Ohio State’s return to year-in and year-out dominance in the early 2000s was led by the most unlikely of quarterbacks. After a brief audition in 2001, Craig Krenzel became the starting quarterback in 2002. Despite modest numbers, Krenzel led Ohio State to a BCS championship and Fiesta Bowl MVP honors for the Buckeyes’ first national championship in more than 30 years.
After earning instant hero status in Columbus, Krenzel was still the humble Academic All-American when he returned for his senior season in 2003.
Originally published in Athlon Sports’ 2003 Big Ten Preview
By Jeff Rapp
The morning after Ohio State’s stunning victory in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel admitted one player got left behind in the excitement. The story would have been funny enough if it were a third-string lineman — “Hey, man, you’re missing the party” — but was downright ironic considering it was Craig Krenzel. After all, the Buckcyes never would have been in position to play for a national title without his heroics.
“We had to send a police car back to get him,” Tressel said of his starting quarterback. “I hope it wasn’t a violation.”
It turns out Tressel either embellished the story or wasn’t aware that Krenzel was able to get a lift back to the team hotel without help from Arizona’s finest.
“I don’t know where he hard that but I got a ride back with my parents,” Krenzel says. “It was a long walk back to the car.”
Apparently nothing makes you more late for the bus than being the centerpiece on a national championship team. Krenzel was part of the on-field celebration, granting interviews and hugging coaches and teammates. He then addressed the media and was ambushed by a well-wisher who lied to a security guard and said he was in the Krenzel family. That fan was none other than Rex Kern, the beloved quarterback of the 1968 Buckeyes, the last Ohio State team to win the title.
As Kern embraced and beamed at Krenzel, the two looked like father and son. It was a moment that harkened back to the glory days. After all, Krenzel had done it the same way as Kern — with poise beyond his years, toughness, smarts and the uncanny ability to make the big play when absolutely necessary.
After the very symbolic passing of the torch with Kern, Krenzel did a national radio show and changed in an empty locker room.
Outside, the Sun Devil Stadium parking lot was still mostly full. That’s because the 60,000 or so Ohio State fans in attendance din’t know what to do after a four-hour double-overtime thriller other than head directly to Mill Avenue for a desert-sized celebration.
The title game compliments of more outstanding defense, clutch play and the gritty performance of No. 16, who outgained teammate Maurice Clarett and the Hurricanes’ Willis McGahee as the game’s leading rusher.
Krenzel was named the game’s Offensive MVP, despite completing just 7-of-21 passes and throwing a pair of interceptions. That’s because he took hit after hit en route to 81 rushing yards and two crucial touchdowns, including the tying score in overtime. Earlier in that session he converted a fourth-and-14 — make that fourth and championship — with a sideline strike to Mike Jenkins. Moments later he threw the infamous pass to Chris Gamble in the end zone on another fourth down that was flagged as defensive interference. Many writers and critics said that the late penalty stole the game from Miami and ruined a great contest.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Krenzel says. “We ended up with a victory and a national championship. And people around the country that are saying we shouldn’t have won the game because of that call, that’s probably the same people that were saying before the game that we had no chance.”
Krenzel was a main reason there were so many doubters. How in the world could Ohio State beat a superpower like Miami if it couldn’t throw the ball? Krenzel was among the most efficient quarterbacks in the country, but his season stats were rather ordinary. Starting all 14 games in 2002, he completed just 148 passes and managed a little more than 2,000 yards passing. Yet as the wins kept mounting, no one doubted he was the man for the job.
Krenzel had paid his dues to be the starting quarterback, and he wasn’t about to risk losing that privilege by demanding more throws. He had seen firsthand how the kamikaze style of his predecessor and roommate Steve Bellisari had turned Bellisari into a feast-or-famine quarterback that often received the blame during the lean years of 1999-2001.
While Krenzel liked his friend Bellisari, he endured a few sleepless nights wondering if he was ever going to get the chance to try to lead the team. Certainly he didn’t come from Sterling Heights, Mich., and turn down offers from other major programs to be a career backup.
Craig’s brother Brian, who played safety at Duke, says the two spent “many, many nights on the phone” early in Craig’s career. Brian, who won fewer games (13) in four years with the Blue Devils than Craig did last season, often repeated the same advice to his baby brother: Keep your mouth shut, keep working, and believe it will all work out.
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“It’s just a motto that my parents instilled in us: Good things happen to good people, but maybe not on the timetable that you want them to happen,” says Brian, a Louisville medical school graduate who is embarking on a career as an orthopedic surgeon.
As a backup to Bellisari, Krenzel played sparingly in seven games in 2000 for head coach John Cooper and spent the 2001 season signaling in plays for Tressel until Bellisari was suspended from the team late in the year. Krenzel played well enough in a home loss to Illinois to earn the start at Michigan, then endeared himself to the Buckeye Nation by calmly directing OSU to its first win in Ann Arbor in 14 years.
Last year, Krenzel clearly earned the job over classmate Scott McMullen and freshman phenoms Justin Zwick and Troy Smith. Then the magic began. Eleven straight completions vs. Kent State. A game-winning, twisting touchdown run at Cincinnati. A pair of backbreaking touchdown passes at Wisconsin. A perfectly tossed, season-saving 37-yard touchdown lob to Jenkins on fourth down in the final minutes at Purdue. A had-to-have scoring march in the final minutes against Michigan.
Things went so well for Krenzel that he told his brother shortly after the Fiesta Bowl: “I think I’m just going to retire. How do you top this?”
