COLUMBUS –If Ohio State would go through the season unbeaten and not play for a national championship, it would hardly be alone.
Other teams have been there. Done that.
Nineteen years ago, Penn State and St. Henry’s Jeff Hartings knew that feeling.
Penn State’s unbeaten 1994 team had one of the best offenses ever in the Big Ten. Hartings, a two-time first-team All-American and a future first-round NFL draft choice, was one of the leaders of an offensive line that allowed only three sacks all season.
The Nittany Lions went to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll after a 31-24 win at No. 5 Michigan in their seventh game of the season, then crushed No. 14 Ohio State 63-14 to remain No. 1 in their next game.
But after Indiana scored three touchdowns in the final six minutes of their game against Penn State’s second-string defense the week after the OSU game to make a 35-29 win appear closer than it really was, Nebraska jumped ahead of the Nittany Lions and stayed there the rest of the season.
In the days before the BCS national championship game, the polls determined the national champion.
Asked a few days ago how that felt and how Ohio State might feel if a perfect season doesn’t have a perfect ending, Hartings said, “I have to choose my words wisely.”
“Frustration was definitely one (reaction). Disappointment is another. I almost want to say resentment,” he said.
“My resentment is against the NCAA for not having a system in place and seemingly taking forever to have a system where, at least, a team that wins one of the big conferences has a chance to win a national title.
“I’m frustrated we didn’t get the opportunity to play for a national championship. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to play for a national championship. The bottom line for me is I’m proud of my undefeated season but my final word on this is that I’ve always said I’d have rather gotten beat by Nebraska and finished 11-1 and lost the national championship rather than being 12-0 and not being voted the national championship.”
Hartings played 11 seasons in the NFL – five as a guard with the Detroit Lions and six as the center on the Pittsburgh Steelers. He went to two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Steelers.
Today, he lives in Pittsburgh. Being the father of eight children, doing a pregame Steelers radio show and coaching the offensive line for a once-beaten Avonworth High School football team keeps him as busy as he wants to be.
Hartings got his start in football in St. Henry, where he was one of four players from St. Henry’s 1990 state champion team who signed with NCAA Division I schools – Bob Hoying and Kevin Niekamp at Ohio State, Scott Brunswick at Toledo and Hartings at Penn State. Hoying, Hartings and Brunswick were all first-team All-Ohio.
But his love of football started long before he got into organized football. It was a family thing. His older brother Scott played at Ohio Northern and younger brothers Joe (Penn State) and Ben (Miami) also played college football.
“My football roots start as young as I can remember. I can’t even remember when it started,” Hartings said.
“It was me and all of my cousins at family parties or just getting together in the summer. We had a close-knit family on my mom’s side and on my dad’s side. We’d get together and the thing we’d do was play football or baseball, mainly football. Tackle football. No pads. And I had a lot of older cousins,” he said.
“I was by no means a 5-star recruit. Penn State offered me a scholarship pretty early. I was very excited to have the opportunity to go to Penn State and play for Joe Paterno.
“Ohio State didn’t offer me until late, after a few guys they had offered decided not to go there. Then they did come after me pretty hard. That was a compliment and an honor, but I wasn’t an Ohio State fan and having already had an offer from Penn State, I was loyal to that,” Hartings said.
Another honor came Hartings’ way earlier this year when he was among the 127 retired NFL players who were on the preliminary list for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I was on that list with Jim Lachey,” he said. “To even be considered, not that you feel like you’ll ever make it, but to be considered is definitely an honor,” he said.