As a three-year starting linebacker at The Ohio State University, Matt Wilhelm finished his All-American career with the crown-jewel win of this generation: the 31-24 double-overtime upset of the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes in the January 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The epic win in the desert marked the Buckeyes’ first national title in more than three decades, and set Matt on a professional career path that would see him make stops in San Diego, Philadelphia, San Francisco and now Green Bay over the last decade.
On February 6th of last year, Matt added yet another title to his previous list of All-Big Ten, All-American and National Champion when he became a Super Bowl Champion as a Packer, helping Green Bay to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
Matt was an aggressive defender while wearing the Scarlet and Gray from 1998 to 2002 and that was never more apparent than in his senior season when he led a stellar defense in tackles with 121, including 19.5 for loss. He was a cornerstone of a defense ranked 3rd nationally against the run (77.71 ypg) and 2nd nationally in scoring (13.07ppg) and earned All-American honors and a National Championship ring for his efforts.
We caught up with Matt to talk national titles, ‘Holy Buckeye,’ the Ohio State experience and the man every player loved, Jim Tressel.
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Empire: Let’s talk about the national championship first. What do you specifically remember about that final play, with Cie Grant forcing Ken Dorsey to throw it into the dirt to close out overtime and an undefeated season?
Wilhelm: I remember that it was all-or-nothing, put up or shut up for our defense because our offense had already went and did their part. As defensive players, we always want to have the game depend on us and we stepped up and executed to perfection.
Empire: Can you remember anything coach Tress had to say after the game, aside from his fantastic ‘…best damn team in the land’ quote?
Wilhelm: To be honest with you everything was like a big blur, just celebrating with all of my teammates and finally getting up on stage as a Senior, having played my last game as a Buckeye and holding that crystal football.
Wilhelm: My single favorite moment as a Buckeye was playing my last game at the Horseshoe, having both of my parents on the field to be honored with me as a senior and playing Michigan for the opportunity to compete for a National Championship.
Empire: Alright, let’s backtrack a little. How hard was it to watch “Holy Buckeye” against Purdue in ’02 while standing on the sideline with no control over the situation? You guys still had to go back out for 1:36 to hold the 10-6 lead with Kyle Orton under center for the Boilermakers…
Wilhelm: All great defenses want to be out on the field with the game on the line, so we were armed and ready to continue our run at perfection.
Empire: Now being ten years removed from your college football experience, what do you miss most about Ohio State football?
Wilhelm: There isn’t just one thing. I miss all that Ohio State Football is. The fans, TBDBITL and playing at Ohio Stadium, to name a few.
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The downfall of former head coach Jim Tressel was well publicized, on a national platform, over late-2010 and throughout all of 2011. Many Ohio State fans were left to wonder if the man who wrote The Winners Manual was the real Coach Tress, or if he had a foot in two different worlds during his time in Columbus.
When the dust from the controversy surrounding the program finally settled, Jim Tressel had become a fallen hero in the eyes of the vast majority of Buckeye Nation. What he was able to accomplish on the field, and in the community, during his decade in Columbus is rarely matched in college football.
Coach Tressel made mistakes as the leader of an enormous, highly visible program – and he paid for it. But one thing that never changed during his time in Columbus, before or after the turmoil, was the love his former players have for him. Matt Wilhelm is no different.
Empire: What is your fondest memory of Jim Tressel the man, not the coach?
Wilhelm: The personal relationship each player had with him, as well as how Coach Tressel would hold you accountable as a player, student and citizen.
Empire: What was the biggest thing you learned, football or otherwise, playing for Jim Tressel – and do you still remain in contact with him?
Wilhelm: You win with people!!!!!!! And his relationships from scholarship players to freshman walk-ons. Also, the way he spoke to and treated everyone with respect. We still email a few times a year.
Empire: Having been part of the transition, what was the biggest difference between Coach Cooper and Coach Tressel?
Wilhelm: I think the hands-on approach that Coach Tressel brought was much-needed for the program, along with his emphasis on beating Michigan and the development of personal relationships with each and every player to not only make you a better football player but a better person as well.
Empire: Given just one word to describe Jim Tressel, which would you chose?
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The constant backlash felt by the program has taken its toll over the last eighteen months, but the hiring of Urban Meyer has gone a long way towards getting the program, and the fan base, back on their feet. There’s a renewed sense of excitement within Buckeye Nation these days, but whether or not Coach Meyer can match the Buckeyes’ success of the last decade has yet to be seen. Many predict he will. Regardless, the university is much larger than any one man, or group of men, and Matt was very quick to point that out to close our discussion.
Empire: What are your thoughts on the hiring of Urban Meyer, and what is your prediction on how he’ll do running the Ohio State program?
Wilhelm: I think it is an amazing hire for the program. He is an Ohio guy and he is a proven leader and winner everywhere he has been as a head coach. He will do an amazing job continuing on some of the traditions that Coach Tressel brought back along with his new ideas for the betterment of the Ohio State football program.
Empire: After all that has gone on in the last eighteen months around OSU football, as a Buckeye vet, what would you have to say to Buckeye Nation?
Wilhelm: Our traditions will never change. We are THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY and a few players will never tarnish the history and traditions that are Ohio State.