Greene made color irrelevant

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- History wasn't being ignored, but Cornelius Greene had too much on his mind to worry about cultural significance.

There was the playbook to consider, for one.

And the responsibility to operate an offense loaded with talent in the backfield and to help lead a team that had the ability to navigate a rugged schedule and go undefeated.

Plus, Greene had never started a game for Ohio State, leaving him with the kind of nerves that would have been there even if he wasn't simultaneously breaking a color barrier as Ohio State's first black quarterback.

Really, Greene wasn't even sure if he was going to get the nod since coach Woody Hayes never came out and told him before that fall day in 1973. But 31 wins and 40 years later, the memories of where it all started come easily to him -- and the lasting impact at a program that will have four African-Americans loading up the depth chart in spring practice is just as clear.

"It was surprising, it was fearful, there was a lot going through my mind," Greene, now a faculty member and multi-sport coach at St. Albans High School in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview. "But for me, I knew I was prepared. I guess the butterflies of starting your first game, it seemed like I had those same butterflies almost before every game. I didn't see too much difference between each game.

"You know, I knew the significance of it. But there was so much to learn and so much to do that I tried to block that side of it out even though it was very significant. You know, I got a lot of racial letters and taunts and phone calls and things like that, but I was able to kind of block that out."

Whatever outside pressure may have been directed at Greene, it certainly didn't slow him down in a 56-7 rout of Minnesota on Sept. 15. And it apparently paled in comparison to the demands that were already placed on the then-sophomore by the famously tough Hayes.

The coach and the man he ultimately tabbed to become his first black starting quarterback never had a conversation about what specifically made Greene the perfect candidate for that job. But those taxing practices and the way Greene handled them, his multipurpose athleticism, a challenging upbringing in Washington D.C. and an intense focus on being remembered by the Buckeyes for far more than the color of his skin all played a part in the coach's initial decision.

And teammates could apparently see the same thing Hayes did.

Brian Baschnagel had other things on his mind, too.

As a freshman recruited at running back a year earlier, he'd run into some stiff competition from a guy named Archie Griffin.

Evaluating himself against a tailback who would win the Heisman Trophy twice, race didn't make any difference to Baschnagel. Griffin was the better choice, and that was all there was to it.

So Baschnagel kept his focus on trying to find a job elsewhere, grinding to earn a spot where he could still contribute alongside Griffin in the starting lineup and anybody capable of winning the quarterback job. And the wingback used the same colorblind approach when it came time to pick a starter under center, spending no energy thinking about if the guy could set history and the little he could spare on if he could march the offense down the field.

"I was just worried about me making the team and maintaining a starting position, and to me, [Greene] was in the same boat as I was," Baschnagel said. "There were a lot of athletes out there, black and white, who were fighting for security on the team, trying to get some playing time on the field.

"The reality, at least for me personally, I was oblivious to the color. To me, I was competing against Archie Griffin as a freshman, competing against him as an athlete. We were recruited to play the same position, and I accepted the fact that I wasn't going to play in front of him before they moved me to the wingback spot. To me, there was not a cultural barrier."

It certainly didn't hurt that there were no additional hurdles for Greene in communicating with the rest of the guys on offense.

When his athleticism was combined with an outgoing nature that made it easy to get along with teammates both black and white and a calm demeanor that made commanding the huddle seem easy for Greene, his ascendance was met with little to no resistance in the locker room.

"No doubts about him were ever shared with me," Baschnagel said. "First and foremost, I think he played only because he was good enough to play. As an athlete, he deserved to play. He was a great athlete and a terrific leader. He had great leadership, everybody got along with him, which I think was a plus for him. He was a great athlete and he kept the offense calm in the huddle when things weren't going well.

"I saw Corny as a fellow teammate, and I looked up to Corny as a leader."

Once the decision was made, Greene went straight to work solidifying that leadership role and validating Hayes' choice.

It was hard to argue with the results during an unbeaten season on the way to a Rose Bowl victory. But deep down Greene knew there was only one person he had to impress.

"There's no doubt about it: Dealing with coach was much tougher than dealing with any other pressure," Greene said. "I mean, fourth-and-1 and you need that first down or you're down and have to come back, any game scenario, I always thought he was tougher than anything I could approach. And he knew I was tough. He knew I could handle a lot.

"But after that first play, I was only going to be a quarterback. I was always going to be considered an African-American quarterback, don't get me wrong, but I wanted to be thought of as a great quarterback at Ohio State. I was always going to be the first African-American quarterback as well, but I wanted to go down being a great quarterback."

The second-most victories in school history, more than 2,000 yards both rushing and passing and 46 total touchdowns helped secure that legacy, piling up evidence over three years to be remembered for more than one game in Ohio State lore.

His individual numbers are somewhat difficult to compare now with the current generation of Ohio State quarterbacks given the difference in styles and the crowded backfield that included Archie Griffin and Pete Johnson that competed with him for touches. And Greene has wondered what he could have done in the spread offense Braxton Miller is operating for the Buckeyes now, joking that he would be "a Heisman Trophy winner, no doubt about it."

But his victory total stands the test of time. And 40 years after getting the first one in the process of paving the way for guys like Troy Smith, Terrelle Pryor, Miller and three more current Buckeyes taking snaps, both of those provide reason for Greene to be proud.

Even if the 1973 version of him didn't have much time to worry about blazing the trail or picturing a roster fully stocked with African-American quarterbacks.

"[Back then] I could have forecast an African-American maybe quarterbacking, but four of them on the roster would have been tough for me to imagine," Greene said. "I would have probably had to wipe my eyes out and make sure I was looking very clearly at what I was looking at, to be very honest.

"Of course I'm proud about it, but I think we've just come to a time where you have people like Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer who are going to recruit the best quarterback -- no matter what color they are."