Doug Plank is preparing for his fourth season as the head coach of the Georgia Force. After three years as an assistant coach in the Arena Football League for Arizona, Plank was hired to lead the Force. In his first season, he led Georgia to an ArenaBowl berth and the team has not missed the playoffs in his tenure. He's been the AFL's coach of the year twice, in 2005 and 2007.
Plank played in three Rose Bowls as a member of a dominant Ohio State football team led by legendary coach Woody Hayes. He went on to an eight-year NFL career, starting at safety for the Chicago Bears. He has also been an restauranteur and broadcaster for AFL, NFL and college football games.
Plank spoke with staff writer Christine Troyke about the Buckeye tradition, becoming a head coach and fortuitous November snowfalls in this installment of "Getting to know ...."
CT: As a former college player, what do you think of the current BCS system?
DP: With having been in the National Football League and having a playoff system, that's the last thing I (was involved in). The Arena Football League has a playoff system. So I would be strongly in favor of a playoff system.
If that meant shortening the season a week or two, eliminating some of those non-conference games, I'd be all for it.
All these people that say no, no, no, no - all I'm saying is try it, give it a try, see what happens, see what the crowds are like, see what the final response is. I think they at least owe it to themselves.
This game of football, there's changes to it all the time. The NFL has rule changes every year. So why not adapt?
Ultimately sports, I think, are meant to be an outlet for the people that play it, but also entertainment for the people that watch it. Wouldn't it make it more entertaining if you did exactly that?
CT: Is the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan as fierce as it's made out to be? Some of the stuff I've heard about is unbelievable.
DP: That was really a special game. It's really doesn't even compare to anyone else you play against.
But actually I broadcast a game (this season) between Alabama and Auburn. Two teams that were not fighting for a national championship, but their fans didn't know that. That type of support, I don't think you'll get at many other places around the country.
This Southeastern Conference, these fans are extremely loyal to their fans, regardless of their record. They should take great pride in that because I don't think there's another conference in the country that can say that. I'm talking about from the top (of the conference) right down to the bottom - incredible support.
But (the Michigan-Ohio State) is special. I grew up in Pennsylvania. So I couldn't really appreciate it until I got there and was on the team and started understanding the magnitude of it, how seriously everybody took it.
CT: Yes, you look at Lloyd Carr with a .750 winning percentage in his time at Michigan, but 1-6 in the last seven years against Ohio State gets you out.
DP: That's what fired John Cooper, too, the previous (OSU) coach. Lloyd Carr was taking advantage of him like Jim Tressel started doing to Lloyd Carr.
It's something about that game, it buys you time.
I think the players get uptight because the coaches get uptight. The whole campus gets uptight.
CT: It's kind of an unbelievable atmosphere.
DP: A couple of years ago, there was a person in my neighborhood that went to school at the University of Michigan. He didn't play football. But I'm over at his house visiting and he takes me into this office or den or whatever and he's got a Michigan helmet up on this rack.
I've got to tell you, I saw this Michigan helmet and it started creating, there's no doubt in my mind, I was starting to go into a game mode. It's crazy, after all those years, it's hard for me to sit and look at a Michigan helmet. (laughing) I wanted to go spear that case, knock it off the wall.
So I guess old habits die hard.
Had I watched Michigan on TV before? Yeah, I guess I had. But I hadn't really been across from that helmet for a while. It's special.
CT: That's pretty cool.
DP: I'm really happy and fortunate that I had a chance to be part of a rivalry game like that.
CT: And you said you wanted to go to Penn State, didn't get a scholarship and ended up at Ohio State.
DP: Yeah, not a bad second choice.
CT: You play for Woody Hayes, you go to the Rose Bowl three times.
DP: Sometimes I think things are just meant to be. I look at my life and there's always been obstacles and setbacks, but there's always been the old window and door. A window closes and a door opens.
I look at my life and whatever disappointment I've had, it's striking to look back at it and go, "You know what, I didn't go to Penn State, but I went to Ohio State and had a chance to go to the National Football League because of that. And I met my wife at Ohio State, who I've been married to for 31 years. Had something simple happened like Joe Paterno said, "Hey, Doug, come to Penn State," how different my life would be.
CT: You didn't really get into head coaching until fairly recently, but looking back did you have a stored knowledge from having played under people like Woody Hayes and Buddy Ryan?
DP: Absolutely. These are not generic coaches. These are guys that every single day they said or did something that was memorable.