Now that very question will gnaw at Krenzel this fall as he tries to lead the Buckeyes back to the promised land in his senior season. If he can pull it off, he will be in very elite company. In fact, since 1980, only one quarterback has led his team to back-to-back national championships — Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier. Many before him have tried and come up short, most recently Miami’s Ken Dorsey.
Yet everywhere Krenzel went during his whirlwind offseason of magazine covers and impromptu autograph sessions, he was asked, “Can you repeat?” The question even came up in Detroit, of all places, as Krenzel was feted in his home state in March as the winner of the Socrates Award for the most outstanding college football player on and off the field. A molecular genetics major with a 3.71 GPA, Krenzel showed up to spring practice a little weary after trying to keep up with his studies and his newfound fame.
“It kind of went fast,” he says of the three-month break. “It seemed like just yesterday that we played. For those of us who have been here for a while, it seems like we’re getting old.”
Krenzel’s roommate, OSU center and fellow senior Alex Stepanovich, said the two talk about their aspirations for 2003. That is when Craig is actually in their apartment. “He’s not around very much. You guys usually have him doing some things or he’s picking up awards and stuff like that,” Stepanovich says. “But we’ve talked about being in more of a leadership role than we were last year at this point. A lot of times the younger guys don’t understand what it takes to do what we did.”
But that doesn’t mean Krenzel plans to boss around his underlings like a Hollywood star. In fact, his teammates see absolutely no change in him.
“He’ll be the same old guy — cool, calm and collected,” Jenkins says. “That’s just the way he is.”
“Craig is a great guy,” adds Stepanovich. “People talk about how smart he is, but I think the great thing about him is that maybe things around him have changed by he stayed the same guy. He stayed Craig and he stayed with what made Craig who he is. He’s the same guy he was before anyone knew he could do what he did.”
Krenzel is getting more respect than ever for his on-the-field exploits, but don’t expect to see a different quarterback on the field in 2003. It should be more of the same, even if it is a little boring.
“If I proved anything, it’s what it takes to win football games,” says Krenzel, who completed 59.4 percent of his passes and was intercepted just seven times last season. “You don’t need the big, flashy numbers. You have to take care of the football, make good decisions and get the team into the right play.
“Personally I just want to get more consistent, more fluid in my mechanics, and just relax a bit and be more comfortable. I also want to improve my decision-making and my reads. We’d like to have more balance this season. It’s going to be fun. There are some guys that can go out and make big plays for us. It’s going to be up to myself to distribute the ball to them and put it where it needs to be.”
Krenzel wore a visor on his helmet in the spring as precaution after having Lasik surgery on his right eye, which is naturally weaker than the left. He hopes the procedure helps him dial in on receivers better this season.
But whether he is asked to run the option like Kern or carve up defenses like Joe Germaine, he always expects one result — victory. A 15-1 record as a starter will do that for you.
“He’s a confident kid,” OSU quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels says. “He had no question he could lead this team. But now he has proven it. That’s the difference for him.”
Tressel adds: “I think he’s obviously carrying himself with more confidence. I think he always believed in himself, but he also felt like he needed to establish that over a period of time. As he looks at things now, he can say, ‘I’ve seen that before.’ When you watch film, I think you see a much more mature, more experienced guy.
“I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s paid special attention to the little things — his footwork and ball placement. A completion isn’t satisfactory to him. He wants the ball put in the right spot.”
Krenzel admits he likes proving detractors wrong as much as anyone else, but that’s not his driving force.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who is a bigger critic of me than myself,” he says. “I’ll go through and watch film and I’m extremely critical of myself in what I do technique-wise, decision-making-wise, just knowing that there are a lot of little things I need to do to get better.
“I guess in that respect I am driven by criticism but it’s more stuff I put on myself.”
Krenzel watches so much film of himself and his upcoming opponent that the OSU video staff makes sure he is the first to receive tapes each week.
“The video people know he’ll probably spend more time than the coaches on it,” Tressel said.
“He’s just an extraordinary kid that’s competitive and wants the ball in his hands. I can’t say enough about Craig Krenzel. He’s a winner.”
He’s also fearless. At 6-4, 225, Krenzel is a big target for oncoming linebackers when he takes off with the ball. Yet he always pops up no matter how vicious the hit, including what looked like a near decapitation by Miami hit man Jonathan Vilma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“He’s tough,” Stepanovich says. “He’s run for a lot of first downs for us and sometimes he stands back there and takes a shot. It’s great to play with a guy like that.”
Krenzel intends to take medical school entrance exams in August. He is as serious about his future as he is about winning games. Off the field and away from the cameras, however, he’s not as serious as you’d think.
“He’s pretty much a clown,” says Ben Hartsock, OSU’s starting tight end and Krenzel’s best friend. “I know you guys don’t see much of that but trust me, he has his silly moments. I’ve seen some interesting dives into the whirlpool.”
Hartsock and Krenzel thought it would be fun to run out and imprint the snow on the White House lawn moments after the team was honored by President Bush. Fun, that is, until a Secret Service man cut them off at the pass by showing them his gun.
Oh well, no harm in trying.
“That’s always been Craig’s personality,” his brother says. “He has a way of not taking things too seriously and putting them in the proper perspective. Studies are important, but your test score doesn’t necessarily dictate how well you now the material. A performance on the field statistically doesn’t necessarily dictate how well you performed in game management or something like that.
“He keeps all that in view and has an incredible perspective for someone his age.”