Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of Athlon Sports "Cover Catch Ups" in which we check in with a former Athlon cover subject. We start with former Ohio State defensive end Matt Finkes, who starred for the Buckeyes from 1993-96.
In the early ‘90s, the Big Ten was on top of the college football world.
The addition of Penn State had given the league another top-five team. Breakout years for Wisconsin and Northwestern gave the league new blood.
And, as usual, Ohio State was near the top. The Buckeyes entered the 1995 season hungry. A year earlier, they finished a pedestrian 9-4 with a Citrus Bowl loss to Alabama, but on the bright side, they had picked up one of coach John Cooper’s rare wins over rival Michigan.
Ohio State entered the 1995 season with a star running back, Eddie George, who would go on to win the Heisman that season, and a pair of relentless pass rushers in Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes.
Finkes finished his career with 59 career tackles for a loss, second in Ohio State history only to Vrabel’s 66. Finkes also finished with the third-most sacks in school history.
Finkes also graced the cover of Athlon Sports’ 1995 Big Ten preview. That season, Ohio State started on a tear, defeating six ranked teams en route to an 11-0 start and a No. 2 ranking. Only Michigan stood in the way of a Rose Bowl and potential national championship.
The 18th-ranked Wolverines spoiled the season with a 31-23 win over Ohio State in Ann Arbor, sending Ohio State to the Citrus Bowl to lose 20-14 to then-sophomore Peyton Manning.
Finkes didn’t have the long NFL career of some of his teammates – Finkes was drafted in the sixth round in 1997 and lasted only eight games before injury ended his career — but he remains entrenched at Ohio State.
What was the most memorable part of the 1995 season?
We had a great team in ’95. We were coming off a down year in 1994 as a team but we had a lot of guys back, had a really good offensive football team. But a young defensive team. Eddie George was our running back. Bobby Hoying was our quarterback. Terry Glenn was our wide receiver. We were loaded on offense. We started out highly ranked and were cruising right along and then ran into a problem in Ann Arbor against Michigan and deflated the season for us. A lot of high expectations, but we didn’t fulfill all that we thought we could.
Looking at that season, you played five ranked teams in the first six games and six ranked teams in the first seven. Did that feel like a grind at the time?
We had the back to back with Notre Dame (ranked No. 15, Ohio State won 45-26) and Penn State (ranked No. 12, Ohio State won 28-25 on the road). You look back at those years, and we had Notre Dame on the schedule and the Big Ten was kind of at its peak — Penn State going undefeated a few years before, us in 1995 and ’96 and Michigan in 1997. It was a different time. You can compare it to what the SEC was 4-5 years ago. It wasn’t just one team dominating like Ohio State is now in the Big Ten. It was really the premier conference. It was a grinding schedule. You look at Ohio State’s schedule this year — we didn’t quite have that.
Even though you beat Michigan in 1994, your era was in the middle of a bad stretch against the Wolverines. You might have a little bit of empathy about this: What’s going on in the Michigan locker room right now in terms of the rivalry?
It was tough. We beat Michigan in 1994, which was the first time in (then-coach John) Cooper’s era. That was a game where it was win or go home for him, and everyone knew it. It wasn’t just the people in the stands; it was the kids in the locker room. We knew if we don’t win this game, Coop’s getting fired. We are able to win that game, but we fell under that same trap the next two years. It’s like a baseball player when you’re on a bad streak and you don’t know why and you don’t know how to fix it and maybe you’re tight. I think that’s what Michigan is going through a little bit. Obviously, the talent level there with the coaches changes has hurt them. With (Jim) Harbaugh in, that’s going to be their biggest challenge, getting over that mental block.
What are you up to these days?
I do the pre- and post-game show in town for the (Columbus) ABC affiliate. I work with Time Warner Cable sports, involved with high school football doing some broadcasting for that. It’s a great way to stay connected for the game. I coached for a while (at his alma mater, Piqua High in Ohio), but that’s a grind. This is a way to stay local and stay involved and in the game.
Was broadcasting even on your radar when you were a player?
Absolutely not. I got called by our local ABC affiliate and they asked if I wanted to do the pre- and post-game show. I just jumped into it with both feet and zero experience. I’m not going to lie: It didn’t look great the first 3-4 games, but you get your feet wet and now I’m real comfortable. I enjoy it. It keeps you involved in the game, keeps you around the team. You go out to practice with a purpose.
Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell was your teammate in college. How do you balance your friendship/media responsibilities?
Fickell and Mike Vrabel (an Ohio State assistant from 2011-13, now with the Houston Texans) were my college roommates. I talk to those guys on a weekly basis. With Mike it’s a lot easier now that he’s with the Texans. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s easy to manage. When we’re in a social setting we don’t talk football. We don’t talk details of what’s going on at Ohio State. We never sat down and discussed what we’re going to do but that’s what we do. Our friendship comes before anything I would do as a job. Those guys know that.
How are you still involved with Ohio State?
I do fundraising for the Ohio State medical center. I started a year and a half ago. I sold a couple of my companies and tried to retire again and the wife told me to get back to work, so I went back and talked to the medical center about doing some fundraising there.
You’re also involved with something called Category5Sports. What is that?
That is a personal and individualized training started by Ryan Clement, who was a quarterback at Miami-Florida who was in the game when I was playing. We met in NFL Europe. We do individualized coaching for all positions. It’s one-on-one coaching and we use a web-based platform to analyze using motion analysis software to help kids who are trying to get to the next level. It’s not a broad-based camp system for everybody. It’s really more of a specialized, very intensive coaching procedure.
You said last summer that Braxton Miller’s shoulder injury could be the end of him as a quarterback. What did you see that perhaps more optimistic fans didn’t in 2014?
That was the injury that basically put my out of the NFL. I tore my labrum at Jacksonville. I knew what that entailed for me just to get back to everyday life and that that point I had just retired, so I’m talking about just swinging a golf club. I knew how hard that would be. The time that it happened to him was right at the beginning of camp. A nine-month, year recovery time didn’t bode well for his chances of coming back and being a starting quarterback. And then looking at his athletic ability, the open-field ability is an elite level. There are probably 10-15 guys in the NFL who have his athletic ability. For him to make a long sustainable career in the NFL, it made a lot of sense to me (for him to move to receiver).
As one pass rusher evaluating another one, where does Joey Bosa stand among Ohio State greats? What do you see in him that stands out?
His first step is just phenomenal. Watching him practice, go through his career here, he’s a special talent. He’s going to pass me on the sack list to move up to No. 2 and he might even get Vrabel here depending on the season. Aside from knocking me down a peg on the career sack list at Ohio State, he’s a guy you cheer for. He’s exciting to watch and he has all the physical tools you need to succeed. And he’s a hard-worker on the field. He’s done a great job of mentoring Sam Hubbard, who is an incredible talent, but moved from safety to tight end to defensive end. And Joey took a lot of time this spring to teach him the ins and outs of playing defensive end and mentoring him. He’s going to be a special talent.