years down the road, some other word will probably replace culture.
Wisconsin, the team Ohio State plays tonight, would have to be considered one of the great turnarounds or culture changes in Big Ten football history.
The idea that Wisconsin would be a big game on Ohio State’s schedule consistently would have been dismissed as something that was never going to happen before Barry Alvarez became the Badgers coach in 1990.
Tonight’s game will be the tenth time Ohio State has played Wisconsin in Madison since Alvarez righted the ship.
It matches No. 2 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) against No. 8 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten).
In OSU’s last 10 games at Madision, it has been in the Top Ten eight times and has never been ranked lower than No. 14. Wisconsin has a Top Ten team twice and a Top 25 team eight times in those games. The Buckeyes are 5-3-1 at Camp Randall Stadium since 1992 going into tonight’s game.
So how will tonight’s clash of cultures play out?
Both teams have very strong, possibly exceptional defenses. Ohio State ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (10.8 points a game) and Wisconsin is No. 4 in that category (12.2 points a game).
Ohio State’s signature win was at Oklahoma. LSU has two – a win over LSU at Lambeau Field and a win over Michigan State.
OSU rolled through its first four games without much to be concerned about. But there has been some uneasiness about the passing game after J.T. Barrett threw for only 93 yards in a 38-17 win over Indiana last Saturday.
That concern about the passing game is about the only thing OSU would change if it could.
Wisconsin, on the other thing, would probably change several things if it could. As a 14-7 loss to Michigan two weeks ago the last time they were on the field illustrated, there are several areas where the Badgers might have deficiencies.
They lack a credible deep-threat receiver. Their offensive line has been inconsistent. Their top running back, Corey Clement, has been plagued by ankle injuries the last two seasons and is averaging only 61 yards a game his last two outings.
And their starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, is a freshman who has started only two games and is not particularly mobile.
It might not be easy, but it will be another win for Ohio State.
The prediction: Ohio State 28, Wisconsin 17.