Woody Hayes, whew, I don't even know where to begin. He had a philosophy. As stubborn and as temperamental as he was, he was an unbelievable history buff - especially American history. He was an absolute expert on war strategy and maneuvering.
He just loved this country. He served in the Navy during the war. So every day was a very patriotic talk that he gave us. It sounds corny, but you really appreciate someone that has that strong a love for the country.
Then getting to Chicago and having the opportunity to play for a storied franchise like the Chicago Bears - once again, people come out and cheer the Bears whether they win, lose or draw. It's unbelievable.
I remember us losing the first game my rookie year and coming out of the locker room and this huge group of people were all waiting for the players to come out.
Having been a player there, it means something. I go back there periodically for games. There isn't a time I don't go back there that I don't see four or five of my jerseys at Soldier Field - 20-some years after I've left. It's unbelievable. It's very humbling.
CT: Did you play one or two seasons for Mike Ditka?
DP: One season.
CT: You still must have good stories.
DP: Oh, yeah. His first year was the most memorable because that's when he was really starting to instill his philosophy on the team. We were a very average team and Mike instilled a championship spirit.
You talk about coach's traits, Mike Ditka I think was like the Ronald Regan of coaches in communication. He communicated the team was going somewhere, that it was going to be successful. He painted a picture on how the team was going to get to the Super Bowl and how, progressively, that was going to happen. I don't think it's an accident that three years after he takes over, the Chicago Bears are in the Super Bowl.
CT: Looking up some stats on NFL.com, you know they have your picture from probably your last year of playing (1982)?
DP: (Laughing heartily)
CT: I was impressed. Those are some flowing, blond locks you've got there.
DP: (Still laughing) Yeah, I remember during my first couple of years, I really had it long, hanging out of the back of the helmet and all that.
CT: Well, you've got to be in fashion.
DP: I know. You're right. It was disco. Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer (laughing).
CT: Good tunes. Horrible fashion though.
DP: Terrible fashion. Silk shirts and stuff. Orange pants, bell bottoms.
CT: Nice. You can't go wrong there, can you?
DP: They were easy to get off and on.
CT: You didn't save any of those did you? They might come back around.
DP: No. I had a Sears' suit that I bought, a blue striped one that was like the American flag in blue. I paid $69 for that. It was waterproof, too.
CT: You grew up in Pennsylvania?
DP: Yes, 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Very blue-collar area. Very football oriented. Really everybody played football.
It was some point and time there I started realizing, "Gosh, I might be able to get a scholarship from this." Somewhere the lights, the bells went on and I really started putting effort into it, understanding what I was capable of.
CT: How big was your high school?
DP: It's only three grades in Pennsylvania, so it was about 2,100 people.
CT: That's a pretty decent sized high school. So you played at the highest classification?
DP: Yeah, it was the largest division in Pennsylvania.
CT: How was your high school team?
DP: It wasn't very good. We lost two years and then we were like .500 one year. But you only have to play really well against one of the better teams. That's what really happened to me. I played well against one of the better teams and Ohio State happened to notice it. Penn State didn't. I'm just saying how marginal I was in terms of getting a scholarship/not getting a scholarship.
It's crazy how the distinction between taking one player and not another.
I see it in pro football all the time. The difference between the guys that you keep and they guys you let go are insignificant. Sometimes they're not even physical, they're related to attitude. They're so equal, you look at what are the other intangibles.
CT: You said you met your wife (Nancy) at Ohio State. Was it in class?
DP: No, it wasn't. Actually it had snowed in November and there was a large courtyard area surrounded by dorms. All these kids went down there and having a snowball battle. Then people up in the dormitories started throwing water balloons out the windows.
So all of a sudden it went from a snowball fight in the courtyard to people throwing snowballs up at the windows.
I thought somebody threw a water balloon at me. I grabbed a snowball and threw it up at somebody standing in a window. And it was my wife. The snowball went right through the window. Smashed the window. Glass went flying. Turns out she hadn't even been throwing anything.
CT: You broke the window?
DP: Yeah. But I'm glad it broke because otherwise I probably would have never gone up there and met her.
CT: You had to go apologize?
DP: Went up and apologized, asked if she was OK because there was shattered glass all over the place. Then I think I ate lunch with her the next day.
CT: Thank God it snowed in November.
DP: Think about that. Had it not snowed - in a campus of 50,000 people - what is the likelihood that I would have met my wife? Not likely. She could have been sitting next to me I don't know how many times down there, but I wasn't some super social, "Hey everybody, my name's Doug, what are you doing tonight." So I probably would have never, ever met her.