Solich finds his niche with Ohio University

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This is supposed to be Ohio’s year, the season when it all comes together. The Bobcats have a star quarterback, an offensive line that could have three all-conference players and a potent, balanced defense.

They have coach Frank Solich, too. He just signed a five-year contract extension Thursday. Job security.

In eight years, Solich has turned a forgettable team that had never won a bowl game before his tenure into a relatively chic pick to go undefeated this season (that would mean a victory today against Penn State). He has made the world acknowledge him for reasons other than his controversial firing at Nebraska.

“It’s been a great place for me,” Solich said in a phone conversation. “You know, I’m going to feel pretty good about myself as a coach if I get to where this is operating at a level I want to operate at.”

  • Matchup: Penn State vs. Ohio, noon Saturday, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa. The Nittany Lions are favored by 61/2.
  • TV, Radio, Internet: ESPN; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
  • Penn State: TE Garry Gilliam should play for the first time since 2010. Four or five tight ends are expected to play in coach Bill O’Brien’s new offense. … Senior S Jake Fagnano is expected to play after dealing with a hamstring injury in most of preseason camp. … QB Paul Jones has been getting pushed by true freshman Steven Bench for the backup position.
  • Ohio: Lost last season’s receiving corps, but TE Jordan Thompson is an All-Mid-American Conference candidate who had 24 catches for 258 yards. … Skyler Allen, Eric Herman and Jon Lechner help form the best offensive line in the MAC. … Travis Carrie led the MAC in interceptions with four.
  • Hidden stat: Penn State last played Ohio in 1974, winning, 35-16, at Beaver Stadium.

In November 2003, Solich was fired from Nebraska after finishing the regular season 9-3. He had coached in the national championship game two years earlier.

Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson, who is now at Pitt, replaced Solich with Bill Callahan, who was 27-22 and had a losing record in the Big 12. He might be better known for directing a gesture some interpreted as a throat slash toward a referee than for winning any games.

Of course, Solich’s departure was rough. He was a Nebraska man. He was an assistant for 25 years after playing there in the 1960s. Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover in a white jersey in 1965.

He spent the year after his dismissal visiting other programs. Solich wanted to gain an understanding of the game outside Nebraska. In December 2004, an offer came from Ohio.

Solich knew Ohio University, kind of. After spending his first few years in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Cleveland. He was a star football player at Holy Name High School. He didn’t even think about Ohio U.

Aside from 1968, when Ohio was undefeated until a Tangerine Bowl loss, it had operated in anonymity. It was just what Solich wanted.

“Getting back to Ohio, there wasn’t a major school there,” Solich said. “But I was OK with it. I was also OK with taking over a program that wasn’t successful.”

In 2006, his second season, Ohio won nine games, the most it had won since 1968. He has an overall record of 50-40 with the Bobcats.

This year, Ohio returns its starting quarterback, Tyler Tettleton, who threw for 3,302 yards and rushed for 916 yards last year, three of its best offensive linemen, an experienced secondary and defensive line and one of the Mid-American Conference’s best kickers in Matt Weller. SI.com has predicted an undefeated season.

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien called the Bobcats “an excellent football team.”

Ohio has done almost everything to reverse its forgettable past in Solich’s tenure. It won 10 games last season, won its first bowl game, has won its MAC division, has refurbished facilities and has an indoor practice facility on the way.

But Ohio has not defeated a BCS-conference school since 2005, Solich’s first year, when Ohio beat Pitt. Since, it has lost games to Rutgers, Ohio State, Tennessee, Connecticut, Northwestern, Virginia Tech and Missouri.

A victory against Penn State would set Ohio on the course for a historic season, and if you want to get really crazy, talk of a BCS game down the road. Such accomplishments would help buttress Solich’s reputation further, not that he is interested in the praise.

“I’ve always believed in myself as a coach,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me to be viewed in any certain way. I know I’m a good coach, and that’s all that matters to me.”

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