BOISE, Idaho — If there’s one thing Frank Solich has learned in his 15 years at Ohio University, it’s that there’s no shame in taking time to enjoy the moment.
Or, eat a french fry as it were.
The most indelible images from the 23rd annual Famous Idaho Potato Bowl didn’t come in the four quarters of game action. Ohio won the game, 30-21, in a contest that never felt like it could break the other way.
The Bobcats won the battle in the trenches, lumbered through a re-organized and short-handed Nevada defense for 285 rushing yards, and denied the Wolf Pack touchdowns on four different trips inside the red zone.
From Ohio’s standpoint, there wasn’t a single play that will remain stamped in the collective conscious. The Bobcats won with a series of good plays, smart plays and toughness.
OU played without three projected offensive starters, including two on the offensive line, and didn’t miss a beat in the run game. Ohio attempted just six passes in the first half — unheard much of anywhere outside a service academy these days in college football — and led 20-9. The Bobcats hammered the Nevada offense on the line of scrimmage; the Wolf Pack had negative rushing yards at the half and only 19 for the game and OU picked up three sacks.
In short, it was the type of performance common for Solich’s teams at Ohio. It wasn’t flashy or breathtaking, but solid and dependable. The Bobcats played their game, made the opponent adjust, and put in a good 60 minutes of work.
‘Workmanlike’ was designed for games like this.
In every way, the bowl game could’ve been just another game in a long line of exhibition games that now stretch from Christmas out to a week past the New Year. The game had two teams with middling records. It wasn’t in prime time. It was tucked away in Idaho, with a title sponsor tailor-made for puns and easy jokes.
But the Bobcats made it feel special anyway. There may not have been a singular play that will stick, but what will linger and remain and endure from this bowl game is the joy Ohio took from the experience.
Throughout the week, it was the Bobcats who showed more gumption, energy and a desire to be there from the on-site bowl events. Before the game, it was OU which was swaying and moving with the music.
And as the final seconds ticked away, and the postgame awards ceremony began, it was the Bobcats who clearly didn’t care what anyone else thought. They were happy to win, yes, but they were happy to be there and enthused about the process.
Quarterback Nathan Rourke had, for him, a relatively blah day. He missed some throws, had a couple of fumbles, and got rocked on a sack. But there he was afterward, grinning from ear to ear.
Safety Javon Hagan, like Rourke a multiple-year starter and a senior, was ticked about not getting an interception in his final game despite a great opportunity to do so. But he was posing, and chatting with his fellow safeties about what is to come for the Bobcats next year.
Big offensive tackles Marques Grimes and Austen Pleasants, who a day earlier had been carried off the practice field by their fellow position players in another display of enthusiasm, wanted a picture together with their just-earned ‘Champs!’ hats stamped with the Potato Bowl logo.
Coaches drug their families inside the ropes to be part of the awards ceremony, and some of their children cried realizing they had just seen some of the players perform for the last time.
Position groups gathered and posed together with hats and shirts, and even potatoes with fresh bites taken from the raw tubers.
Anyone who thinks these bowl games don’t matter to the players needed to spend a few minutes watching Ohio soak in the hugs, and smiles, whoops, and cheers after a win on a 45-degree day in the middle of Idaho.
And at the center of it all was Solich, who has played or coached in every bowl game imaginable. He’s been a part of national championships and a legendary program. He’s a by-the-book kind of guy who respects the game, and those who play it and coach it, immensely.
And despite his history and his age (75), he’s a coach who is enjoying each day, each season, more than the last one.
If you had told me 10 years ago that Solich would be shown on camera eating a french fry during a game, I wouldn’t have believed it. But there he was, grinning — and munching — after a late-game french fry bath administered by senior defensive linemen Chukwudi Chukwu and Brian Arp.
The most indelible image of the game came when Solich decided to swipe a fry off his headset and eat it while his players roared behind him.
And there was Solich after the game, on a riser, throwing out raw potatoes from the just-won trophy to his players. On one side, senior quarterback Nathan Rourke was laughing and smiling. On the other side was Spuddy Buddy, the costumed bowl mascot, bobbing up and down and clapping enthusiastically.
It was all a bit surreal, and the most public display to date of Solich enjoying his job. The win came after a week during which the head coach was seen sporting a hair net while filling out packaged meals, and when he took a ride down a mountain on a tubing course.
Solich remains as tough, and as dedicated, as they come. And he’s a strong believer in consistency and doing what he knows will work.
But he’s also embraced coaching at Ohio in a way I didn’t anticipate. You could say his edges have softened, but that implies he’s become something less than he was and I don’t feel that’s the case.
He’s become something more. He’s more open to change and new experiences, and enjoying the players themselves, than he was 15 years ago.
Solich loved the 2019 edition of the Bobcats; they never short-changed him or the staff in terms of effort or preparation. It wasn’t a championship season for Ohio — and there was plenty of disappointment that came with that — but it was still a special one.
And as long as they continue to feel special for Solich, he’ll continue coaching the Bobcats. He’s still growing, developing and finding new ways to embrace being the head of the OU program.
Once that included setting a new standard, and demanding more from the school, the administration and the players.
Now? Well that includes letting loose and enjoying some of the absurdity the game has to offer.
Solich and OU agreed to a contract extension recently. Some have already posited that it will be his last. And maybe it will be.
I’m not counting on it just yet however. Solich is still having fun.
“As long as my health is good, as long as I still love the game, as long as we’re able to play at a tempo where I’m not holding guys back, then we’ll just kind of take it a step at a time,” he said Thursday.
Friday proved the end may still be a ways off.
Jason Arkley is a sports journalist at The Athens Messenger. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.