CANTON- As each coach talked at the podium about their team during OAC Media Day on Thursday, Dean Paul listened.
He scribbled down notes on his welcome packet, detailing personnel changes and tidbits that he thought could be beneficial to remember.
And a lot has changed this season in the OAC — there are three new head coaches, several new rules, and Mount Union isn’t the defending champ for the first time in a quarter century.
But there are also many things that have stayed consistent over the years, one being Paul himself.
Ohio Northern’s chief play-caller is heading into his 14th season at the helm, and with the resignation of Baldwin Wallace’s John Snell after last season, Paul is now the longest-tenured OAC coach (Snell led BW for 15 years).
The conference room at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where OAC Media Day was held on Thursday, was filled with coaches ready to make their mark at their respective programs. There are three first-year and two second-year head coaches in the conference this season, still feeling their way through the conference’s customs and traditions.
The group of coaches is so new that on Thursday, OAC commissioner Tim Gleason jokingly termed Capital’s Chad Rogosheske, in his second year, ‘a veteran.’
While Paul can now be considered the elder statesman of the conference, however, he can still remember his first OAC Media Day, back in 2004.
Paul played at Mount Union during his college days, and was legendary coach Larry Kehres’ first captain. When Paul arrived at his first media day as an OAC head coach, Kehres made sure to greet him the right way.
“Coach Kehres came up, punched me in the stomach, and said, ‘Welcome to the OAC,’” Paul recalled. “And that’s pretty much what I remember.”
During Paul’s 14th OAC Media Day, his Polar Bears were picked to finish third in the conference in the media poll and fourth in the coaches poll.
The team is coming off of a 5-5 season in 2016, with three of the five losses coming in the fourth quarter. Northern held fourth quarter leads against Utica (NY), John Carroll and Baldwin Wallace, but let them slip away.
“When you look at the three games we lost in the fourth quarter, you just scratch your head a little bit,” Paul said. “In two of them, we had a double-digit lead. We’ve rarely, in the last 13 years, lost a game with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, that I can think of.”
Untimely crunch-time miscues kept the team from finishing 7-3 or 8-2, and senior linebacker Zach Schmerge thought about it all offseason.
ONU lost to conference champion John Carroll by four and fell to runner-up Mount Union by 17. They proved to be the toughest opponent of the OAC’s two playoff contenders, which both fell in the national semifinals last fall.
Watching both teams advance deep in the playoffs brought Schmerge to a realization: the difference between .500 and one-game-away-from-a-championship is not that big in college football, let alone the OAC.
“When we look back and we see how close those games were, it was a real eye-opener of just how big the little things are in the game of football,” Schmerge said. “The gap is very narrow between the top of the OAC and the bottom, and it’s all about the little things you do as a team. Everybody has great players, it’s all about the little things.”
Northern will try to bridge that gap this season and return to the upper echelon of the OAC. They will return 12 starters and 35 lettermen from last year’s roster, including a plethora of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
But before the season begins in September, Media Day brought a day of speculation. Here’s the rest of what happened on Thursday:
Preseason polls were announced
Coaches and media predicted the conference’s order in 2017. Mount Union took first and John Carroll took second in both polls, while ONU and Heidelberg swapped spots between the two tallies.
“Coming off the year we had last year, I thought some of the teams would have looked at us a little different because we were supposed to have a big year last year, but the fact that they still had faith in us is really encouraging,” Schmerge said. “Hopefully, we can go even higher than what they predicted.”
1. Mount Union (8 first place votes)
2. John Carroll (2 first place votes)
4. Ohio Northern
6. Baldwin Wallace
1. Mount Union (26)
2. John Carroll (9)
3. Ohio Northern
4. Heidelberg (1)
6. Baldwin Wallace
Rule changes were announced
OAC officials coordinator Craig Griffith briefed the room on several new conference rule changes for the 2017 season. All changes pertained to player safety.
1. Knee pads must be covered by pants, and the pants must extend to the knee. This means that the knee pads must come down to “the top area of the knee,” according to Griffith. “If you’re wearing biker shorts, you’re going to be asked to change,” Griffith said.
2. No defensive player will be allowed to jump off of a teammate to try to block a kick. While defenders may jump to try to block a kick, they will not be allowed to use their teammate as a springboard.
3. The horse-collar tackle penalty will be expanded, as pulling a ball-carrier down by their nameplate will also now constitute as a violation. The penalty only used to apply to tackles made on the collar itself.
The most interesting rule change this season will not only be one issued by the OAC, but also by the rest of the NCAA. If coaches move onto the field of play this fall, likely in an attempt to argue with an official, their team will be issued a 15-yard penalty. If they do it a second time, the coach will be ejected from the game.
Griffith said that this rule change will be monitored closely, and that officials who do not implement this rule will face repercussions as well. He said that the rule is meant to keep coaches from berating officials after calls, which many coaches felt led to a make-up call soon thereafter.
Lima’s Tom Usher honored with Bill Nichols Media Award
Local sportswriting legend Tom Usher, who is retired but still writes part-time for the Lima News, was honored for his dedication to covering OAC athletics on Thursday. He was given the Bill Nichols Media Award, in honor of the man who served as an adjunct lecturer at John Carroll and Baldwin Wallace while also writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for more than 30 years.
Usher has covered Northwest Ohio sports at the Lima News for 30 years, and has covered Ohio Northern football, men’s and women’s basketball for the majority of that time. While he has covered multiple World Series’, Ohio high school state tournaments and the ONU men’s basketball team’s national championship run in 1993, he said that many of his favorite career moments have come from covering the OAC.
“People have asked me before, ‘What might be the highlight of my career?’ I’ve covered World Series games and those kind of things,” Usher said. “And to me, a few OAC things have been the highlights of my career. Of my top 20 events, I’d say that maybe four or five came from the OAC and the Polar Bears.”