Texas high school football has “Friday Night Lights.” Ohio high school football has a poem from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
That's James Wright, who grew up in Martin's Ferry, a town in southeastern Ohio on the Ohio River. His 1964 poem “Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio” is a testament to the power of the sport in blue collar towns when steel mills reigned.
It's short but potent, scanning the faces of the bleachers, telling the stories of proud fathers who don't want to go home and their wives “dying for love.” The poem ends like this:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
It's from this kind of ingrained love for the sport that a number of successful coaches — including Michigan's Brady Hoke, Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio — emerged. Minus Hoke, here's some of their thoughts — plus that of NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck, another Ohioan — on what makes football in Ohio special and why it produces college coaches.
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Pelini (Youngstown Cardinal Mooney): “Guys gravitate to places that have good high school coaching. I always believe that with coaching period, you kind of become a product of what you've been exposed to growing up. That tends to repeat itself, so I know myself, and I'm sure Urban Meyer would tell you the same thing, that if you're coached the right way growing up, and you have a good experience, and you get a foundation built that will establish what you need to do to have success in your career and those things, it gives you a little bit of a leg up going forward and probably happens at high school ranks as well.”
Dantonio (Zanesville): “You grow up on football there in that state. I think it's very organized from the bottom up. My high school team — we had 100 players. Two platoon and things of that nature. It was sort of the event in your hometown on Friday. You have a lot of strong high school programs with strong traditions that have their own intense rivalries within their conferences. It's just something you seem to grow up with. I'm very fortunate to have coached in Ohio and played high school ball.
Meyer (Ashtabula): “Football is very important from the day you're born. And that's all I knew growing up: The (Cincinnati) Bengals, the (Cleveland) Browns and Buckeyes and high school football. I don't think it's just coincidence. You're born into football. No question it was Coach (Woody) Hayes, but also Paul Brown — what he did with the Cleveland Browns and also with the Bengals — and also Chuck Noll with the (Pittsburgh) Steelers. It was a great conversation. Because I remember it very well.”
Beck (Youngstown Cardinal Mooney): “It's what they enjoyed: Football. Contact sport. It caught on with kids. They're still probably playing in the streets and playgrounds. It's kind of how it is. The biggest difference is the money invested in the state of Texas — the facilities, staff members — those types of things are more prevalent down in Texas than there is in Ohio. But there's good football and it still draws your community out. And that's what high school sports does. From the band to the cheerleaders to the game, everybody's involved in it. The whole community gets behind it.”